The Sound of Islay: What Makes Caol Ila Sing?

Looking out across the sound of Islay (Caol Ila, in Gaelic) towards the paps of Jura

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)

caol_ila_fiveDistillery: Caol Ila
Bottled: 2014, Distilled: 2008
Age: 5 years old
ABV: 50%
Bottler: Hunter Laing
Cask: Refill bourbon

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)

Distillery: Caol Ila
Bottled: 2014, Distilled: 1998
Age: 15 years old
ABV: 60.3%
Cask: First-fill bourbon
More Info: WhiskyBase

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

Distillery: Caol Ila
Age: No Age Statement
ABV: 43%
More Info: WhiskyBase

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)

Distillery: Caol Ila
Bottled: 2014, Distilled: 1983
Age: 30 years old
ABV: 55.1%
Cask: Refill American and European Oak
More Info: WhiskyBase

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Caol Ila 29


Distillery: Caol Ila
Bottled: 2013, Distilled: 1984
ABV: 55.5%
Cask: Bourbon
Bottler: WM Cadenhead
More Info: WhiskyBase

Here’s one of those bottles that only comes around every once in a while.

I first tried this Small Batch bottling from WM Cadenhead’s at a whisky tasting with Manchester Whisky Club. It was the last dram of the night and it completely shamed the rest of the line-up (which wasn’t shabby by any means).

With my 29th birthday coming up, I couldn’t resist and bagged myself one of the last remaining bottles whereupon it sat on my shelf until I cracked it open in September. Now it’s down to the very last dram, I feel I need to mark its passing with a well-deserved closer inspection.

Caol Ila is something of a power-house distillery in an industrial-looking installation, which would be downright ugly if not for the incredible view over the Sound of Islay (where Caol Ila takes its name) towards the Paps of Jura, just a few miles away.

Their output is a heck of a lot bigger than every other distillery on Islay, and most of the spirit it produces will end up in Diageo’s blended whiskies. The malt itself is absolutely top-notch, though, and stands up very well by itself as a distillate. Even at very young ages, it’s remarkably well-made stuff.

Diageo certainly thought so in the seventies when they rebuilt the distillery to boost its output and by the eighties, with Caol Ila still going strong, they decided to mothball and eventually demolish the now infamous distillery at Port Ellen.

Having been lucky enough to try a couple of different official and indy bottlings of Port Ellen, I have to say that the flavour profile has a lot in common with Caol Ila. I don’t get the chamois leather with the latter, but there’s plenty of lemon sherbet, damp wood, sea shells and sea-spray.

In some ways, I see Caol Ila as the poor-man’s Port Ellen. No disservice intended there, but when an official bottling can set you back two-grand you’ve got to have a fat wallet to stand any chance of ever owning any.

Anyway, I digress. This whisky waited twenty-nine years in a barrel so I should do the polite thing and do some tasting…

Nose: The typical candied lemon and smoky peat you get with younger Caol Ila has really calmed down and grown up here. The volume of the music at the party’s been set to a mature, grown-up level. You can hear the conversation in the room now. I get sweet smoke, cloudy apple juice, paprika, Easter Egg chocolate, damp wood, tangerine and fresh honeydew melon.

Palate: Very rich and oily. Bitter oranges, poached pears, more cloudy apple juice, with a gentle woody smoke rising through the fruit.

Finish:Becomes waxy and spicy, with a Brazil nut undertone. Extraordinarily long and satisfying. Like a deep-muscle massage for your mind. It unlocks something in the brain that leads to fits of grinning, like some kind of serene whisky Nirvana*.

Wow… Wow.

Cadenhead are consistently bottling some excellent casks, with the Small Batch series being particularly tasty. This is a truly stunning bottling, at a very respectable price indeed.

Diageo have just released an official bottling of 30-year-old Caol Ila, which retails around £400 plus. This 29-year-old bottling was about a quarter of that price (sadly all gone now), and Cadenhead have a 30-year-old available (in limited numbers) in their Authentic range.

I’m not sure how much difference one year makes to the flavour profile of Caol Ila, but I’d guess it’ll be showing a lot of the same qualities. And with the Cadenhead bottling being so tasty at 29, I’m sure you can guess which bottling I’ll be drinking on my next birthday…

I will sincerely grieve the passing of this whisky, it’s absolutely fucking glorious. If you get chance to try some old Caol Ila, don’t pass it up. This stuff doesn’t just age with grace, this whisky is Stacey’s Mom – and my gosh, has she got it going on…


* The Buddhist kind, not the Seattle grunge group that Dave Grohl was stuck in before he started making proper music.

Bunnahabhain Ceòbanach

Distillery: Bunnahabhain
Bottled: 2014
ABV: 46.3%
Cask: Bourbon
Age: Limited Edition NAS
More Info: WhiskyBase

I’m a massive fan of Islay whisky.

For me, the style puts all other whiskies quietly in the corner – you get such strong characterful expressions out of distilleries on the island, the kind of whisky that makes you sit up and pay attention – a provoker, challenging you to react.

For this reason, I’ve always found Bunnahabhain to be something of an odd-one-out with its softly-spoken, mellow, and (largely) unpeated style.

It’s not often I try their releases, as I rarely see them in the shops. We stopped by the distillery when we were on Islay but their gates were closed, no signs of life. All-in-all, this leaves it the least explored of the region’s distilleries for me.

Ever eager for the new experience, I was lucky enough to win their competition for a sample of their latest limited edition, the Ceòbanach (Scots-Gaelic for ‘smoky mist’). I was a big fan of the last peated Bunnahabhain I tried, the very smoky ‘Toiteach’, so I’m looking forward to trying this more lightly-peated expression.

Let’s see what this dark-horse of the Hebrides can do to provoke a reaction…

Nose: No peat reek here! I get straw and sweet cedar wood, play-doh, muscovadao sugar, dessert wine, apple strudel and nutmeg.

Palate: Crème brûlée, lemon-curd, pear drops, black pepper, and green apple skin. The peat is in-evidence, giving the fruit flavours more zest and tingle.

Finish: More spices, earthy peat and antique wood flavours, with a touch of chestnut at the end.

There is definitely a flavour at the core of all Bunnahabhain whisky that reminds me of crème brûlée. It really has something very desserty and sweet-shoppy about it.

The Ceòbanach is sweet, light, and zesty with a quiver of peat-tang and a lot of fragrant, fruity, woody notes. It’s got subtlety and complexity to it, building a lot of aroma around a lightly-smoked core.

Good work, chaps. Get some more expressions like this in your regular line-up and I’m sure they’ll go down an absolute storm.

Port Charlotte PC6

Distillery: Bruichladdich
Bottled: 2007, Distilled: 2001
ABV: 61.6%
Cask: Matured in Bourbon, finished in Madeira wine.
More Info: WhiskyBase

Many feel that Port Charlotte whisky, distilled and bottled by Bruichladdich, is the epitome of modern Islay whisky.

It has all the coastal notes and the peaty pow you expect from Islay, but is also an elegant and complex spirit. Bruichladdich is famous for its slow distillation in Victorian equipment (seriously, their still room looks like a scene from a steampunk graphic novel!) and their standard releases before Port Charlotte were only ever very lightly peated (around 5PPM or less).

Launching as the new kid of peated Islay whisky back in the noughties, the Port Charlotte series has been a cult hit ever since. Bottlings tend to be very difficult to source as they were all limited production, with wide global distribution (and some travel retail), so it’s a real treat to get hold of any.

You can pick them up on the secondary market fairly regularly but they’ll set you back three or four times their original retail price.

I sourced my sample from a wonderful, family-run business in the Netherlands. The site is in Dutch (but most modern web browsers will automatically translate for you) and they do ship internationally. Well worth perusing their stock if you’re on the look-out for something unusual to taste!

Anyway, on to the good stuff…

Nose: Not as fierce as expected. Icing sugar and candy, and a rich buttercream.  The wine influence has imparted a thick and floral honey scent as well – really very rich. Some medicinal TCP, but faint compared to your typical Islay (it’s more like a sherbet tingle than creosote or bonfires). Some soft coastal notes of salt and seashells in there too.

Palate: Madeira’s strong and sweet to start, with a rising peat (and ABV!) burn. Very viscous and luscious mouthfeel, a typical side-effect of Bruichladdich’s slow distillation. I get notes of mandarin, blood-orange and grapefruit running through the middle, with some more icing sugar and peaty sherbet.

Finish: Some soft smoke (as opposed to peat) comes out as the tingle calms down and savoury notes of liquorice, hazelnut, and rolling tobacco develop into a long finish (five minutes later, I can still taste hazelnuts!).

Water: It gets a lot peatier (on the nose and the palate) when you add water! I think I prefer it unwatered, with that lovely, thick, creamy mouthfeel.

This is the second of the PC-series I’ve tried (the first being PC5) and I’m well impressed. Even as a self-confessed Bruichladdich fanboy, I challenge any seasoned peat-head not to enjoy this dram. All I can say is, it’s a big shame that these bottlings are so rare and that I hope the distillery put some more young Port Charlotte out in future.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a cracking dram at ten and twelve years old, but these younger releases have brilliant and unusual characteristics that seem to fade as the spirit matures.

Here’s to the power and beauty of youth!