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.
The 2015 unpeated release was the 10th in the series and two years older than the 2014 bottling at 17 years of age (thus, we can ascertain that Diageo are not simply using the same unpeated stock each time around). It’s bottled at 55.9% ABV and still fairly widely available for around £100. As much as it’s interesting to see traditionally unpeated malts matured in casks which previously held peated whisky (or indeed just produced with a batch of peated barley), the opposite is also the case. Whilst Caol Ila is not Islay’s most smoky whisky, it nevertheless has a very distinctive and consistent character that one would usually associate with both pear fruitiness, but also the coast. Let’s see how much of that character comes through when the peat has been taken out of the equation.
Nose: Malty, fruity and woody. Barley and cereals are immediate and are supported by a medley of fruits – pear (as one would expect), ripe apples and gooseberries. Older wood comes through quite strongly – hints of brass polish and varnish, warehouses and years old decking. Honey and vanilla are joined by some bakery aromas – a touch yeasty in fact – waffles. In the background there’s both wet soil earthiness as well as some minerality – almost peat smoke, (even though this is from unpeated barley). The addition of water increases the sweetness levels, adding more honey, it likewise adds some underlying grassiness.
Taste: Malty again with a good arrival that delivers much of what the nose promised. Roasted peaches, apricots, apples and pears, again with some bakery/breadiness – rather akin to a mixed fruit crumble. These sit with earthiness that is much more umami than the previous wet soils – think forest mushrooms. Woodiness levels are quite high – older, dusty, but now with some slight sourness in the mid-palate. Spicing comes through strongly with ginger and real pepperiness from both black pepper and bell pepper. A few drops of water once again heightens the sweetness, and in this instance reduces the earthy qualities.
Finish: Medium in length and bringing peppery wood. Water changes the finish, reducing spice and adding in some coastal qualities – salt and minerality - shingles and slate.
I find Caol Ila 1997 17 year old Unpeated Style to be both tasty and also fairly complicated. This is not simply a whisky with one of its distinctive characteristics removed - the absence of peating allows for some of the underlying character to shine, whilst still remaining firmly grounded in its fruity, malty and slightly grassy roots. It takes water well if you’re looking for increased fruit and sweetness, but works equally at 55.9% where the earthy and spicy flavours really pop. It might be different to the Caol Ila norm, but it’s still pretty scrumptious all the same. Worth trying.