*Thanks to the good folks at Impex Beverages for the sample.
There is a tendency, and it may well be my own, to over-romanticize parts of the Scotch whisky world, especially the part called Islay. We’ve all seen those great pictures of the Laphroaig or Ardbeg distilleries, stark white against the inclement weather of the North Sea, or the quaint little villages of Port Ellen and Bowmore, or that shipwreck near Bunnahabhain. There’s a remoteness to Islay that quickly inspires these sentiments, especially for those who haven’t been there and don’t know any better (me, for example). It’s easy to picture each distillery on this little whisky mecca of an island as being appropriately old, scenic and lovingly producing each drop of single malt whisky as if they were producing their own children. But, like many things in life, the reality is a little different.
Located on the even more remote north-eastern coast of Islay, Caol Ila seems a perfect candidate for over-romanticizing. Right on the water, looking across at Jura, with the tiny ferry-port town of Port Askaig nearby, how could this not be an idyllic, nostalgia tinged setting for whisky-making? By being owned by a huge beverage conglomerate (Diageo) and mostly serving the needs of an unstoppable global blend, that’s how. Certainly Caol Ila has its rich history, being first established in 1846, and certainly Caol Ila makes excellent, delicious whisky, (one of my favorites, actually) but one look at the large modern distillery (still beautifully situated right on the water) and the incredible volume of spirits it churns out year after year and a lot of that romanticized bullcrap goes by the wayside. Caol Ila is the 5th largest malt distillery in Scotland and is the largest distillery on Islay by a long shot. While serious whiskyheads extol the virtues of its single malt, the vast, vast…vast majority of whisky produced there, both peated and unpeated styles, goes into the omnipresent Johnny Walker line. In fact, Caol Ila was rarely seen as a single malt until 2002 when it’s core range debuted and then gained even more exposure when in 2005, it joined Diageo’s Classic Malts line-up. Today, it’s range includes the 12 year old, the 18 year old, a special Distiller’s Edition, the now yearly unpeated release and the occasional “limited edition” bottling. This straight-from-the-barrel, cask strength expression from Blackadder’s Raw Cask Series is a great way to try this distillery’s excellent juice in a relatively unexpurgated manner.
The Nose: Somewhat softly, but quite insistently peaty but with a mild cocoa-tinged sweetness. The peat is a little medicinal with some faint band-aid notes and green wood smoke. A bit of fresh-cut hay and tar in the sun as well. Subtle notes of fruit in chocolate fondue and raw ginger round things out. Behind that, lighter notes of canned olives, just a touch of honey baked ham. A bit of water plays up the fruit and ginger a little more, adding more of an herbal quality, but it also quiets the peat and savory notes a little too much for my taste.
The Palate: Wow, compared to the slightly restrained and expected nose, the first sip just explodes across the palate in a bright, eye-popping scattering of fruit and peat. The peat is still medicinal, but less so as more brine and dry wood smoke come through. The fruit is harder to place, it’s citrusy but not too acidic, almost like too-sweet pink lemonade. The alcohol and wood start getting a bit too strong towards the end…water, I need water… Water tones down that initial burst, makes it creamier and less brash. The citrus notes open up nicely, sweet lemon curd and honey, but the woodsmoke peat notes carry on quite nicely with a bit more herbal complexity. It’s still a touch woody at the end but water certainly helps that as well.
The Finish: A nice, warming finish of slightly sweet fireplace woodsmoke with a little ashiness and more drying oak notes
Thoughts: Eyebrow raising to be sure and fairly delicious. The nose, while very good, was also along the lines of what I expected from Caol Ila, whereas that palate really jumped out and slapped me around a bit…in a good way. This is a tricky one, though, because the high ABV really demands a bit of water, which unfortunately seems to tone down some of the more interesting notes on the nose. On the other hand, on the palate, a bit of water helps one go from sitting bolt-upright, staring at one’s glass, to reclining languidly, savouring the complexity a little more.
Blackadder Raw Cask 1996 Caol Ila 14 year old, Islay