Caol Ila was completely demolished and rebuilt from the ground up in 1972, reopening in 1974 – only the pier-side warehousing was left standing. Virtually all of the facility was changed during this period – the barley and malting barns which once occupied the west side of the site became the new still house (with the previous two stills upgraded to six), and the kiln house was completely removed to make way for what is now the visitor centre and car park.
As you probably know, Caol Ila, like its sister Diageo Islay distillery Lagavulin now receives its barley from the Port Ellen maltings. The peat specification is the same for both sites at 35ppm, but Caol Ila’s longer fermentation, taller stills and gently declining lyne arms result in a new make spirit that is less overtly phenolic and more estery than is produced at Lagavulin.
Both of today's Caol Ila reviews come from Gordon & MacPhail and likewise, both were distilled in 1978 – just four years after the site was renovated – but long before the distillery introduced its own official single malt collection.
Bottle Name: Caol Ila 1978 bottled in 1990s
ABV: 40% Distillery: Caol Ila Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail (Spirit of Scotland) Region: Islay
This Caol Ila is a little bit mysterious – I cannot find any information on a 1978 Spirit of Scotland release whatsoever. My sample is simply labelled as ‘bottled in the 90s’ – looking at other Caol Ila Spirit of Scotland releases (including the 1981 – of which I’ve repurposed a bottle photo seeing as I can’t find anything of the 78s existence), they seem to vary in age. Recent bottlings have been between 7 and 12 years of age, however bottlings produced around the turn of the millennium are older at between 15 and 17 years. It’s therefore not too much of a stretch to posit that this 1978 is likely to have been bottled around 1993-1995 and is therefore likewise between 15 and 17 years old.
Nose: Out of the bottle, this is quite unusual – stewed plums and homemade lemonade meet coal dust. Underlying earthiness is reinforced with dried hay and a hint of farmyard. Running throughout, gentle minerality and dried orange peels. It’s an aroma set that feels somewhat typical of this distillery, but at the same time delivered in a slightly different form. Resting provides greater coherence and perhaps more distillery character – citrus peels, lightly smoked seafood and bisque and some golden maltiness.
Taste: A surprisingly full arrival for just 40% ABV – there’s both oiliness and weight – very good. Fruitiness is up first – orange segments, tinned pineapples and plenty of citrus zest. There’s no initial hit of peat, this comes during the development and is semi-ashy, semi-medicinal – rock dust, sand, surface cleaner and a tinge of iodine. In the back palate, chiselled minerality – a hewn limestone wall – as well as plenty of ever souring lemons. Resting is again time well spent – it allows the palate to relax and deliver much more of a coastal profile – cloudy billowing maritime smoke, salt and brine.
Finish: Medium and fairly dry. This has plenty of citrus and steeliness alongside a tinge of ashy coastal/medicinal smoke.
This Caol Ila does not totally follow the obvious aroma and flavour path that you’d expect from this distillery. All the elements are present, but the overall composition is slightly altered and only really recognisable in tail end of the palate and finish. As such, this makes for a rather interesting and analytical experience, whilst being perfectly tasty at the same time. This 1978 is, to coin a phrase, a grow-er not a show-er.
With thanks to Billy Abbott (@cowfish) for the sample.
Bottle Name: Caol Ila 1978 - 1992
ABV: 63.7% Distillery: Caol Ila Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail (Cask Stength) Region: Islay
This Gordon and MacPhail Caol Ila is not only exceptionally high in strength, it’s also composed of a two sets of casks that were distilled 5 months apart. Five casks (5347 to 5351) distilled on the 4th May 1978 were combined with twelve casks (11553 to 11563) distilled on the 19th October 1978. The bottling was produced in February of 1992 at a crackingly high ABV of 63.7% - when G&M indicate ‘cask strength’, they mean it.
Nose: Candyfloss sweetness combined with pronounced salinity and exceptionally lively lemon peels and lemon curd. Deeper fruits develop – poached pears, apricots and honeydew melon. Smoke is immediate and highly coastal – minerals, ozone, iodine and a touch of bromine. Underlying are gentle bakery aromas – buns and rolls – alongside golden syrup and toasted barley. Water adds some overt seafood flavours – sweet crab and salty prawns, as well as plenty of briny water.
Taste: This is bonkers drinkable – is the hydrometer reading of 63.7% correct? The delivery is of sharp and defined citrus, honey and melon. It is followed by a wave of coastal peat smoke – sweet, but full of salinity, scallops and crab cakes. Bitterness develops in the mid palate (it balances perfectly with the sweet fruits and the sour citrus) – balsamic, furniture polish, camphor and a touch of menthol. In the back palate, there are further bakery flavours – but they’re burnt – toast and charred pastry – they’re joined by a building pepperiness. The addition of water (which, amazingly, I don’t think is essential here) adds depth and nuance – burnt ends, meat stock and plenty of kippers. It also heightens minerality – sharp-edged granite and limestone quarries.
Finish: Exceedingly long with sweet but salty seafood and ashy coastal smoke.
I’m still rather blown away by how easy-going this Caol Ila is at such a high ABV. That said, this is still worth diluting as additional aromas and flavours come to the fore with just a touch of water. There’s a ton of distillery character here - and it’s all superbly defined and coherent. Quite excellent.