Making a pilgrimage to Islay is often viewed as part of a whisky enthusiast’s ‘rite of passage’ – the island, its natural beauty, friendly locals and steeped whisky history holding a near mystical pull which extends far beyond its small borders. But there’s a very different ‘feel’ to Islay during The Islay Festival of Music and Malt when the population of the island nearly triples from its base of 3,228 (at last census) inhabitants. All day whisky revellery, a large (and important) tourist boost and an infrastructure which simply cannot cope with the influx of people. People everywhere – camping on beaches, fields and even on any available roadside verge. 2020 sees a virtual Feis Ile – closed B&Bs, empty roads and distilleries shuttered to the public. But don’t let this quietness fool you – Islay is far from silent.
It’s easy to forget how much of a bubble the whisky world can be. I spend a good part of my life enthusing and educating about whisky in one way or another – but, last weekend, I was reminded that this is almost always exclusively an activity that I undertake with fellow enthusiasts of one form or another – fans, fanatics, or at least the pre-interested. Stepping outside this bubble, you realise that the vast majority of people have little understanding of whisky, but nevertheless come with in-built preconceptions – some of which can be hard to break down.
Whilst Diageo’s annual Special Releases usually require saving a few coppers, or in some cases taking out a second mortgage, there are always two bottles each year that are priced much more affordably. All of the Special Release come at cask strength, so the annual Lagavulin 12 year old is not just a wee bit younger than the 16, or a wee bit older than the 8, there’s some oomph going on under the hood. Likewise, each year we get something a little bit unusual from Caol Ila – unpeated style.
Peat, whilst synonymous with certain whiskies is far from homogenous. When burned, peat from different locales not only produces different combustion products, but it also does so in varying concentrations. Smoke from Islay is richer in phenols, guaiacol, syringol. Whereas peat from Orkney produces a much higher proportion of sugar-derived carbohydrates. Likewise, even from a single location the depth of the cut peat will affect its eventual flavour – top soils contain more vegetal matter and will therefore be stronger than deeper extracted peat. Similarly, there’s the whisky-making process itself – that too will affect the intensity of the smoky taste of a whisky.
The original release of this bottling offered an unusual opportunity: a blind tasting in a bottle. The bottle specified only that the mystery within was a single malt Scotch whisky at 46% ABV, bottled by Berry Brothers & Rudd for Royal Mile Whiskies. The challenge given was to guess the distillery and the age of the whisky. Whoever got it right, or got closest, would win a special tasting and dinner at the Berry Bros. cellars.
Wrapping up the April 2021 Watt Whisky releases is a 2010 10 year old Caol Ila. Matured in a hogshead which produced 326 bottles at 58.2% ABV – this one will set you back £67.95 from The Whisky Exchange.
Over to Caol Ila for an 11 year old that has been matured in a single ex-bourbon hogshead and bottled at 57.4% ABV. Yours for £64.95 from The Whisky Exchange.
Peat smoke expresses itself quite differently depending on the length of maturation – fiery and bombastic with youth – relaxed and refined with age. With younger spirit it can sometimes hide a multitude of sins, from undone, feinty spirit to poor cask integration. Particularly for whiskies where intense peat is not part of their DNA, there are times it can feel more like a sticking plaster. Then, there are other times, where the inherent character of the spirit naturally suits younger, intense peating. Caol Ila is one such whisky. Indeed, to my mind, one of the strengths of this distillate is in how well composed it appears at virtually any age.
Another Sponge “assemblage” – this time over to Islay where there’s seemingly enough Caol Ila for every single person on the planet to be gifted a cask by the government at birth. Ah well, no bad thing – of all the distilleries to possess an overabundance, there are many I’d peg lower than Caol Ila. This Sponge edition (#32) is the bottler’s latest (yay! I’m finally up to date) and has been composed of a refill hogshead combined with a rejuvenated hogshead. Bottled at 53.6% and with 481 bottles produced – having now tasted it, I’m more than a bit sad that I didn’t jump on it – as it didn’t sell out on impact as most Sponge released tend to.
Caol Ila powered mythical cow creatures – I don’t even know where to begin – but the whisky comes from a refill hogshead laid down in 2007 and bottled 12 years later. 156 bottles at 48.5% were produced.
Oh drinkers, what a contrary bunch you can be. One minute gobbling up near endless consecutive cask numbers like Pacman – the next bemoaning a new release from one of the most consistent producers out there because, well “it’s just another Caol Ila”. I don’t fully understand why some folks get such a glum face on over many Caol Ila bottlings – it isn’t just bottled frequently because it’s the largest distillery on Islay – it’s bottled frequently because it’s routinely excellent. Indeed, I’d posit that if you’ve bottled anything less than a “good” Caol Ila – you fucked up.
One of two sister hogsheads reduced down to 53% and bottled concurrently to typify the differences that are possible from an adaptable spirit such as Caol Ila. This one is rather mineral and coastal.
Whilst the secondary whisky market has become something of a hot mess that regularly seems to defy all sense and logic, it’s the retail world that directly affects most enthusiasts. The two, alongside the producers themselves are now part of an inherently connected ecosystem - the fates of one directly impacting on another. Make no mistake, some folks are raking in the £s hand over fist – but, it’s wrong to just blame ‘dirty flippers’ for the currently overheated market – everything is associated and price escalation is occurring throughout the supply chain.
Always good to have something peated in an initial line-up from an indy bottler – and Firkin’s is a 2010 Caol Ila that rather than being served in a more usual 1st or refill ex-bourbon barrel, comes with a custom marsala wine maturation.
This Gordon and MacPhail Caol Ila is not only exceptionally high in strength, it’s also composed of a two sets of casks that were distilled 5 months apart. Five casks (5347 to 5351) distilled on the 4th May 1978 were combined with twelve casks (11553 to 11563) distilled on the 19th October 1978. The bottling was produced in February of 1992 at a crackingly high ABV of 63.7% - when G&M indicate ‘cask strength’, they mean it.
This Caol Ila is a little bit mysterious – I cannot find any information on a 1978 Spirit of Scotland release whatsoever. My sample is simply labelled as ‘bottled in the 90s’ – looking at other Caol Ila Spirit of Scotland releases (including the 1981 – of which I’ve repurposed a bottle photo seeing as I can’t find anything of the 78s existence), they seem to vary in age. Recent bottlings have been between 7 and 12 years of age, however bottlings produced around the turn of the millennium are older at between 15 and 17 years. It’s therefore not too much of a stretch to posit that this 1978 is likely to have been bottled around 1993-1995 and is therefore likewise between 15 and 17 years old.
Whisky is frequently described as being a versatile spirit – often this is simply referring to its incredibly broad range of aromas of flavours, or its application across a wide variety of cocktail styles. But, the adaptability of whisky can also be looked at from the perspective of its production and maturation. Whilst commonalities can be drawn across the methods used to produce whisky – the end results are far from the same. Some spirits work better younger, some older. Some spirits shine brighter in particular cask types, and some offer their strongest personality when delivered with the addition of peat. At the same time, there are whiskies whose inherent characteristics operate equally as capably under a wide variety of conditions. Caol Ila is to my mind one such whisky.
The best whisky writing has always been about more than the assembly of nose, palate and finish, topped with a regurgitated Wikipedia history and closed with a selection of largely unsubstantiated plaudits. Whisky writing can and should be about more than what is inside of the glass itself - in the same way that the best food writing extends far beyond what has just been served on a plate. And it’s the broadness of the topic – how whisky impacts economics, scientific understanding, people and evolving cultures that sees me sat here writing about it as the sun comes up.
There’s always lots of indy Caol Ila floating around – but rather less of it is allowed to get to nearly 20 decades of maturation. This Gordon & MacPhail Whisky Exchange exclusive was laid down in 2001 in 1st fill ex-bourbon – with 192 bottles resulting 19 years later. Available from The Whisky Exchange for £175 a bottle.
Another month, another Caol Ila – but, this one comes from the younger end of the spectrum after a mere 6 years in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead. Peated Profile.
I don’t remember the last outturn to *not* feature Caol Ila – but no complaints from me, they’re usually consistently sound. Refill ex-bourbon hogshead for this 6 year old youngster. View on SMWS
A youthful Caol Ila that was distilled on 1st June 2010 and spent its entire 7 years within a refill ex-Bourbon hogshead. One of 280 bottles. Peated flavour profile.
Over to Islay for some young Caol Ila. Distilled in June of 2010, this whisky has matured for 7 years in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead. Peated profile.
The near obligatory 53 this month comes from September of 2008. It has spent 9 years in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead. Peated profile.
Another month, another Caol Ila – but, what’s not to like about that?! This one comes from a refill ex-bourbon hogshead after 9 years of maturation. View on SMWS
The monthly #53 - 9 years in refill ex-bourbon. Simples.
Another appearance for Caol Ila. Matured since September 2007 in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead. Peated profile.
Another month, another Caol Ila – though peat fans will be disappointed to note that it’s this outturn’s sole green labelled expression. A 10 year old matured in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead.
This month’s obligatory 53 and its refill ex-bourbon all the way – 10 years in a hoggie.
Some things never change - especially the pleasing predictability of Society Caol Ila. This one is notably pale and drawn from a refill ex-bourbon barrel.
Over to Islay for an 11 year old Caol Ila distilled back in July of 2006. No messing around – this has been matured in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead. Lightly Peated profile.
A tough choice of colour-coding for this Caol Ila. Whilst it is undeniably coastal, it’s also still quite peaty. So blue or green? SMWS have chosen blue this time around, for a 9 year old matured in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead.
Young Caol Ila is regularly seen on the monthly outturns – but not usually in the Heavily Peated flavour profile. This one is an 11 year old matured in a refill ex-bourbon barrel.
There’s been a lot of SMWS 53s this year – but they’ve all been pretty solid. Standard stuff with this one – a refill ex-bourbon hogshead. Peated profile.
Familiarity can be reassuring. I’ve not been able to review an outturn for five months and yet here I am greeted by the habitual sighting of Caol Ila. This month’s – an 11 year old drawn from a refill ex-bourbon barrel.
This month’s obligatory Caol Ila offers something a little different to many SMWS 53’s – a rerack into oloroso – and at three years, that’s a decent length for a 1st fill sherry hogshead to do some real transformative work.
Looking distinctively like one of Signatory’s more active sherry casks judging by the rather opaque hue. This Caol Ila has been matured for 11 years in a (quite active?!) refill sherry butt. Bottled at 58.2% ABV and available from The Whisky Exchange website for £120.
In to the final stretch of the Boutique-y 2017 Advent calendar and today we have one of the more literal bottle labels – coal mining and garlic it seems! Its an NAS from Islay bottled at 56.9% and was part of a release of 1,260 bottles. Time for some smoke…
Door No.2 reveals a youthful 6 year old Caol Ila. Bottled at 52.2% and deceptively pale in colour.
Of Islay’s roughly 22 million litres of pure alcohol produced each year by 9 distilleries, Caol Ila is responsible for around a third. Indeed, at 6.5 million LPA, Caol Ila sits as the 9th largest capacity distillery within Scotland and the biggest peated producer by a near 50% over its closest capacity rival (Ardmore). And as such, operating at this scale means that bottlings of Caol Ila and bottlings which contain Caol Ila (as part of a wider blend) are a common occurrence. And yet, I never seem to tire of them.
Despite now reviewing 42 different bottles from Islay’s largest producing distillery, this is unexpectedly only our third foray into Boutique-y’s growing catalogue of Caol Ila. As always - too many whiskies, too little time. The distillery’s 6.5 million LPA slots it into 9th position when stacked up against the largest distilleries in Scotland – twice as bulky in volume terms as its closest (capacity-wise) Islay competitor – Laphroaig. And yet, its quality and versatility at a wide variety of ages and in a broad swathe of cask types means that not only is Caol Ila populous, it’s also perennially popular with whisky enthusiasts.
The most mainstream cask type from today’s selection of The Single Cask bottlings – a 12 year old Caol Ila matured in an ex-bourbon hogshead (#307362) – but perhaps not the most mainstream of profiles when all said and done. 144 bottles were produced and are available directly from The Single Cask shop for £65.
The first of two Caol Ila releases in the latest batch of TWE single casks. This one – the younger of the two has spent its mere 7 years inside a single ex-bourbon hogshead before being bottled at 59.1% ABV. Still available directly from The Whisky Exchange for £62.95.
The youngest bottling from this year’s series of London Whisky Show exclusives comes in the form of a sherry matured 9 year old Caol Ila. But it’s potentially not just any sherry matured 9 year old Caol Ila. When the Whisky Exchange team were trawling through a sea of stacked casks, they noticed one which was stencilled with the name ‘Gonzalez & Byass’ – a name which sherry producer Gonzalez Byass (dropping the ‘&’) ceased trading under over a 100 years ago. Does this mean that the sherry cask is over 100 years old – well maybe, maybe not (things are filled and refilled for periods of time – some of which can be quite lengthy). But it’s certainly exceedingly old by modern standards and not a 'seasoned' cask which most distilleries now extensively utilise.
Rarely a day goes by in whisky world without someone, be they producer or commentator, making a statement about consistency. The largest whisky producers frequently roll out the ‘c’ word or its equivalent in order to maintain brand perceptions and customer loyalty - faithful vattings, reliable blends, balanced wood policies – even constant pricing structures. And at times these proclamations sadly ring hollow. Meanwhile on the Internet, enthusiasts seem to enjoy little more than comparing seemingly identical bottlings sometimes produced decades apart and suggesting that their differences either substantiate the notion of consistency being a myth or are reflective of diminishing product quality. Neither of these positions seems particularly helpful as generalisations.
The second Caol Ila from the final 2021 release of TWE single casks has been matured in “a single cask”?! – which I’m guessing can only be ex-bourbon but is entirely unspecified on The Whisky Exchange website. Nevertheless, 13 years of maturation, 55.6% of ABV and £84.95 of cost.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that throughout the course of today you’re going to hear one thing repeatedly said about this year’s TWE Black Friday release - “It’s just a Caol Ila.” I’m also going to go out on a limb and tell you why I believe that this all too regularly intoned, throwaway dismissal does a disservice to one of the world’s most versatile distillates.