Caol Ila 35 year old (Diageo Special Releases 2018), 58.1%
Single Malt Scotch | $989
A rare veteran bottling from Caol Ila, and the oldest of the 2018 Special Releases, this was aged in refill American oak hogsheads and refill European oak butts. The nose is fragrant and inviting, with dried fruit, ginger, and beach bonfire. Vibrant tropical fruit on the palate, with cinnamon and developing brine-sodden peat. Bold fruit flavors along with white pepper and soft peat remain in the lengthy finish. (3,276 bottles) Collectible
Although aged in refill, then active hoggies, and finally sherry, there’s more smoke
than oak here, a smoke like the aroma of a fire clinging to a tweed jacket. A
note akin to wilting spinach gives way to more conventional strawberries and
cream, but always mixed with seashore breezes. This is Caol Ila in deep and
bold mood with green fig, banana, and a sweet center. Water gives greater
integration. You might (just) be able to get this. Do it. (distillery only) £99
Clearly Caol Ila; it’s the way that the oily smokiness seems to lean into the nose, bearing with it wet oilskins, a barely smoldering wood fire, light seashore elements (drying crab shells), and very pure fruit, which then opens to classic smoked ham aromas. Retronasally, there’s a touch of green pea pod. The smokiness is more assertive than normal on the tongue, with olive oil, deep fruits, and a pine-scented juniper note. Another belter. (The Whisky Exchange only) £155
Unpeated Caol Ila has become a staple in Diageo’s Special Releases program. This year’s expression was matured in a combination of refill and rejuvenated American oak barrels and bodega European oak butts. Fresh and spicy on the nose, with tropical fruit aromas. Creamy on the palate, with fruit-and-nut milk chocolate bars, plus notes of developing citrus. The finish is slightly earthy, with wood spices.
Caol Ila 30 year old (Diageo Special Release 2014), 55.1%
Single Malt Scotch | $700
More smoke than is common from this distillery and age. The aromas are food-related: initially roast ham with caramelized sugars, then a clambake, then oven-roasted lobster. With water, a distinct whiff of the goat shed (nice, by the way). The palate is refined and mature, but with fresh fruits retained, with oak and smoke beautifully integrated. A mature Caol Ila in similar vein to the excellent (and significantly more keenly priced) 25 year old. (7,638 bottles)
Caol Ila 12 year old Feis Ile bottling 2012, 60.4%
Single Malt Scotch | $133.00
Often overshadowed by other noisier neighbors, it is time to reconsider Caol Ila—and this is a fine place to start. Coming from a refill cask it has a nose of sweet crab, ham with cider glaze, and teasing maritime smoke. The palate mixes salt taffy with top-end peppery olive oil, allowing the flavors to cover the palate while the smoke rumbles along constantly before a salt-laden finish. Superlative balance. Find one of those 620 bottles! £85
Douglas of Drumlanrig (distilled at Caol Ila), Cask #6616, 1985 vintage, 25 year old, 53.9%
Single Malt Scotch | $150.00
Soft and gentle (for Caol Ila, that is), thanks to the 25 years of aging. Plenty of creamy vanilla and honey to go with the malty foundation, along with coal tar, licorice root, and olive, with a hint of brine, juniper, unsweetened dark chocolate, and tobacco (cigars in a humidor?). Very nice. (A Julio’s Liquors exclusive.)
Mackillop's Choice (distilled at Caol Ila), 15 year old, 1990 vintage, 43%
Single Malt Scotch | $75.00
Fresh and quite aromatic. Nice interplay between soothing malty sweetness and honest “naked” Caol Ila notes (in the sense that all the classic Caol Ila flavors are exposed-leafy smoke, tarry rope, salt & pepper spice, seaweed, and olive). An evolving whisky, with a phenolic, briny crescendo that lingers. Nicely done.
Pale gold color. Aromas and flavors of peat smoke, seaweed, lemon grass, olives, and green peppercorns. Medium bodied, and slightly oily in texture. Long, dry peat smoke finish. Caol Ila is an Islay dram that Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Bowmore fans must become acquainted with. Although distllery bottlings are not available here in the U.S., many independent bottlers offer it. This expression is young, vibrant, and exciting.
Gordon & MacPhail (distilled at Caol Ila), 14 year old, 1991 vintage, 46%
Single Malt Scotch | $75.00
Finished in cognac wood. The cognac wood influence might dominate other whiskies, but the Coal Ila is big enough for challenge. If anything, it seems to contribute a silky elegance to what would otherwise be a brooding, bare-knuckled whisky;. It works nicely. Notes of germinating barley, vanilla cream, grape preserve, and peat bonfire, with a salty, smoky finish. (Available in the Chicago area.)
Gordon & MacPhail Cask Strength 2005 (distilled at Caol Ila), 57.3%
Single Malt Scotch | $100
Aged in first-fill sherry butts, this cask strength vintage from Gordon & MacPhail features a nose which opens with savory ginger, becoming more fragrant, plus vanilla, fudge, and warm leather. Oily in the mouth, with ripe cherries, sweet spices, pipe tobacco, and new leather. Nutty and slightly earthy. Citrus fruit, dry spicy peat, and black pepper in the finish.
Funny to think how recently Caol Ila was an Islay giant that was kept pretty much under wraps by its owner. These days it has cemented its reputation as the island’s Mr. Consistent. This version shows its character the best, a nose that mixes seashore and grass with a distinct hint of smoked bacon. The peatiness isn’t dominant, but flows throughout the palate, scenting, lifting, and subtly changing the mix. A delicious oiliness makes it a great food whisky.
Caol Ila Unpeated 1997 17 year old (Diageo Special Release 2015), 55.9%
Single Malt Scotch | $140
Aged in first-fill American oak, this shows a real brightness, crisp fruit, and some smoke—it’s not really unpeated—and wet grass, before moving into pear and tarragon. The palate is intense, with a hay note, then an almost fino sherry-like note before sashimi emerges. Reduced, there’s more of a soft flow, though there’s still a touch of green olive minerality. A steal at this price. Snap it up.
Caol Ila in unpeated guise. There’s no age statement, but what you get is a mix of the fresh and the mature: a vibrant attack with fresh Victoria plum, grapes, and a hint of oiliness. Give it time and the sensation is like afternoon tea at your auntie’s, with thickly-buttered scones dripping with honey or pineapple jam. The palate is equally sweet and gentle, and only needs a little drop of water to reveal light spice. A wee beauty.
Jewels of Scotland (distilled at Caol Ila), 1984 vintage, 50%
Single Malt Scotch | $170.00
Bottled in 2004 and still in circulation. A very traditional Caol Ila. Not a heavy-bodied whisky, but it throws a strong punch. Notes of tarry rope infused with seaweed and brine, all on an oily, malty, vanilla foundation. Throw in some orchard fruit, Manzanilla olive, black licorice stick, and soot, with brine and Tellicherry pepper on the finish. Clean, fun, and dynamic.
Like the Clynelish 14 year old also reviewed in this issue, it is nice to see Diageo finally introduce official distillery bottlings of Caol Ila here in the U.S. (after being available in the UK for many years now). My suitcases were getting quite heaving on my return trips from Scotland. This is a splendid Coal Ila. It is wonderfully vibrant. Understandably, the immediate impact on the palate is the peat smoke, but there's so much else going on here, too: smoked olives, seaweed, salt and pepper, all placed on a gently sweet bed of toffee and vanilla fudge. Lingering smoke, olives, and seaweed on the finish.
Gordon & MacPhail (distilled at Caol Ila) 15 year old, 40%
Single Malt Scotch | $85.00
Amber gold color. An exciting aroma-classic Islay. It is very phenolic, reminiscent of standing downwind of a peat kiln. Interwoven spice (especially pepper), seaweed, and sweet & sour notes add complexity. Light to medium in body, but quite oily. Nicely balanced flavors of peat smoke, seaweed, salt & pepper, all wrapped up in a gentle sweetness. Lingering peat smoke and spice on the finish. Yet another example of Caol Ila's fine pedigree. This bottling has great balance, and I especially enjoy how the smoke and sweetness marry together. My only criticism is that it is a bit soft for Caol Ila. I would love to try this whisky at 46 or 50% ABV, which would give it a bit more guts.
A rounded and mature affair. The 25 years in oak has made it a bit more refined (and drier on the palate) compared to younger expressions. All the classic Caol Ila notes are stillthere-mustard, seaweed, olives, damp peat, salt and pepper. A touch of vanilla wafer, anise, smoked almonds, and tarry rope add complexity. Those of you who prefer Ardbeg 17 over the 10, and Laphroaig 15 over the 10, will be attracted to this whisky when compared to Caol Ila's younger siblings. But at $225, it's an expensive date, isn't it?
Caol Ila 'Unpeated Style,' 10 year old (2009 Release), 65.8%
Single Malt Scotch | $60.00
Caol Ila makes unpeated whisky for blenders, but it rarely gets bottled as a single malt. Here’s a very revealing opportunity to find out what Caol Ila tastes like without the smoke. Good viscosity and rather sweet, showing thick, honeyed vanilla, gobs of fruit (lemon drops, lime tart, ripe Bartlett pear, kiwi), mint jelly, and cut grass. Its sea influence finally emerges towards the finish with brine and just a hint of seaweed. Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain are now bottling peated whiskies, and Caol Ila does just the opposite. This is an interesting diversion, but I am missing the added dimension of peat smoke in this Caol Ila.
Caol Ila 18 year old (Diageo Special Releases 2017), 59.8%
Single Malt Scotch | $100
This unpeated version of Caol Ila was matured in refill American oak hogsheads. The nose is quite reticent, with subtle vanilla and milk chocolate notes. Big, fizzy-sweet fruit notes on the palate, with caramel, rock pools, hot spices, plain chocolate, and very mild wood smoke. Bubble gum and peppery chocolate in the medium-length finish.
This is to be a permanent addition to the core Caol Ila range, but it will raise a few eyebrows, completely ignoring the current peat battle between Ardbeg and Bruichladdich and heading off into an altogether more refined and delicate direction. This is a dignified and complex malt, which doesn’t give everything up immediately. There’s soft pear and guava on the nose, and the trademark oiliness and distinctive peat are there, but there’s a buttery quality, too, as well as some brine and spice, apple pip, and traces of aniseed. You get a sense of its age late on, with some oaky tannins and sharper spice, but overall this is an unhurried, complex, and sweet whisky with just enough peat to keep it honest. Very impressive. (Limited general releases, excluding the U.S.)
Unusual, insofar as this is the one chance a year that drinkers get to try Caol Ila’s other expression: the unpeated version, which — and here’s a bit of history for you — helped save the distillery during the lean period of the whisky loch in the early 80s. Rather than this just being Caol Ila with the peat stripped out, the team made it in a different fashion — but there are still hints of commonality.
For example, the grassy note that usually lies beneath the smoke is the lead aroma here, and it’s not any old grass, but wet grass — like skidding on a football (soccer) field. The mind keeps looking for smoke, but apart from a hint of birch smoke (which could come from the (refill) cask), it’s whistle-clean and fruity, and with a touch of water, fills with an aroma of toffee popcorn, custard, and pears.
The palate continues in this light fashion with melon balls and fruit cocktail. This potentially bland fleshiness is given a perkiness thanks to the high alcohol and, again, a jag of acidity. Bizarrely, on the finish, I pick up slight saltiness. A fun dram.
Gordon & MacPhail “Private Collection” Madeira Wood Finish (distilled at Caol Ila), 1998 Vintage, 10 year old, 46%
Single Malt Scotch | $70.00
Bright fruit throughout (red raspberry, strawberry-rhubarb pie, gooseberry, red currant, nectarine), honeyed malt, dark chocolate, tarry rope, seaweed soaked in olive brine, and ground pepper. Tarry finish. Nicely balanced, well-defined flavors, and fully mature at 10 years of age.
Gordon & MacPhail (distilled at Caol Ila), 8 year old, 1996 vintage, 58.1%
Single Malt Scotch | $55.00
The Islay character is most evident in the younger whisky expressions, before the oak has tamed them. This whisky is a perfect example: an uninhibited, incredibly powerful Caol Ila, thumping out notes of tarry rope, damp peat, kippers, and seaweed. Background spices (salt, pepper, ginger) add intrigue, while a firm foundation of vanilla malt struggles to provide soothing comfort. Extreme Islay whisky. (A Binny’s Beverage Depot exclusive.)
Caol Ila Unpeated 15 year old (Diageo Special Release 2014), 60.39%
Single Malt Scotch | $120
The now-annual unpeated release shows its high strength on the nose, but under the burn is a clean, mineral, and slightly lean Caol Ila with just a tiny whiff of smoke. A mix of grassiness/herbal notes, with delicate white fruits that plump out into tinned fruit salad, gooseberry, and fresh pineapple. The palate is sweet and cake-like, while the heat enhances its salty tang. Delightful, sweet, and long. (10,668 bottles)
Cadenhead’s (distilled at Caol Ila) 22 year old, 52.2%
Single Malt Scotch | $156
With no great wood on show, this is a Caol Ila which is time—not oak—driven. A very scented, nay herbal start, like bouquet garni with light smoke, grapefruit, sea-washed stones, ozone, and heather blossom. The retention of aromatics is gorgeous. Water increases the peat effect but diminishes the aromatics, so take your choice. Well worth a look.
Restrained, ozonic, with no great smokiness to open, but there is a touch of green grass behind meadow flowers and salt-washed stones so typical of the distillery. With water another marker—drying fishing nets—comes through, with breaths of the sea. Subtle and refined. More smoke on the palate, where it’s like a flowering currant bush on fire. Great balance of different elements: smoke, fragrance, oil, acidity. With water, real saltiness comes through. Very good. £99
This is Caol Ila not only in unpeated guise, but from a ‘bodega-treated’ sherry butt. Full and lush, the distillery’s pear and melon here are in super-ripe guise alongside sweet biscuits, mashed banana, and Mars bar. With water, it’s more a cabinetmaker’s workshop—but isn’t woody. The mouth is sweet and concentrated with jabs of raspberry and hedgerow fruits. Who needs peat? My best value bottling this issue.
Unpeated Caol Ilas have become a regular in the Special Releases portfolio and this expression from 2000 is the eleventh to appear. The early nose is reticent and faintly floral, with freshly sliced green apples. Sharp and sweet on the palate, with malt and citrus fruit, and even a hint of mint. Ginger, mixed nuts, aniseed, and more mint in the medium-length finish. Diageo Special Releases 2016 bottling.
Identifiably Caol Ila, with that light juniper note, lime, and very calm smoke. This sense of control continues as it opens very slowly into vanilla/cream with a little hint of salt, then fresh lychee. It is hot, so do water as this introduces a massively salty retro-nasal effect under which is this sweetly gentle mid-palate. Lovely balance.
Gordon & MacPhail “Private Collection” Port Wood Finish (distilled at Caol Ila), 1998 Vintage, 10 year old, 46%
Single Malt Scotch | $70.00
Sweet, viscous, and weighty; much more so than its sister whisky (reviewed above) that was finished in Madeira casks. But the same Caol Ila DNA is here — tar, olive brine, pepper — along with fleshy red fruit and chocolate. Lingering ripe fruit and tar on the finish. Save this one for after dinner, or with a book at bedtime.
Dun Bheagan (distilled at Caol Ila) 1993 Vintage, 10 year old, 43% ABV
Single Malt Scotch | $56.00
An unusual Caol Ila, in that it was finished in a rum cask. The rum influence is subtle - which I like - and it offers a new dimension to the whisky without blunting that Caol Ila character we have come to either love or (for some of you) despise. Olives, seaweed, fire smoke, salt and pepper notes are wrapped up nicely in a malty/caramel blanket. Peppery, smoky finish that lingers on like the embers of an all-night bonfire.
Scott's Selection (distilled at Caol Ila), 1984 vintage, 53.5%
Single Malt Scotch | $215.00
Caol Ila enthusiasts will be familiar with the tarry rope, seaweed, brine, and white pepper. All this is underpinned nicely by soft, sweeter notes of dark chocolate and vanilla nut truffle. Subtle underlying juniper, horehound, and mint adds intrigue. Nice oily texture with a pleasing dry finish. Time has tempered this Caol Ila, but it has aged gracefully.
Signatory (distilled at Caol Ila), 14 year old, 1990 vintage, 56.2%
Single Malt Scotch | $50.00
Light to medium in body (and quite pale in color), but quite invigorating. A flirtatious vanilla sweetness at the front of the palate quickly evolves into spicy, peppery, grassy notes. The whisky evolves further, expressing notes of smoke, tar, chewy seaweed, brine, feint green tea and olives. A persistent, if delicate, honey sweetness hangs on throughout to offer some gentility. Lingering, smoky finish. A raw whisky, but somehow compelling. An excellent value too! (Bottled exclusively for Binny's Beverage Depot.)
Gordon & MacPhail 'Connoisseurs Choice' (distilled at Caol Ila), 13 year old, 1991 vintage, 46%
Single Malt Scotch | $70.00
An interesting contrast to the Signatory bottling reviewed above. While expressing a similar fundamental flavor profile, this one is a more polished affair and not as daring. It is fuller in body, nicely rounded, and expresses a sweeter foundation (less honey, more toffee and caramel).
Douglas Laing Provenance (distilled at Caol Ila) 6 year old, 46%
Single Malt Scotch | $73
Pale straw. This is a classic young Caol Ila, all elbows and knees. There is sweetness, but it’s counteracted by this briny edge and an aroma like firelighters in among smoldering peat. Shut your eyes and it could be mezcal. The smoke envelops the palate while you pick out edible seaweed and smoked oyster on the tongue. Very bright and would make a good aperitif/highball. £50
Ci6 Elements of Islay (distilled at Caol Ila), 61.2%
Single Malt Scotch | $101
Pale straw. Delicate and a little akin to chilled manzanilla sherry: fresh almond, salinity, light yeast. Vibrant, with the smoke held in check. The palate is much sweeter, with finally some cask-derived sugars beginning to show. Then it rushes to the shoreline and takes a gulp of water, giving an effect like saltwater taffy. It needs water to flesh the palate out. £60/500 ml
Without water, this is an aggressive malt, sharp and acerbic. With water, it’s still more in your face than any official bottling. Where you tend to associate Caol Ila with oily, peaty, and maritime characteristics, this is altogether more feisty and ballsier, with a glance to the big three peaty distilleries in the south of Islay, and even a nod to its peppery cousin on Skye. On the nose there is peat, but it is tempered by dark chocolate; some citrus there, too. The taste is quite sharp, with bitter lemon, licorice, and sooty peat to the fore. Certainly an interesting take on this intriguing distillery, and far removed from last year’s relatively gentle 25 year old release, but there are questions over the balance, and whether it’s a better whisky is a moot point.
Gordon & MacPhail (distilled at Caol Ila), cask #00/3454, 15 year old, 1991 vintage, 46%
Single Malt Scotch | $85.00
One of a series of single cask, wine-finished Caol Ilas. This one is finished in a claret (Bordeaux) wine cask. The claret adds some bright red fruit notes (raspberry, red currant) and red licorice to accompany the smoke, brine, olive, and vanilla-laced malt. I have tasted some claret/Bordeaux wood-finished whiskies where the wine was too dominant, but this one achieves a nice balance.
Gordon & MacPhail (distilled at Caol Ila), 12 year old, 1991 Vintage, 40%
Single Malt Scotch | $60.00
Notes of smoked olives and an earthy peatiness wrapped inside layers of sweetness (honey, caramel and light toffee). The whisky is laced with seaweed and pepper for added zest, with a long smoky and peppery finish. It shows enough maturity, yet it is young enough to let the true Caol Ila character shine through. I would like to have seen this whisky bottled at a higher strength and not chill-filtered.
Caol Ila Unpeated 12 year old Special Release 2011, 64%
Single Malt Scotch | $84.00
An established regular member of Diageo’s annual set of Special Releases, this expression celebrates the lesser-known side of Islay’s largest distillery; its production of a non-smoked expression. It was this unpeated style that saved Caol Ila during the great decimation of distilleries in the early 1980s. This example is intense and needs LOTS of water for its fragrance of cut grass, sherbet, and coconut water to emerge. The palate shows boiled sweets and has a pleasingly clinging quality. £53
This Caol Ila was released the same time as the 12 year old, reviewed above. Older isn't always better, especially with Islay whiskies. I felt that way when comparing Ardbeg 17 to Ardbeg 10 year old, and I feel the same with these two Caol Ila whiskies. This 18 year old has the same flavor profile as the 12 year old. It's a well-rounded dram too, but it has lost the vibrancy and dynamic intensity of the 12 year old. If you want to experience Caol Ila in its entire youthful splendor-and save a few bucks while you're at it-then buy the 12 year old.
Mackillop's Choice (distilled at Caol Ila), 26 year old, 1979 vintage, 43%
Single Malt Scotch | $135.00
Mature and gentle, when compared to the 1990 expression above. If the flavors of the 1990 Caol Ila reviewed above are nakedly exposed, then this Caol Ila is wearing a winter coat. The same flavor notes are there, but they’re less noticeable. Pleasingly salty, gently drying finish.
Wemyss Malts (distilled at Caol Ila) 16 year old 1996, 46%
Single Malt Scotch | $109.00
Initially what we have are classic Caol Ila notes: cod liver oil, soft pear-like fruits, and a glimpse of lobster cooked in sea water. It’s not so much smoky as ozonic and, though it seems a little exposed with water, there’s a squeeze of lemon (for the lobster, maybe). On the tongue there’s a light ashy note before the mouth is slowly filled. Any smoke is in check and understated. This is about citric freshness and salt. £70
Originally a one-off bottling for Friends of the Classic Malts, ‘Moch’ (Gaelic for dawn, though the association between daybreak and the dram is beyond me — one for the morning ‘skailk’ maybe?) appears to have taken the place of the Cask Strength expression. It shows a saline, seashell-like freshness, light smoke. and a pleasant mix of salami and grassiness. The palate is clean and intense with a continuation of that oyster liquor character. Great in a smoky Highball. £36
The finish in question here is Muscatel casks and you can tell that from the start, as the nose is filled with a rich, sweet, and very pronounced dusky fruitiness — sloes and plums. The smoke as a result is diminished as are the grassy/bacony notes. While the smoke does emerge from its fruity bubble on the tongue, the effect is almost liqueur-like. It’s a very pleasing dram, but the question is, is it Caol Ila?
Wemyss Malts (distilled at Caol Ila) 1982 Smoke on the Water, 46%
Single Malt Scotch | $215
Quite a solid start for a Caol Ila which, like the 30 year old (see above), pitches you into the farmyard, though this time it’s a sheep-shearing shed. There’s also some bacon and spent barbecue. The initial impression is of a pretty dry example, but some oil begins to seep through. The palate is explosive with some engine oil, becoming pretty flinty with violet notes, and the distillery sweetness is hidden. A little disjointed. £135
Cadenhead’s (distilled at Caol Ila) 29 year old, 53.2%
Single Malt Scotch | $275
Quite hot on the nose, with a little oak on show here alongside garam masala. The effect is of dried fish and seaweed, Brazil nut and bread basket. It needs water. In the mouth it’s tense when neat, giving you the sense of it straining to express itself fully but being constricted by alcohol. Firm and bold, but even with water it’s a little too dry.
Signatory (distilled at Caol Ila), 15 year old, 1991 vintage, cask #06/324/1&2, 46%
Single Malt Scotch | $55.00
Very pale. A little thin in body, sharp and penetrating. Very Caol Ila-like, with notes of damp peat, Greek olives, seaweed, mustard seed, incense, gin herbs, freshly ground pepper, and vanilla malt. Smoldering peat finish. I would like to see more body to this whisky. (634 bottles produced.)
Gordon & MacPhail (distilled at Caol Ila), cask #12903, 1998 vintage, 8 year old, 46%
Single Malt Scotch | $65.00
Not immature, but very intense and unabashed. Sweet barley notes and vanilla are beaten up by coal tar, damp kiln smoke, and fiery spice on the finish. For those who like their Islay whiskies young. Very young. I would have waited a couple more years before bottling this one. Pure testosterone. (Bottled for Maxwell Street Trading Co.)