Distillery Tour: Caol Isla Cask Experience

In my previous post I covered the technical part of the Caol Isla tour. For the cask Experience, it was only my wife, myself and our witty and vivacious guide, Hazel. Oh, and four casks, from sprightly and newish to seriously grungy and old. The star of the show was the whisky of course but I have to preface this entry to say our host made the day. Hazel is a genuine Islay girl (her dad works at Bunnahabhain, so her Scotch chops are genuine) and unlike the charming Kirstin at Glenfarclas, Hazel actually likes Scotch. We shared the drams with her and had a rollicking time.

We sat in a large, bright room (the sun does come out on Islay) lined on one side with stools along a workbench, while on another wall were a series of bins for barrel staves with a sign admonishing to ‘wear gloves’ just above. The casks were in the center, beyond which two picnic tables had been covered with black cloth. A cherry sideboard and various posters gave that side of the room a warmer feel. Overall, unpretentious and casual—a nice break from some of the more marketing-heavy locales.

We settled in with Hazel and a set of glasses while she chatted about each cask, valinched out a quantity and poured. We had water handy as these were some powerful spirits..

L-R: 1988 ‘forgotten’ Sherry, 1996 Sherry, 2006 Bourbon, 2012 Bourbon. Click for hi res.

2000 Unpeated special release

First up was the unpeated selection, sensible as we would, by the time we were through, assail our palates with some heavyweight peat. This was not from a single cask, but a marry of first and second-fill bourbon casks, but undiluted: 55.9% ABV. I remember a nice vanilla, peppery nose with honey and grapefruit peel rounding out a balanced and summery profile. This is similar to the Caol Isla 18-year release which I will be reviewing soon.

2012 refill Bourbon

Next up was a refill Bourbon cask from 2012, so about 5 years old at that point. A sturdy 60.9% ABV and I braved it straight at first just to get the full whack. This cask had a noticeably smoky nose, more so that your commercial release (which would blend multiple casks) with a moderate vanilla component. My notes say ‘an aggressive palate’ heavy with phenols and oak tannin. Fascinating, but not a daily dram!

Old-timey stuff

2006 first fill Bourbon

Next was a first-fill Bourbon cask at 61.9% from 2006. Interesting that although older, this cask had a higher ABV than the 2012. Hazel explained the reason for these two casks being selected was to illustrate the effects of age: more vanilla, more toffee, and theoretically less alcohol due to the angel’s share. Well, the alcohol did not prove out but the flavor did. This was a much more approachable spirit. The nose had a lighter peat with more vanilla and some orange. A sip brought out seaweed, salt and iodine. The finish was oaky, the phenolic aromas lingered long and overall it had an oily mouthfeel. I enjoyed this quite a bit and would definitely buy for special occasions.

1996 first fill Sherry

When Hazel announced this dram, she had a twinkle in her eye. This was special. Twenty-one years in first fill sherry! Wow, I had high expectations. At 55.4% alcohol, this had served the angels well. Talk about a sherry bomb, but while most sherry monsters are unpeated, this had the Caol Isla peat going. It also had that special flavor that comes out in ‘serious’ whiskies, a pruney, old-leathery meatiness that you only comes with age. The result of the heavy sherry is that the Caol Isla medicinal/phenols had a strong counter in the aged sherry-and-prunes vibe. It worked, though I could see balancing this cask with something a little lighter, there was just so much going on. This dram approached the depth of the ‘special’ dram we had at the Balvenie. Hazel noted this had not been bottled. Nor had the next one. In fact, the next dram the malt master decided could not be bottled…

1988 first fill Sherry

Hazel explained that at times, distillers will send casks to other distilleries to age as the warehouses rotate their stock. In this case, the cask had been forgotten for some years, and a malt master at the other locale stumbled across it and asked if they wanted it back. At 29 years in cask, this is some serious whisky. The problem is, that long in cask, with no one sampling, means it may have passed its best flavor profile. No doubt, this was one gnarly dram. Still a hefty 56.5% alcohol, this spirit had less smoke and more oil than the 21-year cask. A lot of oil. It had a creamy, thick mouthfeel but also so much phenol that my notes state “rubbery”—a thick oily, rubbery dram. I can see why the malt master decided this could not be bottled, not in any blend. Still, the experience was fascinating and I really enjoyed sipping this. The 1998 would be my pick if, stuck in the South American jungle, I needed something to drive parasites from the body.

At the end of the regular tour, they offer various bottled expressions and we tasted the Distiller’s Edition as well. I liked that, but the wife enjoyed the ‘Moch’ so much she bought a bottle to take home. More on that later 🙂

Bottom line

Being part of a monster multinational, and a huge producer in their own right, I expected Caol Isla to present like Glenmorangie: corporate, slick, controlled. But what we found were folks working in an unpretentious fashion to produce a damn good whisky. I really liked the homey atmosphere and we came home content with a special bottle, a t-shirt (which is very comfortable BTW) and happy memories of a day well spent.

Happy wife holding forth.

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Distillery Tour: Caol Isla (technical)

Our enchanting guide, in the tiny visitor’s center.

I have wanted to visit this distillery ever since I came upon this photograph on the web. With those big windows looking onto the water, the facility struck me as a particularly attractive still house. Being my wife’s favorite single malt, it became a primary destination for our Islay visit.

Caol Isla, a big distillery, is owned by Diageo, a massive multinational. You might expect an experience like we had at Glenmorangie: scripted, restricted, slick but shallow. Well, nothing like that on the shores of the Sound of Islay. We had a fun and altogether rewarding tour, especially the tasting—the Caol Ila Cask Strength Experience. Highly recommended! Sadly, as with the Glenmorangie folks, no photographs were allowed inside. Too many lawyers with these big firms. However, our guide was a really lively, fun local lady, Hazel, who invigorated the experience with wit and panache.

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Whisky and Words Number 38: The Singleton 15 (Glendullan)

Glendullan 15, color in the bottle is more accurate (the glass is taking some color from the gourd behind).

This was a gift from a very considerate member of the family. It sure beats getting a tie! But of course, then the giver risks the chance I’ll critically review the gift. In this case, they can rest easy. The Singleton 15, an American-only release, comes from Glendullan distillery in Dufftown. You won’t find much about the place online, though the folks at Malt Madness have a pretty good history of the place here. It’s a modern Diageo operation, producing 5M litres of spirit a year from six stills. I found it interesting that it has larchwood washbacks. Does it matter? Probably not; you can read more at ScotchWhisky.com.

The Singleton 15 presents well for its price, and offers a very compelling value in a 15-year whisky, about $50 locally (Oregon). What you are hoping for in a 15-year is a noticeable step forward in maturation over a 10 or 12-year: a gentle nose, complex flavors, and depth as the flavor profile moves from taste to finish. In this case, the malt master has gone for a gentle and sweet dram, very approachable even for a non-Scotch-drinker. For the Scotch aficionado, this dram lies on the lighter side.

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Whisky and Words Number 37: Clynelish 14

I first encountered Clynelish 14 at the Whisky Library in Portland. I had taken a group of whisky-loving friends there for an end of year celebration. We tried a number of whiskies and the Clyne 14 caught my eye as at that time I had not had many highland malts. I found it quite pleasing, interesting on the palate and went to buy a bottle a few weeks later. The salesman directed me instead toward the Oban 14, and I went for the Oban. But I’ve been on the hunt for the Clynelish ever since and recently picked up a bottle. Time for a comparison—does it stack up against the Oban?

Clynelish 14, lovely straw color.

The parallels between the two are interesting. Both are owned by Diageo, and presented in similarly classic packaging. Both are coastal Highland distilleries (Oban west coast, while Clynelish is not far north of Glenmorangie on the east coast), both are 14-year expressions. There is quite a difference in output. About 4.8M litres produced yearly, the modern Clynelish facilities produce about seven times the output of Oban. (ScotchNoob has a great writeup on the history of the distillery).

Both malts have a dry, nutty nose, with Clynelish being drier, and the wood shows more. Oban has a more complex nose loaded with more fruit and extends the palate considerably. The 46% ABV makes itself known with the Clynelish, as it can sting the nose, while the Oban 14 is, at 43%, completely gentle on the nose. I have to hand it to my local beverage store guy, he was right. Oban is like Clynelish, but more so. More so in price too, by about 45%.

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Distillery Tour: Bunnahabhain

This being a dream come true, I hoped for a good experience. I had a great one. We were picked up after a restful night at our inn (the Bridgend, highly recommended) by Uncle Charlie, the proprietor’s ex-merchant marine uncle. A great guy was Charlie and full of information. He worried me a bit, explaining that Bunnahabhain was getting a bit frayed around the edges He was more animated by the prospect of a new distillery being built on the same one-track road where Bunnahabhain lies.

And on arrival we saw a distillery that looked like distilleries did before they were tourist attractions: a working factory, with the dark grey coating the distilleries get from the odd collection of microbes that flourish around the Angel’s share. And out front, stacks of casks. Besides a crop, I have not retouched the photo. It was that grey and gloomy.

Bunnahabhain, a working distillery. Click for hi-res.

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Whisky and Words Number 36: anCnoc 12

Four anCnocks, Edinburgh style.

This is one of the whiskies in our cupboard which has a (brief) story behind it. Like the Caol Ila 18, this one is a pick by the wife. While in Edinburgh a year ago, we stopped by the very same whisky shop where my single-malt obsession began many years ago. A friendly, energetic woman invited us for a taste of her wares and had on a little table a number of Balblair, anCnoc, Speyburn and Old Pulteney whiskies. These are all owned by the same conglomerate, ThaiBev.

We tried the anCnocs and my wife was quite taken by the one in black — the Rascan. I remember liking all three of the anCnoc whiskies, so when the anCnoc 12 appeared at our local shop, I was amenable when the wife suggested we give it a go.

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Whisky and Words Number 35: Caol Ila 18

Caol Ila 18..what has it to do with an old stompbox? Just the colors…eerie!

My wife and I each have a favorite island whisky, a whisky that has a twist. In both cases, the twist is a medicinal quality brought forward by the phenols imparted by the peat smoke used to dry the malt. The expressions and their unique flavors vary between distillers. For me, the peaty, weird island favorite is Talisker. For my wife, it is Caol Ila.

We came upon Caol Ila off-handed: a neighbor brought a bottle of the 12 to a tasting at my house and said, “Someone gave me this, I don’t like it. You can have it.” I am not one to turn down a single malt. I thought the flavor a bit odd; it had a hint of nineteenth century mouthwash. But the wife lit right up. “I like this stuff,” she proclaimed, and grabbed the bottle. We’ve had it on hand since as a peaty alternative to the usual ‘nice’ drams like Glenmorangie, which she favors as a daily driver. I’ve even got used to it.

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