I’m a big Caol Ila fan, starting with the 12 year standard expression. When I first started getting into Islay malts, trying to figure out what to make of the strong, tarry, oily notes of Laphroaig and Ardbeg, I tried Caol Ila and was immediately impressed by the ashy coal smoke finish. The citrus also seemed to compliment it well. There just wasn’t anything negative going on there. My favorite Caol Ila so far isn’t actually labeled as a Caol Ila…it’s the Port Askaig 17 year by Specialty Drinks, sister company to The Whisky Exchange. When the opportunity came up to get a sample of the Single Malts of Scotland (SMOS) Caol Ila 18 year, distilled in 1991, I jumped on it [Thanks Tim!]. SMOS is another range bottled by Specialty Drinks, and seems to be well regarded. This bottle currently sells for £47.82 excluding VAT, and also currently comes with a free tasting glass (a special deal for any SMOS purchase).
Caol ila 1991 18 Year old (Specialty Drinks SMOS); Cask# 194/200; 56.1%Nose: Initially, fresh oak and peat, with underlying citrus. After a few minutes in the glass, the oak turns more to vanilla. Overall, it’s kind of muted. You really have to stick your nose in there and spend some time searching. Also, the citrus is toned WAY down compared to regular Caol Ilas.
Palate: More juicy now, peat still, and some white pepper. Bigger than the nose let on. Packs a punch similar to Lagavulin 12, and perfectly drinkable at full strength if you’re used to high proof whiskies. Not harsh in any way. Finish: That classic Caol Ila ashy smoke is in full force here, along with some lingering pepper on the tongue. The smoke lasts a long time, and it’s very “pure.” No young, spirity notes at all. A peat smoke lover’s delight!
I really like this whisky. I was surprised to find the citrus turned down a couple of notches from other Caol Ilas I’ve had, but the great mouth feel and long, smoky finish are a real treat. What especially stands out is the purity of the peat smoke finish. I’ve had younger high-peat whiskies (like Kilchoman) that have an almost one-note ash smoke finish, but they all have a youthful, “spirity” counterpart. Not here. The only thing keeping this from an A rating in my book is that the nose could be more expressive, and it’s not super complex (but not completely one-note either). As a fan of the Caol Ila brand of peat smoke, and big, cask-strength palate attacks, I’d rate this in the B+ range. I think I need to buy a bottle of this.
This was a big enough sample that I was able to taste it over three sessions. I’m going to go ahead and do the full rating thing…
- Score: 88/100 points (B+) [My personal score relative to other whiskies I've tried]
- Bottom Line: A little muted on the nose, but great mouth feel and gets my tongue all a-tingle. Brilliant ashy, coal-dust, peat-smoke finish if you’re into that sort of thing.
- Rate higher if: You’re a huge peat-head, and the palate/finish are much more important than the nose.
- Rate lower if: The muted nose is going to bug you; you want more than peat smoke on the finish.
- Value: The Whisky Exchange is selling this SMOS 18 year for the same price as the standard distillery 18 year. Given that I like the standard 12 better than the 18, and I like this SMOS 18 better than the 12 [OB 18 < OB 12 < SMOS 18], I’d call this a good value. A special treat to share with your peat-smoke loving friends. Only 620 bottles available.
I sampled this alone, and along side Caol Ila 12 (43%), Port Askaig 17 (46%) and Lagavulin 12 (57.9%). The family resemblance with the other Caol Ilas is there, but the big ABV difference separates them, and the citrus influence is much bigger in the lower proof whiskies. Also, the Port Askaig 17 offers up just as big of a smoky finish, but it’s more complex. The only thing the PA 17 lacks is the big mouth feel from the high ABV. PA 17 is the first whisky review where I tried to start doing ratings. I gave it an 89…probably should have been a 90.
Frankly, I think the profile of this SMOS 18 year is closest to the Lagavulin 12, though the Laga 12 is more expressive on the nose, and has just a hint of “youth” on the peat smoke finish. The feel in the mouth is very similar, as is the focus on ashy peat smoke, with other flavors toned down in comparison. I’d rate the Laga 12 a point or two higher for additional expressiveness on the nose, and perhaps a touch more complexity.
I can’t find any reviews of this particular bottling…not even on the Whisky Exchange site. However, Serge at WHISKYFUN.COM rated two SMOS 16 Year expressions (here and here), as well as a 17 Year, all from 1991 and bottled in 2007/2008. You can see that Serge also mentions a toned down nose on the 17 year, which seems to have carried over into this one. He rates the 17 year at 85 points, marking it down because of the nose, but it sure sounds like he enjoyed it more than that.