This is my wife’s ‘so good I had to bring it home’ whisky from our trip to Islay. It was an offering of our post-tour tasting. Being a big Caol Ila fan, my wife really took to it. Maybe because (besides Caol Ila 12) she tends to prefer more civilized stuff like Glenmorangie, and the Moch is presumably a dialed-back Caol Ila. But is it? Let’s find out…
This expression is another NAS whisky – no age statement. Since my last screed on NAS whiskies, I have reviewed a couple more and liked them. NAS whiskies can be good and bad, and all over the map as far as price. I do not remember what we paid for the Moch, but on Master of Malt it’s about $55, a pretty moderate price for a special expression.
I like to start with what the company says about its product. The box proclaims this spirit is “Soft, smooth clean and fresh…the dawn of a new day.” An odd way of introducing a whisky, sounds like the ad for a bar of soap. For this whisky in particular I find the marketing understated (for a change). This is a spirit that makes its presence known immediately on the bottle being opened. It won’t clear a room like Laphroaig but the peat and seaweed produce a lively bouquet. A better image might be ‘a breath of sea air’ but they called it Moch (‘dawn’ in Gaelic) so we get the ‘dawn’ thing.
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.
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 blog has covered a number of blends, and also eleven unpeated, mostly sherry-finished single-malts (see sidebar for the list and links). They all share similar influences in their flavoring.
It’s the water, and a lot more
Some of those malts, Bunnahabhain* and Glenfarclas, for example, are notable for the taste of what the French would call terroir. Peat bogs, soil and rocks through which their water sources run flavor that water. In addition to the water, the spirit’s flavor is heavily influenced by the ingredients (mostly barley malt) and how they are treated at each step. In the preparation of what will become new make spirit, there is much attention to manipulating temperatures at each stage. The temperature of the wort is chosen to enhance the activities of enzymes converting sugars and later, to encourage fermentation. Variation in stages and their temperatures can affect flavor. One also reads of claims that the shape and composition of tuns, stills and washbacks will influence the flavor of the new-make spirit. Once distilled, the spirit meets the cask, where interaction with the oak (and its preparation, be it lightly toasted or charred) will have the second largest effect on flavor.