Whisky Odyssey
Old-fashioned with a twist of the modern 

The Whisky Odyssey Fèis Ìle 2024 Special
Caol Ila Day: tasting a few Fèis Ìle releases

My good friend Anton van K. ruined me for life when he gave me a taste of the legendary Caol Ila Manager's Dram. A sherry monster of a whisky if there ever was one, and one of those rare occasions that you surpass the 95-points line and do an 1-up to 96 points. All personal of course, but delicately peated single malt matured in excellent sherry casks, it does not get much better than this legendary Manager's Dram.

Drinking a glass of the Manager's Dram 15 years old at the distillery in 2009 opened a doorway to collecting the regular Fèis Ìle releases of Caol Ila. A bottling was first released in 2009 indeed, and pure coincidence made me built up a unbroken line. And then, when you are a few bottles in, you just want to keep the collection complete, right? Until this Feis Ile I always managed to get myself one (but often more than one) bottle. I am sure I will get my hands on a 2024 bottling sooner or later.

Interesting about all these bottles is that they have a pretty decent amount of people scoring them in the Whiskybase. I looked at these numbers and drew some conclusions. Like the highest average score is awarded to the oldest Caol Ila bottled in this Feis Ile Collection (= 2019, score of 90,6). The following three highest scoring Caol Ila are all single casks (2009 / 89,51 - 2010 / 89,40 and 2012 / 89,11). After 2012, the festival bottles were all batch whiskies. So, are more mature malts automatically better, and single casks in their wake? Or is that a psychological thing? We can never know for sure, but the numbers made me think. Of the mentioned editions, only the 2012 is not in my top 5.
Let us taste a line up of three (relatively) recent releases of the fantastic (in my humble opinion) Caol Ila Feis Ile expressions! We will start with the youngest and build up from there.

Caol Ila 15 years old, bottled at 55,2 % abv for the Fèis Ìle 2022

Makeup: Matured in Refill American oak Hogshead with a Virgin American oak finish. A release of 3702 bottles. My bottle was signed by legendary and longtime manager Billy Stitchell (see photo). Thanks for arranging that, my good friend Bram! It is a precious bottle.

General impressions: How does Caol Ila work on Virgin oak influences? I remember from that year that the Lagavulin Fèis Ìle 2022 was also partly matured in Virgin wood, and was quite controversial. This particular Caol Ila opens strong on the peated scents, mixed with maritime notes. In the background lingers a soft hint of yellow fruit, banana even. There is also the faintest idea of saline swimming pool, one I used to swim in while on holiday in Greece. A sip neat gives the calling card of the virgin oak straight away. Dry wood, bitter notes, but I have to say: the peat truly is lifted to another level by this experiment. As if a higher PPM was used. This goes at the cost of the traditional oily character of the Caol Ila distillate. Water brings out an even more fresh peaty character on the nose, but less desirable salty notes on the taste. The finish remains very clean and refreshing.

Conclusion: An extreme Caol Ila with enlarged peat muscles. I was more confused when I tasted this before, but my sample had some chance to breathe in the drawer, which might well have improved it. Score remains the same.

Score: 88 points

Caol Ila 16 years old, bottled at 53,9 % abv for the Fèis Ìle 2020

Makeup: Caol Ila finished in Amoroso-treated Hogsheads. A release of 3000 bottles. Amoroso is a variant on oloroso sherry, with some sweetening PX added and additional maturation.

General impressions: Does it really matter, the impact of not even Amoroso casks, but Amoroso-treated casks? When I stick my nose in the glass and with the previous sample still lingering, the answer is: yes, it did have an impact. But it is not a full-blown sherried sour note I pick up, rather a subdued one. Only with some breathing time does a sweeter note start to get dominant. The taste is of course a world of difference now. Starting on the oily notes for which we know and love Caol Ila, you then get a sweet attack of the Amoroso. 

Moving towards the finish, a more meaty character emerges, before leaving with quite an alcoholic bite on the exit. With water the finish turns more oily, but overall it does not create much change in this Caol Ila.

Conclusion: Tick all the boxes on what a good Caol Ila should do, but never really shines brightly. You need to be a lover of the weirder kind of sherry treatment to appreciate this fully.

Score: 86 points

Caol Ila 22 years old, bottled at 58,4 % abv for the Fèis Ìle 2019

Makeup: All we know is ‘Sherry-treated American Oak Casks’, but not if this was a full maturation or a finish. We do know 3000 bottles were released.

General impressions: Hefty abv for an older Caol Ila, the younger ones were lighter compared to this. Let’s see if it makes a difference. On first whiff I get the impression I am nosing an old blend from the 1950s or 1960s. A slightly metallic and dusty note, with some broth from grandmother’s pot. Caol Ila with the old soul of the legendary White Horse blend? You could easily nose this for hours, and not get bored at all. More random notes: cough syrup, all kinds of herbs and spices, coastal influences and at the same time pine and tree bark fallen off and drying in the sun. Let’s quickly take a sip, before we write a whole novel!

Wow, surprisingly it starts very fruity, before it moves on to much darker, bitter woody notes. You get the impression there is little peat to speak of after 22 years maturation … and then you swallow. Full on peat assault, dark and smoky and very powerful on the Islay soul. A drop of water makes the sweetness even more pronounced, but also gives a nice maritime bite to the finish.

Conclusion: Stunning Caol Ila, tasting not older in age but older in as if it was made in the 1960s. All kinds of flaws and raw edges make for a genuine complex drinking experience. This is top notch.

Score: 92 points
Disclaimer: all samples taken from self-owned bottles.

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