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.
Perhaps Caol Ila’s most interesting adaptability isn’t derived from its peated profile, but rather is its ability to still ably perform when produced unpeated. During the 1980s downturn, demand for Islay’s heavily peated distillate plummeted, but Caol Ila was able to acclimate itself to produce an unpeated, almost Highland style of spirit which it utilised to fulfil blending demands (and thus weather the downturn). The distillery still produces an annual unpeated bottling – not only is this particularly tasty, but it also remains true to the spirit’s inherent character. Nevertheless, infrequent sojourns into unpeated distillate are not where the appeal of Caol Ila usually lies – either for enthusiasts or for blending.
Whilst much of the distillery’s capacity (increased in 2011 with the addition of more washbacks) is utilised for Johnnie Walker, the remainder, either OB or IB offers enthusiasts an incredibly broad canvas of flexible single malt. And is usually peated to around 35ppm – around the same initial phenolic level of Lagavulin, but often noticeably less smoky in profile.
We’re deep into the 2020 Advent calendar now, with door 17 delivering Boutique-y’s twelfth batch from Caol Ila - a release of 1,489 bottles produced at an ABV of 48.1% and presumably matured in ex-bourbon casks. It’s not a new expression – the bottler not so long ago rolled out Batch 15 – and as such, this edition is long sold out in all of the ‘normal’ places. When originally available it clocked in at a shy over £70.
Nose: Quite chiselled with sand, slate and shingle. Pan-fried scallops are elevated with lemon balm, seaweed and sea breeze, whilst creamed rice and whipped cream are joined medicinal tinctures, shale gas and brine. In the background sweetness of meringue and herbalness from sage. Reduction presents a more earthy outlook with moist soils and damp leaves sitting with brass polish and wild honey.
Taste: Oily, viscid and with plenty of clingy body. Sweetness arrives first – tinned peaches. It’s followed by sweet wood smoke – charred staves, caramelised oak sugars and plenty of lemon oil-tinged peat influence. Smoked sausage follows with mineral notes of hewn granite. Water maintains the overall texture and structure of the whisky whilst adding further emphasis to the cask – growing white pepper sitting alongside sea water.
Finish: Medium and still maintaining the sweet coastal peat profile. Charcoal, granulated sugar, sweet dry oakiness. Water notable lengthens the finish with spices becoming substantially more lingering.
Boutique-y Caol Ila 11 year old Batch 12 is a perfectly formed microcosm as to why this distillate is well-regarded. Here, whilst the hallmark notes of medical, mineral and lemon are present, their composition, alongside notably sweet oak sugars offers its own unique balance and helps this small-sized vatting stand out in a particularly crowded field of IB Caol Ila. Good stuff.
For Sorren’s thoughts on this Islay stalwart head over to OCD Whisky
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