Whisky Odyssey
Old-fashioned with a twist of the modern 

Caol Ila 12 years old: protector of true Islay character

Is it just me or has that old and beloved Islay character of having this feeling you are drinking liquified bandages all but disappeared? I still like a good glass of Laphroaig 10 years old, but it can hardly stand up to expressions that were released to the market 20 to 30 years ago. Do not even get me started about those much older ones. If you ever come across labels that carry the name Francesco Cinzano as importer, just taste it. Now THAT is medicinal stuff. Not the vanilla-sweet character of today’s versions.

In the shadow of giants the work horse of Diageo is Caol Ila, putting out millions and millions of litres Islay spirit every year. I have a soft spot for Caol Ila, with its beautiful stillhouse overlooking the Sound of Islay and the Paps of Jura (how many people have written these exact lines. 

I still collect their celebratory bottles from the Islay Festival of Malt and Music, better known as Feis Ile. So, when my dear friend M. scrolled through my personal Instagram page to look for inspiration for a birthday gift, she spotted this brand a lot. Good news, because that means I can now share my thoughts on the core expression of Caol Ila. We also add an extra, a single cask kindly provided by a fellow whisky-enthusiast. Thanks Robbert!

Caol Ila 12 years old, bottled at 43 % abv

Makeup: No information to be found. This whisky was tasted from a 20 cl bottled. The back label mentions the use of colouring, which would surprise me, since the colour is gently yellowish.

General impressions: If you never had the pleasure of visiting Caol Ila Distillery, you could use the drink in your glass as a substitute. Smells of wet rope drenched in seawater is the first thing that comes to mind. A gentle sun shining and warming the tarmac around the only old warehouse left next to the distillery. The white-washed building with the black letters dance in your mind. A whisky to close your eyes to while sipping, just soaking up the peaty aroma that was forced into the barley and of which so much is left after distilling. This is more Islay than most these days. Clean, crispy, bready, and this fantastic sea infused peat smoke. To be honest, would you call this medicinal? There is clearly something hinting at it, but Caol Ila is more of a maritime malt. When it is this satisfying, I will rip off the band aid and just enjoy it as it comes.

The oily mouthfeel is very present in this core expression, but that attack is a bit weak at first, until the distinctive flavours invade your tongue. If owner Diageo would like to please us geeks, then up this to 46 or even 50 % abv and we would never drink anything else. For now, we (still gladly) settle for that briny taste, herbal wood and fresh aftertaste. I imagine that sea water tastes like this, when you take out the salt. But, strangely, also some green apples to be found in there. Lovely.

Conclusion: An absolute stunner and considering price-quality ratio, you will be hard pressed to find anything of higher impact than this Caol Ila. Benchmark entry level Islay single malt.

Score: 88 points

Disclaimer: taken from a self-owned bottle that was gifted to me as a birthday present. Thanks M!

Caol Ila 2009, 14 years old, bottled at 54,7 % abv by The Caskhound

Makeup: A single cask with the number 2201172. This Caol Ila was originally matured in an ex-bourbon cask, before being transferred to a first fill amontillado sherry cask, in which it was kept for exactly 405 days. Distilled on 16 November 2009, bottled on 20 November 2023 for the occasion of the fifth birthday of Confessions of a Whisky Freak.

General impressions: Wow, that is an expressive nose, and it typically British! Like opening a bag of Cream & Onion crisps. In the background, covered under this manzanilla sherry finish, is a big amount of peat. You are live witness of the fight between the Islay single malt and the outside power of a dominant cask. It takes some time to settle in the glass, and then it becomes more tranquil.

The taste is more recognisably Caol Ila, but there is a certain dryness that is hiding away the typical oiliness of the spirit. But that's okay, the purpose of a finish can, after all, be the intention to do something different. 

This is certainly not your everyday Caol Ila. With water it blooms open like gorge during Feis Ile. Inland tarmac on an island under a warm summer sun. I like how bright this bottling is. It also has some dirty edges, that to me represent some shortcomings, but it does make for an entertaining drinking experience.

Conclusion: For sure, not a dime a dozen Caol Ila. Well done!

Score: 85 points

Disclaimer: kindly shared with me by Robbert of Confessions of a Whisky Freak.

Share this on your social media! - and check mine while you're at it :)