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.
And so it was last Saturday when my Father-in-Law asked me to run an introductory tasting as part of his 70th Birthday celebrations. Rather than dig into my stocks of weird and wonderful things, I kept it simple, buying several rather handy triple-packs of Diageo’s Classic Malts (in neat 20cl bottles) to create a line-up of 6 whiskies that ran the gamut from light and floral Lowland through to punchy and coastal Islay/Island. And then it started…..
“Whisky is definitely much stronger than other spirits”
“Isn’t it all a bit rough?”
“I can’t imagine why you’d want to be drinking this neat”
Hmmm. Lots to unpick as we worked our way through Glenkinchie and Dalwhinnie and headed into Clynelish and Oban. So much so, that questions of production, or even of industry buzzwords ‘transparency’ and ‘terrior’ were quite simply so far removed the knowledge level of my audience that any attempt to outline them would invariably smack of expert syndrome – and lead to eyes glassing over. To the uninitiated, a beginning is a very delicate time. Whisky education at this level is just as much about nurturing passions and engendering interests as it is about facts and knowledge. I suppose it’s no different to learning to swim – you don’t start on the 10m diving board.
Three hours and many drams poured later I can’t say, hand on heart, that I’d taken a room of the great unwashed and converted them all to the way of whisky. But, I’d piqued the interest of a few them – into trying and enjoying a different, or unexpected expression, or simply of sampling whisky neat without their usual topper of a whole pint of ginger ale (folks have very differing ideas about dilution levels). And you know what? That’s actually good enough for me – as enthusiasts we’re often extremely insular in our thinking – we’re whisky people who talk to other whisky people. But, I’d challenge every single one of you to occasionally step outside the bubble once in a while – it’s a weird and inexplicable place, but you might return with a few new converts.
Of the six Diageo Classics I poured for this tasting, there’s only one that I’ve not already reviewed on The Dramble. So, let’s rectify that and put Caol Ila 12 year old under our microscope. Initially released in 2002, this entry-level Islay whisky is produced at 43% and is available for £43.95 from Master of Malt.
Nose: Crisp and clean with lemon barley, poached pear and a rather sweet peat smoke that’s part smoked seafood, part honey and engine fumes. Running throughout is coastalness, expressed both as salty water, but also as limestone cliffs. The addition of water brings out some cereal sweetness with touches of singed tobacco leaves, burnt meats and ozone.
Taste: The arrival is packed full of oil and brine. Tarry, ashy smoke joins pear drops, toffee fudge and salinity. The mid-palate expresses a chiselled but medicinal outlook with grassiness, grapefruit and lemons sitting with seaweed, bandages and iodine and hospital floor cleaner. Reduction adds more fruitiness with both apples and pears whilst also somewhat transposing the peat influence – less medicinal, more ashiness.
Finish: Medium in length, very ashy with lemon and lime zest
Caol Ila 12 year old might be seen as an entry-point bottle, but it’s far from meek in style. For those completely new to peat smoke there are much lighter, more accessible bottles to explore before hitting something as punchy as this classic malt. Personally I prefer my Caol Ila’s either younger and rawer or older and more austere, but nevertheless, this price-accessible bottling has a solid distinctiveness to it that makes it easy to recommend. If you’re already into your peat, this is a hearty daily drinker.