I don’t think there’s any doubt that Islay malts are the rock stars of the Scotch world at the moment. I mean, Auchentoshan’s good stuff, but you don’t see huge, frenzied leaps in web traffic when they put out a cleverly named NAS special release. Extremely over-sherried, or over-heathered bottlings are not exactly pouring out of Speyside like the ridiculously peated stuff coming from the Queen of the Hebrides. Seems like most of the serious Scotch fiends out there (self included), when asked what their favorite style is, curl their lip a bit, lean in closer and say “I like the peaty stuff”. It doesn’t hurt that many people, bless their dainty little palates, cringe and cower at the merest whiff of Laphroaig…makes us feel special, rugged and in on some deep Scottish secret, despite having maybe only seen the place in pictures.
Like I said, count me in this group as well. Overpriced and gimmicky Octomores and Supernovas aside, I almost always lean (wistfully, I might add) towards the smokey, peaty, funky malts. Still, lately I’ve found myself really enjoying those other Islay malts, the lightly peated Bruichladdichs (-laddies?…whatever) and Bunnhabhains. These still reflect some the character of the island without getting into a “my PPM is bigger than yours” contest. They can be a bit more complex and intriguing than the usual smokey offerings, and I find it interesting to have a malt focus on other aspects of its terroir than just pungent, rotting bog junk. With that in mind, Caol Ila’s special 2009 release, the 10 Year Old “Unpeated Style”.
Caol Ila, one of my favorite Islays along with Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and probably Kilchoman, has been making an unpeated malt for years, usually for use in blends, but also releasing the occasional unpeated 8 year old single malt. Starting in 2007, they made the unpeated release an annual thing with 2009’s version being the first 10 year old. Aged in 1st fill bourbon barrels and limited to around 6000 bottles, this is a unique, cask strength glimpse into Caol Ila goodness without that pesky peat.
The Nose: Absolutely delicious malt and maple sugar goodness. There are some soft cocoa notes, a bit of ripe melon and lemon curd and just a tiny floral hint. After a little bit, I also thought I found some faint notes of white wine…Vouvray maybe? A really great (and obviously unique for Caol Ila) nose, I kept asking myself, “this is Islay?”
The Palate: Same lightly oily Caol Ila mouthfeel, but with such sweetness at first. More good maple sugar to start and then a big yet controlled fireball of alcohol, malt and a bit of apple cider. Towards the end, the Islay comes through more as it gets somewhat salty and I’d swear there’s a bit of peat in there…not smokey, just an ashy, slightly green, tar like tang. There’s also a ton of acidity, really mouth-watering…and with the sky-high alcohol, pretty numbing.
The Finish: Without the peat, it’s a little dependent on the alcohol to draw the finish out. Really nice Grain and fresh green hay work well with lingering acidity.
Thoughts: I had to taste this several times because I kept getting a little ripped each time I tried. By the time I was through a big dram, I’d be a little lit, standing on my chair shouting “screw it, this shit’s awesome! 110.7 points!” to no one in particular. I love Caol Ila, and this yearly unpeated adventure of theirs just makes me love them even more. Bold and a wee bit brash because of its age and ABV, this one’s also just really elegant, delicious and nuanced. Definitely a departure from their usual Islay profile, but with enough roots to tether it to its home…terrifically unique.
Though it’s not my favorite way to enjoy scotch, with such a high ABV, I thought I’d give this one a try with a bit of water. It held up fantastically well, more or less like someone just turned down the volume. The nose became a bit more Speyside-ish in a honeyed, floral way, and while the body stayed pretty much the same with the grain and the salty quality coming through a bit more. I think I still prefer it neat, but the addition of a bit of water, calmed it down nicely and made it perhaps a bit more “social”.
Caol Ila 10 Year Old “Unpeated Style”, Islay, 2009 Special Release
65.8% ABV, natural cask strength