The Cooper’s Choice “Smoking Sherry” Caol Ila

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A little background information…

I picked up the bottle I’ll be reviewing today whilst with the Islay Whisky Academy in April. I always try to make a point of nipping into the Islay Whisky Shop in Bowmore because they always seem to have some interesting bottles on offer. Not just distillery releases either, there’s often a nice selection of independent bottlings as well and that’s exactly what found its way into my grubby paws last month.

The Cooper’s Choice is a series of Scotch whiskies from The Vintage Malt Whisky Company. The collection generally comprises single cask or small batch bottlings named in honour of the skilled coopers that form such an integral part of the Scotch whisky industry. The company was established by Brian Cook in 1992 and thirty years later, it’s still going strong with brands like Finlaggan, The Ileach and Islay Storm in its portfolio.

This particular bottling comes from Caol Ila, Islay’s biggest whisky producer. The distillery was established back in 1846, a mile north of Port Askaig. It perches in a rocky shore with a sheer cliff wall to its rear and can only be accessed by a steeply declining road. When acclaimed journalist Alfred Barnard visited in 1885, he wrote: “…we commenced the descent through a little hamlet of houses. But the way is so steep and our nerves none of the best, that we insist on doing the remainder on foot, much to the disgust of the driver, who muttered strange words in Gaelic.”

He continues “Caol Ila distillery stands in the wildest and most picturesque locality we have seen… …Comfortable dwellings have been provided for the employees, forming a little village in themselves, and we envied the healthy life of these men and their families.” It’s interesting that Barnard, perhaps the first-ever whisky tourist was himself besotted with the rugged charm of the simple life Islay seemed to offer. I wonder how many thousands have followed in his footsteps, coming for the whisky yet falling in love with the island itself.

As for Caol Ila, the distillery was modernised in the 1960s. The new layout was designed and led by architect George Leslie Darge. In total, Darge worked on 46 distilleries, including Lagavulin, Talisker, Cragganmore, Linkwood and Cardhu but it was his pioneering still-house at Caol Ila, a design that was echoed at Clynelish, Glen Ord and Craigellachie, among others, that would win him the most acclaim. His design incorporated floor to ceiling windows giving panoramic views of the sound of Islay and neighbouring Jura. It is a view yet to be beaten by another distillery, even today.

The Whisky

The label states the bottle came from Cask 233, an Oloroso sherry butt that produced 762 bottles. A little further reading, however, revealed that this is actually a sherry finish, with the whisky starting its life in ex-bourbon casks. That suggests to me that this was initially two bourbon casks that were vatted together in the finishing sherry butt. There’s no distillation date or age statement, which is a little disappointing but it’s bottled at an impressive 55.5% and cost me £67.

Smell: This “Smoking Sherry” does exactly what it says on the label. Thick, oily, Islay smoke rises from the glass with a blast of the sea. Brine. Seashells. Stony beaches and sea spray on the wind. Then there’s dried fruits, caramelised pecans and chocolate orange from the sherry. Also almond, cinnamon, clove, cayenne and paprika.

Taste: Sherry character lands on the tip of the tongue but it’s quickly swallowed up in smoke and fire. There’s a feisty youth about it that threatens to overwhelm the palate. You feel every bit of the 55.5% strength. Once the senses had acclimatised, however, things became more bearable and when I added a splash of water, there was a huge improvement. It arrives with raisins and figs. Orange creams. Marmalade. Then some dark chocolate. A big burst of black pepper. Aniseed. Liquorice. Then a cloud of thick smoke towards the back. Some nice oaky depth and the wine character remains in the background if you’re able to waft away the smoke for long enough to find it. Lovely natural oils create a thoroughly satisfying mouthfeel.

Thoughts: Showcases the power of youth and doesn’t yet know its own strength. It’s almost over-powering. The sherry adds a more-ish quality that stops things from becoming too harsh but it’s very intense, at least to begin with. A good splash of water softened the spiky edges. It was a bit like throwing a pot of water on a campfire: the fire and heat died but the smell of smoke and ash lingered. In any case, there’s more than enough flavour in the dram to be able to handle a fair amount of water. It’s a really whisky though, once you’ve found the sweet spot. Big sherry and big smoke and, when you get the water right, they’re both held in perfect balance.

Value for money: Given the rising price of Islay whisky and sherry casks, this is quite reasonably positioned at £67

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For more on The Vintage Malt Whisky Co and The Cooper’s Choice visit their website: https://www.vintagemaltwhisky.com/

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