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A fine malt in its own right…
Caol Ila is Islay’s largest distillery in terms of volume produced but most of the spirit it makes is swallowed up by Diageo‘s vast blended Scotch portfolio. There is a small selection of single malts available but for me, Caol Ila has always felt like something of a missed opportunity. The decision to turn the distillery into something of a Johnnie Walker-themed visitor centre only compounds the feeling that it exists to churn out blend fodder rather than to shine as a single malt in its own right.
For many, independent bottlers represent the best way to sample Caol Ila at its finest. When bottled at cask strength, in particular, this Islay malt presents as a salty, smoky dram on par with anything else produced on the island. It’s somewhat ironic, however, given indie bottlers reputation for showcasing unusual versions of well-known single malts, that perhaps the most interesting Diageo release is one that radically differs from the house style.
Caol Ila began producing a small amount of unpeated spirit in the late 1990s. The motivation, as always with this distillery, was to create a desired flavour profile for the owner’s blends. Diageo required a Highland-style malt and Caol Ila had the capacity to make it. The whisky wasn’t intended to be released on its own but these things tend to find their way into the public domain eventually and this unpeated version of Caol Ila became an occasional feature in Diageo’s annual Special Releases.
This release was bottled in 2018 at 15 years old. The whisky was matured in a combination of refill and rejuvenated hogsheads with ex-bodega European oak butts. It’s bottled at a cask strength of 59.1%.
*Sample purchased from Drinks By the Dram @ Master of Malt
Smell: There’s a wee bit of spirit heat there – though that’s not unexpected for a cask strength dram. It’s malty with notes of honey, vanilla, coconut and almond. There’s also peanuts and dried apple. Some lemon juice. Pepper. Wee bit of liquorice. There’s a freshness about it, like a breath of coastal air, except there’s none of the brine or seaweed you’d normally find in a Caol Ila. Hot buttered toast and ginger.
Taste: Quite a big arrival with intense honey followed by hot pepper. Caramel and biscuit. Oak. It’s surprisingly weighty and oily. Retains the character of the malted barley throughout – with apples and pears. Wee touch of pineapple. Some oaky spice.
Thoughts: There’s a nice balance between spirit and oak, with plenty of barley character still in evidence, even after 15 years in cask. It’s quite a strange experience, in truth. It doesn’t feel like Caol Ila, but there’s an occasional wee burst of something… familiar. I tried this dram in a bar a few years ago and thought it was excellent but I must confess to being a wee bit disappointed this time. Maybe my expectations were too high? It certainly packs a punch where intensity of flavour is concerned but lacks a wee bit of complexity. Big and powerful but ultimately, a bit one-dimensional. It makes for something of a conversation piece, however, and shows a side to Caol Ila we don’t often get to see so an interesting purchase rather than an essential one.
Price: £95. As part of Diageo’s Special Releases, the price was never going to be particularly budget-friendly and £95 for a cask strength 15-year-old doesn’t actually seem too severe in today’s inflated market. I came very close to buying a bottle when visiting the distillery in 2018 but opted instead for the similarly-priced Distillery Exclusive. Based on the evidence of this sample, I think I might have made the right decision.
For more on Caol Ila visit https://www.malts.com/en-row/distilleries/caol-ila
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