This whisky is one of my wife’s favorites, which is odd, since she’s a real Irish fan and never been a proponent of phenolic (tarry, smoky) whiskies. But Caol Ila, as you might guess from the name, is very much an Islay whisky (it’s name means ‘Islay Strait’ in Gaelic) and it indeed has a peaty nose and a considerable dose of phenols which is typical for Islay expressions. It’s the kind of whisky you can open for a moment and then smell it for an hour. It’s a stinker!
The label says the distillery is not an easy place to find, and that its “secret malt” is highly prized among Islay whisky fans. I don’t know what’s secret about it, but Caol Ila certainly has a unique flavor profile. I found it herby and medicinal under that whiff of peat and (light) smoke. It is a unique taste and aroma and that has earned it a number of medals in the current century (double gold at SF). There is a full flavor profile on their website, below the soundbite “a delicate balance of tastes.” Note they did not say a ‘balance of delicate tastes.’ In fact, they describe in addition to citrus fruit, ‘a dentist’s mouthwash.’ A lot of folks find it medicinal, like a Listerine or other antiseptic mouthwash on the palate. Strange, but it works with the citrus. As for phenols, they claim just a trace of smoke and bath oil — for me, it’s more like machine oil. Altogether, their guide is pretty accurate. Note, although Caol Ila 12 has a phenolic profile, you never get that ashy taste you do from a Lagavulin 10, for example.
The distillery itself was founded in the mid-nineteenth century, but demolished and rebuilt in the seventies. There’s a lovely photo at Bob Hamilton’s site (below, lots of great photos of Scotland and distilleries) showing their big room with the stills, looking out onto the sound through twenty feet of window. Kind of like the Apple store of distilleries. Except they don’t sell pretty, short-lived bits of techno-candy. Far from it. Caol Ila is one of those non-showy, ‘just the facts, m’am’ products that does the job and gets on with it. It’s used extensively in blends, giving JW Black its backbone, for example.
Caol Ila 12-year old Islay single malt, 43% ABV
Nose: Herb, citrus, hints of peat smoke.
Palate: Citrus and citrus oils, antiseptic balanced with Lyles’ golden syrup, machine oil.
Finish: Moderate in length, refreshing citrus buttressed by lingering sweetness. Never bitter.
Bottom Line: This is not in a line between peaty and non-peaty whiskies. Caol Ila forges its own way down the phenol trail. It’s herby, citrusy medicinal qualities make it a good companion for a summer evening on the porch. At $53 in my town, it’s one of those whiskies you keep for the right time, when the right times aren’t rare.