...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Single Malt Report: Caol Ila 14 year old Unpeated (2012)

Five years ago, my buddy James brought a bottle of Caol Ila to the inaugural Anderson Business School Whisky Club meeting, held at our old Hollywood apartment.  It was my first Caol Ila (G&M bottling, BevMo exclusive) and one of my first positive peaty experiences.  Kristen remembers it as if it'd happened yesterday.  Not so much smoke on the nose and palate but once the drinker exhaled, the finish filled one's head with campfire smoke.  It was dense and lovely.  It could make a drunk feel like a dragon (though, I'm sure a cigarette and mezcal would do the same thing).  Sometimes I wonder if that was the last time my wife drank a peated whisky for fun.  Nowadays, when I hand her a glass of something only slightly peated she says, "Smells like smoke," and passes it back to me.  Overhand.

Anyway, that was a good start for Caol Ila and I.  On Monday, I posted a report on the officially bottled 12 year old.  On Tuesday, it was a post on the official 18 year old.  Today, it's the 2012 limited release of a cask strength 14 year old, that was unpeated.

Yep, unpeated.  In the 1980s, the distillery started experimenting with unpeated malt runs and continued to do so off and on until 2005 when the market's demands for peated malt ended these trials.  In 2006, they started an annual limited edition bottling of the unpeated Caol Ila.  The positive response has kept the releases going ever since.

In most of the reviews of the early bottlings, you'll see that folks tend to still find peat notes in the "unpeated" whisky.  One explanation is that while the malt itself was unpeated, phenolic residue that wasn't scrubbed off the stills wound up transferring itself back to the spirit being run through.  Another possibility I've been wondering about comes from the label on all of the bottlings (see above), which reads with quotes "Unpeated Style".  Those quotes and the addition of the word style makes one ponder the possibility that perhaps the malt was peated at much lower level, 3-5ppm for instance.

I'll tell you ahead of time, I didn't find any peat from my sample of the 2012, but I can definitely see why some folks refer to these releases as Caol Ila Highland.

Distillery: Caol Ila
Ownership: Diageo
Age: minimum 14 years
Maturation: European oak casks
Region: Port Askaig, Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 59.3%
PPM: ???
Chilfiltered? No need to with this ABV
Colored? Probably

The color is gold, just a smidgen darker than the 18.  Lots of ethyl burns one's nose as the whisky announces its high ABV.  Interesting that this comes from European oak because I get tons of vanilla from it, but more on that in a sec.  The other main notes are swimming pool chlorine, cocoa powder, butterscotch, and roses.  But there's also an intense vanilla and brown sugar combo that smelled strikingly like Johnnie Walker Black Label.  Then there's Nilla Wafers, which I usually find in Canadian blends.  Then (to confuse you further) the floral note combined with a lot of coconut cream hits, reminding me of high strength single grain whisky.  The palate was more straightforward: digestive biscuits, charred wood, brown sugar, sea salt, and a brief savory note.  It's a bit hot and toasty, but simple.  Lots of malt arrives in the lengthy finish, followed by salt and toasted wheat bread.  Again, focused like the palate.

The nose starts with swimming pools filled with caramel and roses.  Salted caramel ice cream with Cool Whip on top.  The palate is now reminiscent of a toasty malty blend.  All sugar and spice, maybe some nutmeg and vanilla bean.  Reminds me of Compass Box's Great King Street Artist's Blend.  It finishes mildly with salt and malt.

I apologize for all of the comparisons in my notes, but the whisky continually reminded me of other whiskies.  Which was kind of weird.  I also found very little of the classic European oak notes, other than maybe the toast and spice.  Adding water made it a better drinker but also did not make it stand out in any way.

No actual criticisms come to mind, other than this version of the "Unpeated Style" of Caol Ila seems interchangeable with a number of inoffensive single malts and high malt blends.  Its benefit is its high strength which allows for the expression of the full power of the malt and also allows for toying around with water.

With and without water, I tried it alongside the regular 12 year old and always preferred the peated version.  It could be a case of my nose and palate preferring the phenolics, but I did find the peat bringing more depth and variety to the experience.  As for other opinions, Serge liked this unpeated version slightly better than I, though he found lots of vanilla and not much sherry as well.

If you can find it in the $75-$85 range, then it'll be what currently passes for a good deal on a cask strength bottling at its age.  I do recommend trying it first, just to make sure your expectations are in the right place.  For me, I'll stick with the bacon, barbecue, and campfires of the peated version.

Availability - A couple dozen specialty retailers in the US, more available in Europe
Pricing - $75 to $100 in the US, much pricier in Europe
Rating - 80