Ah, Caol Ila. A wonderful enigma of a distillery. Classic Islay flavours, from an industrial blends work-horse that labours day and night for Diageo.
The malt itself is absolutely top-notch and stands up very well by itself as a distillate, regardless of cask flavour. Even at very young ages, it’s remarkably well-made stuff.
Over Christmas, I’ve ended up with quite a bit of Caol Ila in the house so I decided to line them up and compare them to see if that core distillery character comes through in each one, and also to see which age and cask leads to the best whisky.
Caol Ila 5 (Old Malt Cask)
Let’s start with the unruly youth of the group, an Old Malt Cask advance sample of Caol Ila bottled at five years old.
Nose: Oily maritime notes. Brine, tar, engine oil, and dirty, sooty, peat smoke.
Palate: Intense smoke dissolves into aromatic fruit. Pear-drops and lemon candy, with more waves of zesty peat. Very smooth and thick – almost chewy.
Finish: There’s those maritime notes we expect. Very mineral rich notes of sea salt, beaches and shells.
I’m a huge fan of this style of whisky. Cask strength, maritime, smoky whisky that hits you in the face like a stiff January breeze on the coast of Scotland.
In fact, this reminds me massively of the core flavour you get in Douglas Laing’s Big Peat, a really delicious vatted malt of Caol Ila, Arbeg, Bowmore and a splash of Port Ellen. If I had to guess the make-up of that vatting, I’d put my money on young Caol Ila making up the bulk of it.
And why not? It’s plentiful, cheap, and bloody delicious.
This was given to me as a Christmas gift, and try as I might I can’t find any information about it online. There’s quite a few other bottlings of five year old Caol Ila available though, so I recommend you give them a try if you can. Diageo recently stopped indy bottlings of Caol Ila, so I expect the only chance you have to try a five-year-old will soon be at the distillery on a premium tasting.
Caol Ila 1998 Unpeated (2014 special release)
Here’s a curve ball – a Caol Ila without even a trace of peat. Will it be recognisable as the gentle, smoky, maritime malt that we know and love? Let’s see……
Nose: Milk, pear syrup, honeysuckle, acetone, vanilla, citrus and sherbet.
Palate: Lemon candy, and more sherbet. Herby, floral notes – lavender and thyme. Sweet malt and cereal, with a little more milk – whole milk, too, quite creamy. Viscous mouthfeel, but not actually creamy.
Finish: Some citrus tang remains, a touch of salt and toasted oak at the very end.
I never would have guessed the ABV is so high. There’s no burn at all, the spirit feels very soft in the mouth with delicate notes to the flavour.
Caol Ila usually gets lemon candy and salt in the tasting notes, and those are most definitely still in evidence. Even the sherbet quality on the nose, which I always assumed to be the peat talking.
I tried the Stitchell’s Reserve unpeated Caol Ila last year and wasn’t especially impressed. This bottling’s head and shoulders above it and maintains what we knew all along – the Caol Ila distillery produces some fantastic distillate, which can clearly stand on its feet without peated barley to zest it up.
No samples currently, but the chaps at Master of Malt have bottles available for £73.96. That’s pretty good for a 15-year-old spirit at such a high cask strength – throw in the intrigue of an unpeated Caol Ila and the limited bottling run of 10,668 and you have a real bargain.
Caol Ila Moch
Moch is a no-age-statement release where the barley isn’t as heavily peated as the standard 12-year-old. It’s a very similar price to the standard bottling, and the cut-back on PPM reveals some very appealing flavours.
Nose: Sea air, brine, soft smoke, sea-shells and sand. This is a walk on the Atlantic coast.
Palate: Oily but delicate coastal notes allow some soft fruit to come through with a hint of that lemon candy and sherbet. Very soft in the mouth.
Finish: Salt and pepper.
I actually like this more than the standard release. And that’s saying something because I really like the standard release. If you’re looking for an easy-sipping, interesting, and affordable Islay malt then look no further.
No doubt, it was intentionally engineered to be all of those things – but in their objectives, I think Diageo have done well with this one.
Available on Master of Malt for £42.75.
Caol Ila 30 (2014 Special Release)
I’ve been looking forward to this one! In 2014, I tried Cadenhead’s Small Batch release of Caol Ila 29 and it totally blew me away.
Given that the indy bottling was £100 and Diageo’s official Caol Ila 30 year old goes for over £400, I think my mind’s already made up as to what the best deal is.
But what about the whisky itself?
Nose: Sweet clementines, but also that cloudy apple juice note, tangy sherbet, some milk chocolate.
Palate: Very oily, with more orange citrus notes, and some tropical fruits bordering on melon and pineapple. Woody notes, with soft peat smoke and a peppery tang. Some leathery, savoury flavours in there.
Finish: Quite peppery, with lingering smoke.
It has a lot of the same characteristics that the Cadenhead’s bottling has. Gentle smoke and citrus notes with some interesting fruit coming through as well as an oily, savoury influence from the wood that gives it that dusty, leathery quality.
It’s an interesting whisky, for sure. But it is quite peppery and woody on the finish and the flavour in comparison to the 29 seems quite subdued. Still good, of course; but, I didn’t enjoy it as much. There’s a difference between being subtle, and being faint.
The Caol Ila 30 is a vatting of 30-year-old whisky aged in American and European refill casks. I’d imagine Diageo have tried to engineer it to have similar qualities to a 30 year old Port Ellen – leather, soft smoke, maritime savoury notes etc. They have a lot more Caol Ila stock to play with, and the golden goose of Port Ellen will stop laying eggs eventually.
Sadly, I think the refill casks they used here were a little too tired to carry the spirit for 30 years and the vatting process between American and European oak has lost something in translation.
If I hadn’t tried such a sensational Caol Ila from Cadenhead beforehand then I may have been more impressed, but it’s not the way it panned out. Sorry, Diageo, this time you lose.
Love the packaging, though. It’ll look lovely in display cabinets across the world.
Samples and bottles available from the Chaps at Master of Malt for £32.34 and £425 respectively.
So, I think if this set of tasting notes has shown anything, it’s that Caol Ila malt is a high quality spirit that can produce great bottlings with or without peat, and at younger and older maturation times.
For me, I think it shines best in Bourbon casks, whether they’re first-fill or re-fill. As for which age suits Caol Ila best, that’s a tougher call to make. Clearly, it can age very well indeed, and yields some fabulous flavours over time – the Cadenhead bottling literally makes me grin in delight when I taste it.
On the other hand, the younger (and no-age statement) expressions are full of punchy, classic Islay flavour and on a Winter’s night by the fire they’re guaranteed to brighten up the darkness of the season.
Caol Ila starts as an oily, sooty, lemon, dipped in salt. It matures into candies and sherbet, with great mouthfeel and coastal air characteristics of beach and shells. As it ages further, the lemons turn into oranges and tropical fruits, with the wood (if cask selection is up to scratch) imparting savoury, leathery notes into the mix.
I bloody love it, I really do. Here’s to many more fine drams over the years.