Founded in 1846 Caol Ila is one of Diageo’s “volume distilleries” whose primary function has been to supply whisky for blends and it wasn’t until 2002 when the first major OB releases of Caol Ila hit the market. Yes there were the Flora & Fauna releases, but those don’t fully count since they weren’t an ongoing part of an official lineup. Though even today, Caol Ila’s main function is producing whisky for blends – most notably the Johnnie Walker blends.
Being a Malt Nuts meeting we ate some tasty Kosher food and gathered in our gracious host’s back yard here in Los Angeles for an evening of chatter and drinking. As usual it was a semi-blind tasting, but this part of the recounting isn’t why you’re reading this. You’re wondering how it all shook out with these 11 bottles of young Caol Ila and I don’t blame you. With the influx of 10 yr and under indie bottlings hitting the market over the last 3 years we’re all curious. So let’s dig in.
- Group 1 – Cut / sub 50% ABV & aged in ex-Bourbon casks
- Group 2 – Cut / sub 50% ABV & aged in ex-sherry casks
- Group 3 – Cask Strength
- Group 4 – Cask Strength
Group 1: Young Caol Ila – sub 50% ABV & aged in ex-Bourbon casks
1A: Caol Ila 10 years – James McArthur WHISKY (45%)
- Nose: Peaty, salty, vanilla, citrus, green malt and it has a nice freshness to it.
- Palate: Peaty, citrus, smoked meat, malt and salt water taffy.
- Finish: Chalky, malty and smoky.
- Overall: B- (80-82) Good start to the evening and would have scored a B if it weren’t for the chalky finish. I don’t mind a little chalk, just like I don’t mind a little soap or sulfur, but when it’s overly present it knocks things off balance and pulls the dram down.
1B: Caol Ila 10 years – C&S Dram Good (46%)
- Nose: Juicy Fruit gum, spirity, buttery, with a bit of vanilla taffy, smoke, citrus and crushed smarties. The spirity new make quality really stands out here.
- Palate: Smoke, char, light strawberry, vanilla and that spirity new make character – though it’s more tame on the palate.
- Finish: Chalky, smoky, salty, sweet, malty and a bit alkaline.
- Overall: C+ (77-79) Not horrible, but it needs more time in wood to build some cohesion. It has a whole host of aromas and flavors, but it feels all over the place right now. Unbalanced and disjointed.
1C: Caol Ila 8 years – Alexander Murray (40%)
- Nose: Smoke, Malt, Char, dark sweets, red fruit and an underlying richness.
- Palate: Sherry-like sweetness, smoke, dark sweets, fruit and leather.
- Finish: Caramel, peat and fruity sweetness
- Overall: B (83-86) This one almost made it to a B+, it was really nice, but I felt like it was a bit muted. It needed something else to bump it up to the next level, still not a bad little dram.
Group 2: Young Caol Ila – sub 50% ABV & aged in ex-Sherry casks
2A: Caol Ila 10 years – G&M Connoisseur’s Choice (46%)
- Nose: Smoke, fruit, citrus, spice, light spirity character.
- Palate: Smoke, citrus, spice, malt and that same light spirity character.
- Finish: Smoke, citrus and dark sweets.
- Overall: B- (80-82) Starts out nice, but fades off quickly and after getting some time to open up. What’s there is nice though.
2B: Caol Ila 10 years – The Ultimate (46%)
- Nose: Smoke, citrus, spice, vanilla and a buttery sweetness.
- Palate: Smoke, citrus, spice, char and chalk.
- Finish: Smoke, citrus, light fruit and a touch of mint.
- Overall: B (83-86) This one was the opposite of 2A. It started muted and “meh”, but opened up and became more complex with a bit of air.
Group 3: Young Caol Ila – Cask Strength
3A: Caol Ila 6 years – Gordon & Macphail Reserve – BInny’s (60.3%)
- Nose: Smoky, meaty, red fruit, complex spice and a sweet creaminess to the overall aroma.
- Palate: Smoke, char, beef jerky, smarties and spice.
- Finish: Smoke, char, smarties and a muted spice.
- Overall: B+ (87-89) I liked the way this one came together and the complex spice on the nose was a nice surprise. Something we hadn’t seen till now.
3B: Caol Ila 7 years – Gordon & Macphail Exclusive – BInny’s (60.3%)
- Nose: Ovaltine, cocoa, spice, malt and sweetness.
- Palate: Ovaltine, spice, dried red fruit, smoke and cocoa sweetness.
- Finish: Smoke, Ovaltine, spice and a touch of fruit
- Overall: B+ (87-89) I wanted to give this an A- just because of the nostalgic Ovaltine aroma and flavor, which I was having a hard time identifying at first. It was warm, malty, sweet and reminded me of my childhood, but couldn’t quite place it. Then I heard our group organizer say Ovaltine and it all clicked. It also makes perfect sense too since Ovaltine is a product made from malt… like Scotch. Even though I couldn’t give it an A-, because it needed a bit more complexity to hit that next level, it was still my favorite of the night.
3C: Caol Ila 5 years – Hepburn’s Choice – K&L (61.1%) – ex-sherry
- Nose: Smoke, cocoa, smoked meat, grilled fruit and vanilla.
- Palate: Complex fruit, smoke, chalk, malt and vanilla.
- Finish: Smoke, chalk, cocoa and vanilla.
- Overall: B+ (87-89) A good depth of character, but that prevalent chalkiness on the palate and in the finish kept it from hitting the A- mark. It’s interesting though, that chalkiness seems to be a defining character among these young Caol Ilas. I’m finding it here more in these than I have in any other whisky.
Group 4: Young Caol Ila – Cask Strength
4A: Caol Ila 10 years – Cadenhead Small Batch (58.8%)
- Nose: Salt, peat, vanilla taffy, citrus and some spice and a spirity character.
- Palate: Smoke, citrus, vanilla, spirit and a hint of chalk.
- Finish: Smoked meat, vanilla, spirit and a touch of chalk.
- Overall: C+ (77-79) If some of that chalk could have blown off or been mitigated by some water it wouldn’t have been so bad, but that combined with the spirity nature put it in the 70s.
4B: Caol Ila 9 years – G&M Exclusive – BC Merchants (56.7%)
- Nose: Caramel, bananas, raw grain, sugary taffy, spirit and no depth. Very topical and water nearly destroyed it.
- Palate: Caramel syrup, liquid smoke, spirit, malt and taffy.
- Finish: Spirit, stale spice and stale smoke – like clothing that survived a house fire.
- Overall: C- (70-72) Air, water and time couldn’t help this poor little guy. I kept going back to it, hoping it would open up, but by the end of the evening it was still just… bad. It was the only one I considered dumping out, but ended up finishing my 1/2 oz sample.
4C: Caol Ila 10 years – G&M Cask Strength (58.5%) – ex-Sherry
- Nose: Peat, salt, caramel and fruit. Made me think of a caramel apple topped with smoked salt. Which sounds amazing, but it was light, muted and didn’t open up.
- Palate: Peat, dried dark fruit, dark sweets and sulfur.
- Finish: Peat, sherry-like sweetness, dark sweets and canned cherries.
- Overall: B- (80-82) If the nose was richer this would be a B no problem, but water, air and time did nothing to give it that. Even though I was sniffing straight from the glass it felt like the glass was on the table and I was standing over it with how light it was.
It’s always fun doing a run like this and seeing what commonalities end up popping up and becoming that “distillery character”. For young Caol Ila it seems like chalk, spice, smoke, fruit and vanilla are fairly common. Goes to show how much variety can appear cask to cask even in young whisky.
It’s also important to note that is is the group’s 5th tasting devoted to Caol Ila. Between Dec ’12 and July ’13 the group tasted 48 different expressions of Caol Ila over 4 different tastings. Which brings the Malt Nuts Caol Ila tally up to 59. I wasn’t part of the group back then, but a lot of the guys in it now were so if there’s ever been a group of guys who know Caol Ila it’s the Malt Nuts!
All-in-all It was another great evening of good food, fun people and interesting whisky. What else could you ask for?