ABV: 43% Distillery: Caol Ila Region: IslayAge: 18
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.
Distillation dramatically reduces the measurable phenol content of new make spirit – usually down to less than half of the original level of the malted barley. Maturation reduces this even further – phenols are absorbed and transformed by the contact of spirit with wood. Though it’s worth noting that there are marked differences in the perceptions of phenolic aromas and flavours if the oak has been subjected to charring (a process which also creates phenols – though different ones to those found in peat!).
Regardless, when purchasing a well-matured peated whisky, you would be wrong to expect that this would automatically equate to stronger more concentrated smoke flavours – almost always the opposite is true. I'm sure that most of The Dramble's readership knows this only too well - but there's still a real lack of general understanding around the variance in the perception of peat smoke vs. length of maturation period.
Today's review typifies this inherent relationship between smoke and time - Caol Ila 18 year old.
Finding out any details of the cask composition of Caol Ila 18 year old is no easy task it seems. Whilst it’s obviously an ex-bourbon led expression, it’s not immediately clear what type of ex-bourbon casks are in play here. I’d go out on a limb to guess that there’s a good proportion of refill hogsheads in the mix here – utilised to allow a more mellow maturation with reduced wood interactivity. The bottling is not technically a batch whisky in terms of labelling, but Whiskybase indicates that there’s over a dozen releases from 2004 – 2016 so one might expect that batch variance is a possibility (and therefore this could well be an ideal whisky to earmark for a re-review in the future). For clarity, our review bottling is the most recent version from 2016 – like all others, it’s delivered at 43% ABV.
Nose: Pronounced but lenient peat smoke that’s a touch herbal – smouldering mosses and heather, and a touch coastal – brine and seaweed. The overall effect is warming, sweet and with some ashy/chalkiness – midway between coal dust and bathroom tile grout. It’s certainly more immediately restrained than its younger stablemate. Lemon is on the menu along with grapefruit – both provide a tart and slightly mineral edge. Orchard fruits (pear mainly) and a hint of something more tropical (mango possibly?) add further juiciness. In the background, warmed doughy buns and buttered toast. A few drops of dilution brings out a medley of seafood – crab and scallops, alongside liquorice and vanilla.
Taste: The palate is bolder, but the arrival still holds back on the smoke for the time being – it’s syrupy (almost textural) and delivers salted caramel, lemon and lime zest, brined seafood and rocky minerals. The mid to back palate is where the peat is contained – it builds quickly and offers brine, smoked fish, tar and antiseptic. But, it’s worth noting, that all of these have been softened by the duration of maturation, so the fruit elements still have plenty of room to express themselves. The addition of water brings out orange influence – zest and juice, as well as adding in some fizzing smoky citrus sherbet.
Finish: Medium and more cask-driven at this point – sappy oak, steeped tea and white pepper.
Caol Ila 18 year old is graceful, complex and relaxed. Its strength (and perhaps appeal) lies in its mellowness compared to the 12 year old – and as such it would probably be a good starter whisky (flavour-wise) for those new to Islay Malts. However, at 18 years of age, it comes with a price label associated with that length of maturation – twice the price of the 12 year old. Then again, the venerable 25 year old has now reached the dizzying heights of £180 (ouch!), so perhaps the 18 year old is a bit of a sweet spot? Either way, this is a very solid, fruiter expression from Caol Ila that’s perfectly restrained, and easy to recommend.