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Under normal circumstances, the whisky lovers of the city of Glasgow are fortunate to be blessed with some very fine bars in which to enjoy a dram or two. Sadly, thanks to the horrid Coronavirus that is currently engulfing our fragile world, they have all shuttered their doors until the pandemic has run its course. The responsible thing to do, but nevertheless a depressing site.
Among the very finest of our fair city’s whisky bars is the Bon Accord, situated on North Street a short stroll from the imposing landmark that is the Mitchell Library. First opened in 1971, the pub soon became a haven for real ale drinkers, a role it continues to play today. It wasn’t until the bar was taken over by Paul McDonagh and his family in 1996, however, that it began to really cater toward the whisky drinker. In his now near-quarter century at the helm, Paul has built a gantry of nearly 400 bottles and became a partner bar of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, as well as hosting various whisky clubs and helping to run Glasgow’s Whisky Festival, for the last 11 years.
Working with Ralph Mitchell, a long-time supporter of the bar, the Bon Accord released a single cask bottling in late 2019 which marked the tenth anniversary of Mitchell’s influential Ralfy.com YouTube channel. A ten year old malt from Caol Ila distillery on the isle of Islay was chosen and bottled at a cask strength of 57.4%.
Caol Ila is the juggernaut of Islay, capable of pumping out 6.5 million litres of spirit every year. Despite this propensity for bulk, however, the spirit is remarkably consistent and of high quality, especially when allowed to shine at cask strength. Fine single malt aside, Caol Ila is a distillery few discuss in romantic tones, perhaps due to its industrial appearance. This outward appearance is deceptive though; the still house was rebuilt in the 1960s, complete with floor to ceiling windows that must surely give one of the best views to be found at any distillery in Scotland as it overlooks the sound of Islay and the famous Paps of Jura on the opposite shore (weather permitting – when I first visited there was nothing to be seen but low-lying cloud).
Bottled by North Star Spirits for the Bon Accord Bar in partnership with Ralfy.com, this single cask Caol Ila was aged for 10 years, bottled at 57.4% and retailed for around £70.
Smell: Smoke and Sulphur. Struck matches and burnt toast but also lots of berry fruits – raspberry and brambles. Cinnamon and clove. Nutmeg. Paprika. Oak char and acrid smoke.
Taste: Huge arrival with juicy berries and spice. Wonderful oily texture. Toffee. Chilli oil. Blackcurrant. Raspberry jam. Sea salt and black pepper. Oak. Undercurrent of smoke never quite rises to dominate. All about the cask this one.
Thoughts: Cask strength Islay seems to get more and more expensive these days but this one has been kept relatively within reason. A decent age statement, good strength and a liquid that people will either love or hate…
I firmly believe that the worst thing a whisky can be, is bland. Fortunately, that is not a word that could be used to describe this Caol Ila. Big, yes. Bold, yes. A bit silly, yes… but bland? Never.
Sadly I suspect some will absolutely hate it, not because the liquid is bad – it isn’t – but because the cask utterly dominates the spirit and there will be some who find its sulphury qualities extremely off-putting. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t mind a bit of sulphur in my dram. Indeed I quite enjoy that struck match note when it appears in my glass. Other more sensitive souls may not agree however. It’s a shame, because beyond the Fire & Brimstone there’s a pleasant dramming experience to be had here (I particularly love those fruit jam notes). I’m led to believe some European markets absolutely love this style of cask-heavy single malt whisky and I suspect it would do very well on the continent. Not for everyone then, but definitely has an audience.
Visit the Bon Accord website here.
Visit North Star Spirits’ website here.
For more information on Caol Ila, click here.