This stunning eighteenth century building...
I remember five years ago I was working as a distillery tour guide – and dining off it ever since, I know – and I’d always ask people what their favourite whisky was. Laphroaig was pretty common. Ardbeg too. The odd Bowmore here or there. But every so often, someone would lean closer and whisper, “There’s a really good distillery, not a lot of people know about it. It’s called Caol Ila”. That same year, Caol Ila went mainstream as one of the new six in the doubling of Diageo’s “Classic Malts” range. Flash forward to now and Caol Ila is a more familiar name. But at a tasting in March, I was still surprised by how many whisky fans hadn’t heard of Scotland’s sixth largest distillery. So when we went to Caol Ila’s Open Day on Monday of the Feis Ile, I was curious to see other sides to the distillery. Fortunately, I had a break from driving that day and the resulting improved judgement making led to me picking up three bottles. So let’s take a look.
Caol Ila 12 year old
Ok, so this isn’t one of the bottles I picked up at the Feis, but it is the official bottling and a good place to set the tone for the others.
Nose: Smoke, seaweed, grass (or silage?), salt, soy sauce, chinese food
Palate: Grassy sweetness, smoked white fish, spice
Dilute Nose: Ginger and lime, spice, asphalt
Dilute Palate: Sweet creaminess, smoke and spice, smoked apple
OK, so looking back at this one, my main impression seems to have been the spiciness! But my notes tell me I was surprised by the lightness.
Caol Ila Moch (43%)
This is to cheery packaging what Nick Cave is to Eurodisco.
Moch is a new(ish) bottling of Caol Ila, theoretically only available to Friends of the Classic Malts. The name is Gaelic for dawn, fittingly as the consensus is this Caol Ila in an earlier stage of its life than the 12 year old. The packaging is rather lovely (if a little dour).
Nose: Dates, woodsmoke, sour apple, a little dusty
Light and unassuming so far
Palate: Buttery, slight bitter almonds and cardamom on the finish, lingering woodsmoke.
Still light, but with some gentle smoke drifting in. It really flits on and off the palate, it goes very quickly.
Dilute Nose: more apples, doughy hints, damp grain?, cardboard
A little livelier now, but the smoke is somewhat supressed
Dilute Palate: shortbread, elderflower, pineapple, sweetcorn
Deliciously smooth now.
This maybe isn’t one for lovers of big flavours. ”It doesn’t really smell of anything” was one comment. However, our friend Clare rated it as “the Whisky equivalent of lemonade”. It’s definitely drinkable (though more so with water).
Gobstoppers (for the uninitiated)
Caol Ila Distillery Only (58.4%)
This is Caol Ila’s distillery only cask strength bottling. I’m a big fan of these bottlings, I think they were a smart move on Diageo’s part. After favourable encounters with the Lagavulin and Glenkinchie bottlings, I was curious to see what Caol Ila had in store.
Nose: rice paper, flapjacks, marmite/twiglets, horseradish
Bland, but alcoholic! The extra strength makes sure it packs a punch.
Palate: peanut butter! chinese chicken wings, chutney, soy sauce
Surprisingly smooth, pleasingly sweet and with a nice mouthfeel. ”Tastes like cognac until you swallow”
Dilute nose: pears? damp logs
Harder to get to grips with now, the water seems to have subdued the nose
Dilute palate: icing sugar, pears, gobstoppers, sugared almonds
A real warmth on the throat (a nice warmth, not just alcohol burn)
This is quite and elegant creature, which shows its best side with a little water.
Caol Ila Feis Ile 2011 (64.3%)
This odd jam I had in Sri Lanka once to be precise
The label described the bottling as hand selected bodega sherry (about 11 years old). Let’s find out what this does to the Caol Ila spirit.
Nose: hints of swimming pool , soap, damp
It’s powerful and hard to get close to, but then at 64.3%, I’m not overly surprised.
Palate: lemon zest, almonds (maybe sugared?), twiglets? with kindling smoke in the background
Certainly more noticeable, but still fairly one dimensional.
Dilute nose: Oak smoked salmon, woodsmoke, hints of plum – palinka? some odd jam I once had in Sri Lanka
Intriguing – the smoke is far more prominent with water and some other interesting notes come out.
Dilute palate: Baked apples, mincemeat and raisins are there, particulary at the back, smoked chicken, wasabi, stewed figs, a little honey
Is this the sherry starting to show itself? Pleasingly balanced and complex.
So, how do I feel after my trio of Caol Ilas? Tipsy mainly. But I do feel like I know the distillery slightly better now. The bottlings sampled went from positively frigid to carefully cultivated primness. It was only with the Feis bottle that there was a real spark of character – like a staid schoolmistress slipping you a wink in the corridor.