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.
A short while ago after a particularly tough week, the wife dragged me off to snatch a limited-release 18-year old Caol Ila. Not cheap – $112 here in Oregon. And this Caol Ila is unpeated – according to the box once per year the distillery runs a single batch of unpeated whisky. Would it lose the Caol Ila magic? How would we know…if we didn’t try it. The box promised “a unique freshness and clarity.” Normally, I would say, let’s try this at the Whisky Library before diving into such an expensive bottle.
But on our trip to Caol Ila distillery last year we had an amazing time. After the tour we had a tasting with Hazel, a really fun operative who sat down with us in a big, open room with a few casks. Guess what we started with? An unpeated 17-year old cask. I remember my wife and I being really pleased by all the offerings that day. My notes are sketchy (second tasting of the day) but they say vanilla, honey, peppery spice, and grapefruit peel. Interesting, though unpeated, the 17-year still retained the Caol Ila twist. Single cask, so strong flavors.
That experience caused me to agree, we had to give this a try, especially as this is offered in cask strength, bravo for Caol Ila. The box has tasting notes from David Wood, distillery manager, on the back and an enticing blurb on the front which I found reasonably inspiring. (I think this is the Diageo difference, they have somewhat restrained marketers.) We had just a little that first night, and our reactions were positive. my wife finding it ‘fresh, peppy and salty’ while even for a 120-proof offering (59.8% ABV) I found it quite richly flavored and refined, barely a sting in the nose. A week later, on a quiet afternoon, I sat with this expression and gave it the attention it deserves.
Caol Ila 18, Islay single malt, 59.8% ABV
Nose: Earthy, a touch of chocolate with melon and papaya. Add water to expose maple syrup and seaweed.
Palate: Toffee sweetness, oily mouthfeel, pineapple and salty caramel. A bit spicy but considering the ABV amazingly smooth. Much livelier than, for example, the Glenmorangie 18. A little water brings out chocolate, calms the spiciness and still retains the unctuous mouthfeel.
Finish: Long lingering oak, cocoa, gentle tannins that clean up the sweetness very well. Pretty fiery due to the ABV but not unpleasant. A little water (recommended) uncovers the maritime side with wisps of seaweed.
Bottom line: I do not read tasting notes of a whisky until after I have tried it. Mr. Wood promised “sweet, with hints of vanilla and coconut, pursued by salted nuts and seaweed…salted toffee and wild strawberry” in his notes. I think what we found is reasonably close. This is a complex whisky and, no surprise, more challenging than the Speyside (Glenfarclas and Glenmorangie) 17/18-year olds. The islands certainly impart some magic to a whisky. While the unpeated expression loses Caol Ila’s phenolic medicinal twist, this dram has not turned into liquid candy like some of those mellower whiskies. The Caol Ila 18 rewards tiny sips and close attention with a number of tasty, unique flavors. Expensive, but worth the coin for the adventurous palate.