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.
Drinkers love to be surprised, and by and large the announcement of “another bottle of Caol Ila” just isn’t that exciting. Rarely a month goes by without the obligatory 53 featuring on the SMWS outturn menu. A quick Whiskybase check indicates that already this year drinkers have been bestowed with 126 different Caol Ila’s to choose from. Last year’s total (and 2020 was not quite ‘vintage’ for a whole host of reasons) exceeded 300. Yes, there’s a lot of them – and yes that does stem from the distillery possessing the excess capacity (the 9th largest in Scotland) outside of its blending requirements. But there’s more...
In a world where much of the whisky from Islay, outside of mainstay core releases, commands an ever-increasing premium should we really be morose about a readily available supply of largely accessibly priced peated whisky? Would we actually prefer there to be less Caol Ila out there? I’ve certainly heard and read suggestions to that end. However, this would be a grave mistake, and should not be something any enthusiast should wish for. Irrespective of any notions of repetitious bottlings, the availability and price of Caol Ila provides checks and balances on its Islay neighbours to a certain degree. Whilst it doesn’t prevent single cask Ardbeg moving out of the realms of affordability for most of us – it does at least shackle the bulk of the islands’ production from moving entirely into the luxury category. There will always be a peated whisky requirement – both for blending and for drinking – and Caol Ila is able to provide both of those things – and thus ensures that the wheels keep on turning. And that's saying nothing of the gateway effects that the spirit has in terms of encouraging wider whisky explorations.
And it does this whilst retaining, year after year, decade after decade a routinely excellent profile and a quite remarkable consistency.
In my book (and in many others), Caol Ila is arguably one of the most consistent of distillates out there. Its profile is defined, detailed, recognisable and well-loved – and it presents highly ably at a very wide variety of ages and across a broad swathe of cask types. To an extent where for every bottling that “tastes just like every other one” (no bad thing in my view when something is reliably excellent), there’s another which offers intricate divergences whilst still maintaining a poise between the spirit and the cask. I can count the number of truly poor Caol Ila’s I’ve encountered on one hand. And that’s a staggering feat considering the volume of production and ergo the large number of bottles of this spirit that are on the market at any one time – most of course via independent bottlers.
A glut of Caol Ila might necessitate you not buying them all (and honestly, that type of compulsive purchasing behaviour isn’t healthy for anyone) – but at the same time, its existence ensures that if you’ve ever looking to purchase a knowingly solid bottle of Islay whisky, there’s always plenty of choice – at price points to suit all budgets.
Quality is not defined by rarity. There’s a world of difference between what will end up gathering dust on a shelf/shrine and a bottling which really serves no other purpose than to be enjoyed as intended. When you’re presented with “another bottle of Caol Ila”, chances are that it’ll fall into this latter category – a bottle which should be opened. And that’s something to be grateful for – not gloomy.
Today’s “another” comes courtesy of Decadent Drinks and the next expression in their Equinox and Solstice series. Which, in a timely fashion is being released today for the Autumn Equinox. The bottling is a vatting of two 2007 refill hogsheads of Caol Ila matured for 13 years and bottled at the standard ABV for the series – 48.5%. You’ll find the bottle over on the Decadent Drinks website later today.
Nose: Preserved lemons, salted peanuts and leafy greens sit alongside chiselled coastalness from limestone cliffs and chalk escarpments. Salted chips (hold the vinegar) join cold cream and treated bandages whilst in the background, wet soil, white grapes and sea breeze establish depth. The addition of water presents clays and putties together with plenty of ozone and petrichor.
Taste: To borrow a word from Teun van Wel – “relaxed”. A well-integrated ensemble of polished lemons and limes sit with brass and floral asides of lavender and sunflowers. Alluvialness is high with granite and gravel alongside sandy beaches and seabed clays. Medicinalness is more to the fore now with coastal-tinged smoke represented by a floor cleaner swabbed over seawater licked boardwalks. Reduction is even more relaxed – lemon pie and an assortment of mosses and ferns. All quite leafy.
Finish: Medium to long in length with a fading combination of floral and medicinal smoke still supported by a strong maritime backbone.
Decadent Drinks Autumn Equinox edition offers some typical Caol Ila motes together with an atypical tranquillity. This calmer profile is usually only seen at older age statements – when it is necessarily accompanied by a much-reduced peat prominence. Here the smoke impact remains throughout – providing a thought-provoking and tasty interplay between power and peacefulness. The end result has a high level of drinkability with enough distillate character to be recognisably Caol Ila, but sufficient asides to differentiate it from a large number of its early teen peers. Neat.
Review sample provided by Decadent Drinks