Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sweet and Salty Tears- Caol Ila 12 y-o

It is a moment of distinct satisfaction to finish a bottle of whisky, tinged with a little sadness; especially if it is one that you have owned for some time, shared some special moments with, or have grown particularly fond of. The latest bottle laid to rest in our household fits all of these criteria, so it is with some small measure of regret that I post these tasting notes for a bottle of Caol Ila 12 y-o. It met its end in the best way a bottle of premium liquor could hope for, savoured by a group of friends still sober enough to appreciate its finer qualities and discuss its merits.

The Caol Ila distillery (pronounced Cull Eela) is located on Islay, a Scottish Isle in the Hebrides that is known for producing smoky and peaty whiskies. Caol Ila stays true to that stereotype, and shares some characteristics with its more popular neighbours: Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. The distillery is found up the Eastern coast of Islay in a remote cove near Poart Askaig, and due to its relative isolation does not see nearly as many visitors as the Kildalton distilleries (the three listed above). Caol Ila is owned by the same company (Diageo) as Lagavulin, and up unitl a few years ago was relatively unknown except to connoisseurs. It was not one of the original six classic malts (see Diageo Calling posting) but was part of the flora and fauna malts range, a group of whiskies sold as single malts in a very limited market. Two particular malts from this group, Caol Ila (from Islay) and Clynelish (Coastal Highland near town of Brora) were selected as the next two whiskies to be pushed into the spotlight by Diageo. They were initially dubbed the "hidden malts" but have since settled comfortably into the classic malt club.

Personally, I've had a soft spot for Caol Ila ever since a trip to Scotland back in 2004 (I can't believe it's been six years!). One of the first things my traveling companion (also a whisky enthusiast) and I did upon landing in Glasgow was visit a whisky shop and pick up a bottle to accompany us on our travels. I had read some good reviews about Caol Ila, so being fans of Islay malts, and this particular one being unavailable in either of our Canadian provinces of residence, it was our first choice. We picked up a bottle of the 12 y-o and it traveled with us for almost three weeks, to Islay, the Orkneys and through the Speyside region of the Highlands. We drank about a dram a day (sometimes two) and after a couple of weeks it became very familiar and distinctive to us. The bottle was ultimately finished in Edinburgh, leaving us with some uncertainty as to whether we would ever have the chance to try it again.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover roughly a year later that Caol Ila 12 y-o was available in Quebec, then in New Brunswick. Over the past few years, it has passed in and out of liquor stores in these provinces (as well as Ontario and Nova Scotia), slowly becoming more of a fixture but not always available. Upon trying it again a couple of years after the Scotland trip, it was immediately reminiscent of those three weeks and the taste was still distinctive and recognizable. I still feel that this is the most effective way to become very familiar with any particular malt: Drink small amounts regularly over a relatively short time period (weeks, not months). My own bottle was bought in Quebec roughly 3 years ago, but I hadn't dipped into it for some time, so when I noticed that there were only a few drams left it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finish it off with some friends and do a formal tasting.

Caol Ila 12 y-o

Nose: Sweet, salty breeze, iodine with a whiff of smoke

Taste: Sweet iodine, peat, salt and pepper, salty licorice (the real stuff - think Scandinavian)

Palate: Heavy, oily mouth feel, sort of like melted salty butter. Long, somewhat peppery finish, with tobacco notes

Value: This bottle should run you somewhere between $55 and $75 CDN. At the lower end of this price range, it's a great value; at the higher end, it will depend on your particular preference. At the higher price, it's in the same price as Ardbeg 10 y-o and Talisker 10 y-o, while at the lower end it's closer to Laphroaig 10 y-o and Quartercask. Is it better than these other whiskies? No, but it is quite distinctive and a nice alternative to these other bottles at roughly the same price. Caol Ila is quite peaty and will appeal to those who like their smoke and peat.

In closing, Caol Ila 12 y-o delivers what you might expect from an Islay malt. It has its own character and holds its own against its more popular neighbours. If you like Laphroaig, Ardbeg and/or Lagavulin, you should definitely give this whisky a try. Tasting more of these peaty whiskies helps to demonstrate their variety and complexity underneath the peat and smoke. I'm a big fan of the packaging and the bottle has a simple elegance to it. A solid performer in its price range, Caol Ila 12 y-o is a worthy addition to the classic malts range and could serve as a great introduction to the peatier Islay malts.

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