I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that throughout the course of today you’re going to hear one thing repeatedly said about this year’s TWE Black Friday release - “It’s just a Caol Ila.” I’m also going to go out on a limb and tell you why I believe that this all too regularly intoned, throwaway dismissal does a disservice to one of the world’s most versatile distillates.
Let’s recap. Previously on TWE Black Friday:
2017 - Speyside 16 year old - 582 bottles
2018 - Orkney Islands 18 year old - 1,400 bottles
2019 - Speyside Distillery 21 year old - 1,800 bottles
2020 - Highland Distillery 22 year old - 1,400 bottles
2021 - Speyside Distillery 22 year old - 1,800 bottles
Named distillery casks virtually always cost more to acquire and likewise command a higher premium than their unnamed equivalents once bottled. It being known as being Ardbeg or Bowmore in bottle and it being physically labelled as being Ardbeg or Bowmore are poles apart – both in terms of the initial cask purchase and in terms of their bottled enthusiast appeal.
Ah, but this isn’t Ardbeg or Bowmore Matt – “it’s just Caol Ila.”
Indeed, but scarcity isn’t any type of equivalent to intrinsic quality…
With a production capacity of upwards of 6.5m LPA per annum, Caol Ila’s scale (the largest on Islay and the 10th largest throughout Scotland) often seems to distract from its spirit quality and consummate versatility. Despite only the greatest of cock-ups resulting in a bottled Caol Ila that is anything less than ‘quite good’ – the output of the distillery and its regularity as an independent bottling both frequently work against it in terms of its instant appeal to the sometimes baffling minds of modern-day whisky drinkers. Despite ardent protestations from enthusiasts that they’re not bothered by hard to obtain releases – and continued calls for in-vogue distilleries to either miraculously produce more or (equally miraculously) to create better allocations – unobtanium and keeping up with the Joneses all too often beats distillate excellence. People always want what they can’t have.
Consider Springbank, perhaps the most du jour of Scotch distilleries right now. Whilst Springbank produces undisputedly excellent whisky (most of the time at least) I would argue that its renown (and therefore desirability) has only been boosted further by its increasing difficulty to actually purchase. People not being able to get bottles of Springbank makes more people want to get bottles of Springbank. And this in turn results in more people talking about getting or not getting bottles of Springbank. Catch 22. Now imagine if Springbank (somehow) became a 6.5m LPA distillery – do you really think that its allure would remain quite so strong? I’m going to say not….because people always want what they can’t have.
I’ve written about Caol Ila extensively (indeed, this is my 48th post on the distillery). And looking back over past musings, it is the adaptability of Caol Ila that I think is its strongest trait. Whisky is frequently described as being a versatile spirit – often this is merely referring to its incredibly broad range of aromas of flavours. But the adaptability of whisky can also be looked at from the perspective of its production processes and of its maturation. Whilst commonalities can be drawn across the methods used to produce whisky – the end results are far from the same. Some spirits work better younger, some older. Some spirits shine brighter in particular cask types, and some offer their strongest personality when delivered with the addition of peat. At the same time, there are whiskies whose inherent characteristics operate equally as capably under a wide variety of conditions. Caol Ila is to my mind the epitome of such versatility.
Now flip the table and imagine if Caol Ila was (like Springbank) only a 750,000 LPA distillery. Irrespective of the huge loss of blending stock – which still makes up the bulk of the distillery’s output – I daresay that the dearth of single malt bottlings (both OB and particularly IB) which would arise from far lower production levels would have enthusiasts thinking about this producer in very different terms.
And that’s a somewhat silly mindset right? Caol Ila does exactly what enthusiasts clamour for other smaller distilleries to do – it produces ample volumes of varied and versatile whisky that’s of notably high quality. Coupling this with the fact that many bottlings of Caol Ila come outside of official releases and you’ve not only got tons of good stuff – you’ve got tons of good stuff presented naturally and often at higher strengths.
Are you not entertained?
All too often and sadly increasingly in whisky – obvious quality becomes burned on an altar of ambiguous exclusivity. I’m likely not going to change any views here, but to me there’s simply no such thing as “just a Caol Ila”.
This year’s TWE capitalism celebration bottling is a small batch vatting of 16 year old Caol Ila casks – presumably, but not stated – ex-bourbon. 2,000 bottles (the largest Edition to date) are available at an ABV of 53.2%. The price is set at £95 – which I suspect will also get some chins wagging for not being an obvious bargain.
Whilst I’d err on the side of tending to agree – if you have a scout around at where current bottle prices are, you’ll quickly come to the (sad) realisation that £95 is now at the lower end of much of market for releases tipping over into this level of age. Compare if you will to the fanciful pricing of the official Feis Ila 15 year old Caol Ila. Everything is always relative.
Those interested in purchasing will find the bottle available from now (6am) over on The Whisky Exchange’s Black Friday page.
Nose: Concentrated with the holy trinity of all good Caol Ila – citrus, medicinalness and the minerality. Preserved lemons and lemon gels are offset against bandages, antiseptic and touches of bituminous tar whilst chiselled granite and beach pebbles reinforce a distinctive coastalness throughout. Deeper – touches of emergent polish hint at a developing maturity, whilst white chocolate, leaf mulch and smouldering seaweed add welcome complexity. The addition of water reveals cinnamon ball heat alongside langoustines, charcoal and damp ashiness.
Taste: Straddling bright, crisp fruitiness and dirty, pungent oiliness. Lemons lead into touches of quince, pink grapefruit and underripe pineapple. Then pickle juice, olive and machine oils and tarry smoke together with medicinal tinctures and newly chopped gorse. Finally, sweetness and spice from the cask – syrupy vanilla alongside well-judged pepperiness and a developing salty tang. Dilution here is interesting adding both a creaminess to the fruit complement, but also noticeably amping up the saltiness in the back palate.
Finish: Long and with palpable minerality – sand, shingle and sustained salinity.
The press bumph describes this 16 year old Caol Ila as just starting to tip over from the young and feisty side into the distillates’ more mature and complex facets. And I’d 100% agree with that. The expected triptych of Caol Ila character is present and correct throughout (particularly the coastalness) but at the same time there’s a delightful amalgamation of gutsiness and gracefulness that really shouldn’t work quite as well as it actually does.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be overly surprised – this is after all the ever-dependable Caol Ila – but nevertheless, this year’s Black Friday Edition does offer traits that you’d usually only find in younger and older bottlings – only both...at the same time. Very neat indeed.
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange