...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Single Malt Report: Caol Ila 12 year old

Though it is a Diageo distillery, Caol Ila's near complete absence from this blog was not intentional on my part.  So, I'm going to correct this issue by posting three reports on the big Islay distillery in three days.  The first two I tried side by side (thanks to Florin for the samples).  Then I saved a little of the first (the 12 year) to give me a little perspective on the third (a purchased sample).

Today, it's the Caol Ila 12 year old.

First, some Caol Ila Did-You-Know?!

Caol Ila, Gaelic for "Sound of Islay" or more accurately "Islay Strait", has a production capacity of 6.5 million liters, making it the largest distillery on Islay.  It is so large, that its capacity is twice that of the next largest Islay distillery, Laphroaig.  At the moment, only Macallan, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Roseisle have larger production outputs, but Caol Ila remains the largest peated malt whisky producer in Scotland (and, likely, the world).  The vast majority of that whisky goes into Diageo's largest blends: Johnnie Walker, J&B, and Bell's.  In 1989, DCL (proto-Diageo) started bottling Caol Ila as a limited 15 year old whisky under their Flora & Fauna series.  In 2002, it moved to their "Hidden Malts" series, along with Clynelish and Glen Elgin.  Because it's not part of the original "Classic Malts" (though it's often lumped in with them), it can sometimes be more difficult to find a bottle of Caol Ila, compared to Lagavulin.

Distillery: Caol Ila
Ownership: Diageo
Age: minimum 12 years
Maturation: refill ex-bourbon American oak casks
Region: Port Askaig, Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
PPM: 30-35
Chilfiltered? Yup.
Colored? It is decidedly so.

Now, enough with facts!

It has a mild amber color, which is comforting since so many of Diageo's whiskys are unnaturally brown.  Perhaps they went easy on the e150a with this one.  On the nose, honey on wheat bread leads the way.  Then bruised apple flesh and a hint of piney peat.  It's very fresh overall: light vanilla, fresh stone fruit, and a mint-like effervescence. All sorts of apple notes now, actually. And the smoke remains reserved.  Give the whisky some time in the glass and some woody notes arrive with some spice on their tail.  While the peat and smoke remain gentle on the palate, they are more present than they are with the Bowmore 12.  There's a subtle bacon note and barbecued veggie skins (probably squash?).  Lots of hay.  With some air, the palate becomes a well-controlled combo of mild vanilla, salt, tanginess, and wood smoke.  A little more barley registers on the finish.  But for me, the Caol Ila 12 finish always paints the same portrait when I close my eyes:  I'm overlooking the beach at night, chimney smoke wafting in the tangy salty air.  Every time.

The nose gets maltier and yeastier, with a light pleasant copper note.  Maybe some whole wheat toast and peaches.  It's slightly more candied now too.  The palate develops a note of mustard seeds but not too strongly.  Light peat, more obvious vanilla.  The finish is now briefer.  But it's creamy, peaty, and a little peppery.

While it won't blast your senses like the more famous South Islay trio (Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig), Caol Ila 12 is solid on every front.  The oak only pipes up every once in a while, but it mostly lets the mash, peat, salty air, and time do the talking.  What's interesting is that though Caol Ila is distilled right next to the sea, it is matured inland on mainland Scotland in one of Diageo's massive warehouses.  So that salty air note is not actually due to salty air exposure during maturation.  It's something that comes through in the peating or distillation process.  It's very effective, whatever it may be.

I'll admit, I've given Caol Ila the short shrift in favor of its sexier neighbors, and have unfairly looked past the indie bottles just because its distillery is owned by Diageo.  There are some elements here that remind me of similarly aged Ardmore (♥s!), except CI's malt seems to have more salt and bacon in the mix.  I've seen a wide array of prices on this one.  It's a well designed whisky, and can compete fairly well at the $50 price point.  But once it goes north of $70, it's difficult to recommend.

Availability - Many specialty retailers worldwide
Pricing - East Coast $45 to $65; West Coast $55 to $75 (boo)
Rating - 85


  1. Good to know I'm not the only one who gets pine notes off of Caol Ila 12. Unfortunately, I feel like the distillery's offerings are betrayed by the fact that they useful refill bourbon barrels almost exclusively. It makes their older whiskies great, since there's less oak impact, but it gives the younger expressions short shrift. A little more caramel and vanilla in the mix would really punch it up (well, and craft presentation too, but now we're just dreaming).

    1. Ah, we're still allowed to dream of the day when Diageo kicks out craft presentations (or at least 46% ABV like Clynelish) of their malts. That would actually end half of my gripes with them. I think the refill casks really helped the 18yo, now I'm wondering what the older OBs are like.

    2. Well, there is Port Askaig 12 which is bottled at a Talisker strength of 45.8%. I've heard good things about that line.

    3. I've heard good stuff about the Port Askaigs too. Might buy a dram or two of it from MoM next year.

  2. This is one of my top 3 official bottling single malts, if not *the* top. It's one of those rare cases that the OB is so good you almost don't need to bother with independent or single cask expressions. It also works surprisingly well at 43%. Very elegant whisky! 3.5* for me as well.

    1. I was happily surprised about this one, and even happier to know that I can still be happily surprised by whisky. Thank you for the great CI samples!

      There are so many indie Caol Ilas out there, which is not a complaint, but with so many options it's tough to know what to go with, especially since the quality has been known to be quite mixed. The Big D seems to have CI down to a science which is good for them and their blends, and good for us.

    2. Have you seen any information as to what their recipe is? I can't taste any sherry in there but the OB has darker flavors than the single (or double) casks that I had, which were more lemony and less olivey. It could be a suggestion from the color too, I don't know.

    3. Florin, the core Caol Ila range is all ex-bourbon. They don't do a lot of wine casks except for the Distillers Editions.

    4. Yeah, I'll second what Jordan said. Their regular range is all ex-bourbon, a lot of refills. The most recent unpeated 14yo was ex-sherry, which even Serge commented about it being a change of pace. But it is so sherry-free that I'm betting those were very refill-ish casks.

    5. Funny thing, for their latest Feis Ila bottling, they took ex-bourbon cask whisky, put it into ex-muscatel casks, then put it back into ex-bourbon casks. Took the edge off the wine finish, which was actually pretty nice and balanced.

    6. That sounds nice. Did they have that at the distillery while you were there?