Archive for the ‘Caol Ila’ Category


In February, I had a couple of unexpected samples show up at my door. One was a Caol Ila 30 Year and the other a Highland Park 13 Year; both bottled by Master of Malt at cask strength. These unsolicited samples were not part of the samples program that I previously blogged about. A bunch of bloggers received these two samples out of the blue, and I’ve included links to the resulting reviews that I know about at the bottom of this post.

My favorite way to review samples is to be able to compare them to other expressions that I’m more familiar with. In this case, I happen to have gotten a Battlehill Caol Ila 25 year from my wife for Christmas. Battlehill is supposed to be the “entry level” line from Duncan Taylor, specializing in 6-10 year expressions. They seem to have branched out a bit, and this Caol Ila 25 year is a single cask release sold exclusively by Total Wine & More.

Two old Caol Ilas

Tasting Notes

Battlehill Caol Ila 25 Year (Bottled for Total Wine & More; 43%; $110)

Nose: A cleaner, sweeter version of Caol Ila 12, with citrus and subtle smoke. Lots of vanilla, some fresh oak, and Werther’s caramels. This is all very well balanced, with perhaps less wood than you would expect of a 25 year. I would have guessed that this was more in the 18-21 year range.
Palate: Medium to high viscosity, but also juicy and sweet on the tongue. There is some nice pepper, but not in the same league as a “Talisker kick.”
Finish: Classic Caol Ila finish with lemons and ashy coal smoke. Again, it’s cleaner than the 12 year, with none of the youthful peat that I sensed in that one. The smoke is more subtle than the 12 year, but still very much the focus here.

Comments: Overall, it’s excellent. Everything that first captured my interest in my Caol Ila, and more. It’s refined and very, very drinkable. I think 3-5% more ABV would have brought it into Ace territory, but that’s not the Battlehill style. Rating: B+ (89 Points)

Master of Malt Caol Ila 30 Year Single Cask (1980/2010; 57.4%; MoM Exclusive £99.95)

Master of Malt Caol Ila 30

Nose: Lifesaver butter rum candy and pineapple, then mango. Actually, more like a whole bouquet of soft fruits. Vanilla. Faint whiffs of smoke. Very rich and elegant. I could nose this for hours at a time…we’re talking some serious 30 year old magic here.
Mouth: Holds back at first and then the 57.4% ABV explodes on the late middle to back of the tongue. More woody than the nose indicated. Enjoyable, but a few drops of water provides a more consistent experience over the whole tongue, with more fruity flavors.
Finish: Finally, we get a more sooty smoke that reveals some distillery character rising up in the back of the nostrils. On the tongue, continued heat along with sweets and fruits. However, as the smoke and sweetness dies off, I’m left with a stale malt flavor that takes over and lingers. Hmm…not what I expected. It reminds me of the late finish on my 200ml bottle of Glenkinchie 12. Adding water to bring it down closer to 45-50% ABV seems to cut down on the stale malt component. I just discovered this at the end of my sample…wish I could try again to confirm.

Comments: I thought this whisky provided a world-class experience on the nose, along with moments of greatness on the tongue and into the early finish. However, I was a bit put off by what my olfactory senses perceived as some staleness at the end, especially at full strength. On the nose, this was an Ace. I wish I had a little larger sample to play some more with adding water. As it stands, the finish brings it down a little for me. I’d put it just below the 25 year overall. Rating: B+


Many thanks to my wonderful wife for buying me the Battlehill Caol Ila 25 year. What a great treat this has been. A big thanks to MoM as well, for the 30 year sample. How cool was it to be able to compare these two expressions?  [answer: very cool.] At just over $1oo for the 25 year, and $160-ish for the 30 year, I’d say both of them are a relative bargain, considering the distillery 25 year bottling costs $200.

I don’t know how many bottles of the Battlehill were made. According to to Greg Tuttle at Total Wine, these “bottled for Total Wine” Battlehill releases are all single-cask. At a 43% ABV dilution, we’re just talking a few hundred bottles. I can easily recommend purchasing one if you find it.

The Master of Malt bottling is a little less cut and dry. The price is certainly amazing for a 30 year (though our exchange rate kind of sucks right now). When I first took in the nose, I thought I was going to HAVE to get my hands on a bottle. The finish changed my mind, but adding water was looking promising as a potential panacea.  I recommend checking out the other opinions below. Nobody else seems to be complaining about any stale malt sensation. Maybe it’s just me. You can also get a sample from Master of Malt to see for yourself.

Other Opinions

The folks at Master of Malt were quite generous with these samples. Some of the fruits of their labor:

  • Whisky Israel – Gal really enjoyed it. 90/100 points.
  • Dramming.com – Not quite as much of a rave, noting some “interesting” herbal notes.
  • Jewish SMWS – I think it’s safe to say Josh is a fan.
  • A Wardrobe of Whisky – A whopping 93/100 points!
  • Edinburgh Whisky Blog – Tasting both the Caol Ila and HP sample in a fascinating location.
  • Whisky Boys – Another review of both the Caol Ila and HP, with three opinions in one review.
  • It’s Pub Night – A recommendation to add a wee drop of water, and probably not a bad idea.
  • Malt Fascination – Sjoerd gave the Caol Ila 30 pretty high praise. Notable since he doesn’t care for the distillery 25 year bottling.

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Goldilocks, a Scottish man with curly blond hair and wearing a kilt, walked into a pub and found three tumblers of whisky sitting at an empty table. Being a curious chap, he sat down and began sampling the single malts. The first one, a Bowmore 12 year, was nice, but a little gentle for his tastes. He jumped to the third tumbler, filled with Laphroaig 10. The iodine/tar notes in this one were too much! He already had enough hair on his chest, thank you very much. Finally, he took a sip from the middle tumbler, a Caol Ila 12 year. Ahh, just right…

Caol Ila 12

Tasting Notes

Caol Ila 12 Year (2010; 43%; $55)

Nose: On initial pour, an ashy coal dust smoke rises into the air. Letting it rest a minute, and taking a couple of whiffs out of the glass, the smoke dissipates and leaves a fair amount of lemon, with a hint of furniture polish. The smoke is less noticeable, but still there, along with some peat and a little barley. Sometimes I get a salty, vegetable soup type of smell at the end. More so on initial pouring, dropping off after letting the whisky sit in the glass for a while.
Palate: Juicy, peaty and fairly viscous, yet somehow still “fresh” and lively. Turns a bit hot and peppery in a good way, similar to the Talisker pepper kick.
Finish: Heading into the initial finish, there’s a bit of a raw barley present that reminds me of younger peated whiskies. That dies off and leaves a combination of lemon and that ashy coal smoke. No tar like you find in Ardbeg or Laphroaig, and only a tiny bit of iodine making an appearance. The smoke lingers for a medium duration in the back of the nostrils.
Note: That faint reminder of younger peated whiskies makes me wonder about the recent discussion here about cask maturation. I wonder if Caol Ila, a distillery with HUGE output, is one of the distilleries that re-uses barrels as many as 4-6 times. Could that slow the maturation some, leaving a younger barley flavor that I haven’t noticed in other 12 year expressions?


There’s something different about Caol Ila peat. One evening I poured glasses of Caol Ila 12, Laphroaig 10 and Ardbeg 10 for comparison. My wife had cooked a ham and bean soup that day and the Laphroaig and Ardbeg both seemed to take on the strong salty ham aromas that had filled our house. Meanwhile, the Caol Ila maintained its unique ashy coal dust flavor, and had more of a fresh sea breeze quality. That really stood out to me, and the uniqueness of this peat smoke (although I get a similar smoke profile from Lagavulin 12) earns an extra point on my personal scale. Otherwise, I put the quality of this very close to Laphroaig 10. A solid B (85 Points).


I’ve now completed my run of “core Islay malt” reviews. Yes, there’s Bunnahabhain, but I’m focusing on the peated offerings for this series. Bruichladdich also has peated whiskies, but those are relatively new, and they don’t have any “standard” 10-12 year offerings that have been around for a while with a price below $60. Finally, we have the newcomer, Kilchoman. Very much worth checking out, but still a toddler, with no real “core” expression to be had for a few more years.

Caol Ila 12 is well worth a try if you’re looking for a “smoky” whisky. You should especially check this out if you have tried and liked Talisker, but thought Laphroaig, Ardbeg or Lagavulin were just a little “too much” for you. I personally put this expression a little above Laphroaig 10, but not quite on par with Ardbeg 10 or Laphroaig QC. They’re all of very high quality and worth comparing to see where your own preferences lie.


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SMOS Caol Ila 1991 18 Year

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).

Tasting Notes

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.

Other Opinions

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.

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Caol Ila "Unpeated Style" 2009

As with the two elder Taliskers and the Mannochmore 18 that I reviewed recently, I bought a 30ml sample of Caol Ila Unpeated 10 year from whiskysamples.eu as part of a set of 2009 Diageo Special Release samples. However, after taking a tiny sip of this CI, I proceeded to purchase a full bottle the day it became available at Loch Fyne Whiskies. I suppose I’m probably giving away the direction I’m headed with this review. :-)

Caol Ila has historically produced their whisky primarily for blends, with the regular CS, 12 and 18 year single malts having just been introduced in 2002 [according to the Malt Whisky Yearbook]. Caol Ila is a key component of the Johnnie Walker blended whiskies. While their bread and butter is a peated malt (I love the 12 year), I guess Caol Ila has been experimenting with low/no peating for quite some time. Perhaps some of that was put into blends in the past, but their first unpeated single malt offering just hit the shelves as a special release in 2006. For the past three years, this unpeated special release was aged for 8 years, as opposed to the 10 years of the 2009 release.

Tasting Notes

Caol Ila 10 “Unpeated Style” 2009, OB, 65.8% abv

Disclaimer: I’ve been reviewing all of the cask strength special releases at full strength. In this case, the CI 10 smells great at full strength, but pretty much burns the taste buds right off my tongue. I’m going to provide my notes based on adding 1 part water to 4 parts whisky. According to my handy dandy Easy ABVs iPhone calculator, that brings it down to about 53% ABV. The great thing about CI Unpeated is that it holds up very well when adding water.

Nose: Lemon drops as the primary component, followed by rich vanilla cream and some fresh oak. With a little more time, the oak seems to turn into spices (nutmeg and ginger?).
Palate: Thoroughly entertaining. Fizzy lemon sherbet turns to ginger powder (and possibly white pepper). My tongue is all kinds of tingly.
Finish: Lemon and vanilla, with a return of the oak for a medium duration, while the spice continues to linger for a while.


My top two goto whisky experts for notes and opinions, Ruben at WhiskyNotes.be and Serge at WhiskyFun.com, both gave the CI 10 Unpeated a good score, but not a great one. This certainly isn’t the most complex whisky out there, and I can understand the desire to mark it down a little because of that.

Fortunately, I’m not a whisky expert, so I’m going to unapologetically state that I love this CI Unpeated. Sure, that wonderful Caol Ila coal smoke is gone, but the citrus is there, and it’s balanced with just the right amount of sugar and spice to make everything nice [that's right...I just said that]. The fizzy lemon and spices make for a party in the mouth, and I can’t find anything “off” in the entire experience. This instantly became one of my favorite whiskies, and the bottle is disappearing fast.


  • Score: I’m going to say 89 points for now (same as Port Askaig 17). It could go higher.
  • Rate it higher if you’ve tried and loved some 15-20 year Rosebanks but wanted more excitement on the palate and finish (and fewer floral notes).
  • Rate it lower if you need high complexity to get close to 90 points, or if you require peat.
  • Value: The lowest price of the 2009 special releases, I think it’s a must buy if you can find it. [$60 - $70]

Other Opinions

In addition to the reviews mentioned above by WhiskyNotes and WhiskyFun, here are some other notes on this release from the whisky web:

Several bloggers attended a Diageo tasting of the whole Special Release lineup. Notes for CI Unpeated included:

I also sent a sample of the CI Unpeated over to Jason at WHISKYhost, and his notes have a lot of similarities to mine. I don’t think he likes quite as much as I do, though, based on his reference to Cragganmore.

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Port Askaig Samples

Port Askaig Samples

I think my wife was worried about me last night as I sat surrounded by four whisky nosing glasses (Port Askaig Cask Strength (57.1%), 17 year (45.8%), and 25 year (45.8%) expressions, as well as Signatory Caol Ila 14 year). I wanted to do a head-to-head and really get a feel for how these different Caol Ila expressions stack up based on my own preferences.  If you’re unfamiliar with Port Askaig (and why I’m referring to them as Caol Ilas), check out my full PA 17 review and/or this introductory post on The Whisky Exchange Blog.  In order to do the comparison, I ordered 30 ml samples of the whole Port Askaig range from whiskysamples.eu (my review of their service here). The Signatory was part of the mix just to provide a Caol Ila baseline for comparison. You can read my post on that one here.

Tasting Notes

I’ll start with a recap of the tasting notes from my full Port Askaig 17 post, using that as a baseline for the two other Port Askaig expressions. I did a full comparison on one night, then tried the CS and 25 by themselves the next two nights.  The first night, I nosed the full 30 ml samples, but then set 15 ml aside for the second tastings. I’ll describe the tastes, then editorialize more in the conclusion.

Port Askaig 17

On the nose, I get a strong citrus scent up front (lemon zest), followed by sweet peat and some smoke. Digging deeper, honey sweetness starts to turn a little richer, and there are possibly some apple notes in there.

On the palate, some citrus remains with the sweet peat, and then a bit of a pepper kick comes in and then dies off.

On the finish, as the pepper dies down, nice coal smoke builds up and joins the peat, coming up through the back of the nostrils.

Port Askaig CS

On the nose, you can tell this is a higher strength, with the alcohol hitting first. Then you get sweet peat and smoke. There’s something else there as well, which I interpreted as dry dog food (Nutro). Sorry, I don’t have a good human food equivalent to translate to at the moment. I felt it detracted slightly from the overall experience. The Caol Ila citrus is almost non-existent, but does come on a little with a couple of drops of water. Overall, this nose says “hello, I’m a peaty single malt, with more peat coming your way on the palate.”

On the palate, it’s not really that hot considering the alcohol volume. It seems a bit one-dimensional, with sweet peat being the primary taste. No surprises here.

On the finish, I’m getting that strong peat and coal smoke that I like with Caol Ila. Then it seems like a little of that dog food (or is it hay now?) comes back towards the end.

Port Askaig 25

On the nose, the citrus is toned way down from the 17, and what’s there is more of a candied orange than a zesty lemon. There’s a pretty strong caramelized sugar sweetness on this one, and the peat really takes a back seat to the other aromas. Overall, it’s quite mellow.

On the palate, the sweet, mild peat is there, and a light pepper comes on. It remains pretty mellow, though.

The finish is where I was most disappointed in this expression. The coal smoke that I like so much in Caol Ilas is all but gone. There’s an earthy peat and regular camp fire smoke that’s nice, but it’s not strong. Finally, I’m getting a tea flavor that reminds me of Bowmore 12. I don’t want tea on the finish. I want a solid peat/smoke combination.


I’m really glad I purchased the Port Askaig 17 full size bottle over the other two expressions. It’s definitely my favorite. I wanted to be wowed by the 25 year. It did have an enjoyable nose, but it was also quite tame. If it had come on strong on the finish with coal smoke, strong peat, and maybe a pepper kick, I probably would have been more than happy with it. However, with it staying mellow throughout, and adding that tea flavor on the finish, the 25 just didn’t quite do it for me. It’s nice, but not £75 nice. Finally, the CS was more of a pure peat play. I could drink this on a fairly regular basis when I need a peat fix, but it didn’t offer me much more than that.

The 17 year takes me back to the first time I tried Caol Ila 12 year. I took in that strong citrus scent that mixed in with the peat and sweetness, and proceeded to expect a relatively calm finish with muted peat and smoke.  Then bang! That build up of peat and coal smoke came on, along with some pepper, and it made for a great experience from start to finish. The PA 17 gives me that experience, but with a little more class.

Attempting to rate them

Ok…I’ve been avoiding providing ratings, as I’m still working my way through a lot of distilleries for the first time, and continuing to discover my own preferences. I’m also only picking up a few scents and flavors, where more experienced whisky aficionados can coax out much more. However, I’ll try to convey my feeling on these Port Askaigs by assigning ratings to a couple of other scotches that I’ve written about and feel comfortable with, and then providing relative scores for these three expressions.

Let’s say, just to provide context, that I were to assign the following ratings to other expressions: Laphroaig 30 (93 pts), Lagavulin 16 (91 pts), Laphroaig 15 (90 pts), and Caol Ila 12 (87 pts). Based on this, I would slot the PA 17 in at 89 pts, right up with my favorites. The PA CS and PA 25 would drop down to around 81/83 respectively; still very enjoyable drinks depending on my mood, but neither offering anything outstanding, and both having one thing that detracts from the experience (for my tastes).

Other Opinions

  • The Whisky Exchange Blog – Tim F provides his notes on the 17, and also states that this is his favorite of the three.
  • WhiskyNotes.be – Ruben provides great notes on the PA CS and the PA 25. He definitely likes the 25 more than I do, rating it at 88 pts vs. 82 for the CS. I’m looking forward to seeing what he thinks of the 17 year.
  • Malt Advocate Blog – John Hansell also prefers the 17 year (91 pts) to the 25 (85 pts). His review is the one that compelled me to purchase my bottle of the 17 year.
  • Edinburgh Whisky Blog – 17 and 25 year notes from Lucas.
  • Caskstrength.net – Another comparison of the 17 and 25 year expressions, with both rated very close together.
  • Spirit of Islay – Scroll down a bit for the 17/25 notes. He seems to really enjoy the 25 year.
  • Dr. Whisky – [Aug 12, '09 Update] The good doctor just did his own comparison of the 17 and 25 year. It doesn’t sound like he’s quite as crazy about the PA 17 as I am, but he does like both, and seems to also prefer the 17 to the 25.

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Caol Ila Signatory 1992

Caol Ila Signatory 1992

I had to take my daughter’s viola to the music store today to get a string replaced. I knew of a liquor store nearby that is supposed to have a good selection, so I stopped in to take a look. They had some interesting stuff, including a pricey 29 year Cragganmore. Prices were generally a bit higher than I’m used to paying.  Caol Ila 12 was selling for $65, vs. $56 at Bevmo and $50 at Total Wines. Then I noticed a Signatory Vintage 1992 Caol Ila with the following specs for $57:

Age:  14 Years
Distilled:  13.05.1992
Bottled:  11.08.2006
Matured in:  Hogshead
Cask No:  06/588/3
Bottle No:  56 of 382
Natural Color
43% Alc/Vol.

I’ve heard good things about the Signatory Cask Strength series, and at basically the same price as a bottle of CI 12 (OB) at Bevmo, I decided to give this expression a shot. I was planning to buy a full size bottle of Caol Ila 12 soon, anyway. I just finished a Caol Ila 12 vs. 18 comparison a couple of days ago, but I couldn’t resist trying this bottle out right away.

Tasting Notes

On the nose, I get the lemony citrus right away that I expect from Caol Ila. This seems a little cleaner than the OB 12, but more subdued than the Port Askaig 17. Working through that, there’s a pleasant peat smoke, and I want to say a little bit of caramelized sugar.  Like the OB 12, I’m getting a mixture of saltiness and sweetness. Perhaps some kind of smoked meat for the salty scent?

On the palate, there’s peat, coal smoke and pepper, but the body seems a little lighter than CI 12. I think there’s a little less coal smoke in this expression, allowing the peat to come through a little more on the finish.  At first, it seems like a medium finish, but after dying down a little bit, the peat and some smoke continue to linger for quite some time.

Conclusion – If you just handed me a glass of this Signatory Caol Ila and told me that it was Caol Ila 12, I would believe you. I’m not getting any significant clues that this is an older expression from another bottler.  Even the color is virtually identical. Signatory did a great job of maintaining the distillery character that I like so much. This is a perfectly good value given the asking price, and definitely worth a shot if you’re a regular Caol Ila 12 purchaser. I can’t imagine anybody liking the 12 and disliking this one.

Compared to Caol Ila 12 – I have now proceeded to pour a glass of Caol Ila 12 from my 2006 Islay Collection gift pack.  I don’t recall having noticed this with my 2007 bottle, but side-by-side with the Signatory, I’m getting a slightly rubbery scent on the nose of the Caol Ila 12 (returning momentarily on the finish as well). Everything else is virtually identical between the two expressions, except the body on the 12 year seems slightly more oily. Given a choice, I think I would opt for the Signatory. I’m a little baffled by this based on my experience with the 2007 CI 12 bottling, and will compare again in the future after both bottles have been open for a while.

Other Opinions

I can’t find any!  In fact, I can’t find any evidence that this expression actually exists.  Well…except for that fact that there’s a bottle sitting in my cupboard.  If somebody out there with one of the other 381 bottles from this cask actually comes across this blog post, how about leaving a comment and sharing your experience?

So, given the unknown likelihood of finding another bottle of this particular expression, what is my takeaway from this tasting?  It’s that Signatory is capable of producing a solid Caol Ila release that is true to the original distillery profile.  I won’t hesitate to try another one of their expressions in the future.

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Tonight I’m comparing 2007 OB versions of Caol Ila 12 and 18 year expressions. These are 200ml bottles that came in my Islay Collection gift pack.  Both are bottled at 43% ABV.  Locally (Arizona), the full size bottle of Caol Ila 12 can be found for around $50, while the 18 year goes for $75 to $80.  I’ll state right up front that I really like the Caol Ila profile.  I purchased the Islay Collection gift pack so that I could get my hands on the Port Ellen annual release, with Lagavulin 12 and 16 being a great bonus.  I was happy to get to try Caol Ila, but wasn’t expecting a whole lot, as I hadn’t seen a lot of buzz on the internet about this distillery.  I ended up being very pleasantly surprised, especially by the 12 year.

Sampling Caol Ila 12 and 18

Sampling Caol Ila 12 and 18


Caol Ila 12

On the nose, there’s lemon citrus, sweet peat, and smoke.  The smoke isn’t all that strong, though.  This is a pleasant nose, and relatively “light” compared to Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin.  After working through the initial citrus, there seems to be something salty mixed in with the peat and smoke.  I’m not sure exactly what it is, though. [Update - I forgot to mention that the lemon scent reminds me a little bit of lemon Pledge furniture polish...not necessarily pure, unadulturated lemons.  It's subtle, and I didn't find it off-putting.]

On the palate, BANG…that peat and smoke come through much stronger. Then a wave of pepper takes hold.  The pepper lingers into the finish, and the smoke keeps building into a strong coal smoke chimney coming up through the nostrils.  Excellent.

Caol Ila 18

On the nose, it’s very similar to the 12 at first, with citrus, sweet peat and some smoke.  But there’s something else as well…I think this one is a little more fruity, and there’s perhaps something a little floral there.  I guess you could say this makes it more “complex”, which is usually a good thing. However, I find these “extras” to be a bit of a distraction.

On the palate, there’s not quite the bang of the 12 year.  The peat, smoke and pepper are there, but more mellow.  On the finish, it continues to be more subdued, and I’m getting a little bit of “hot tea” like I was getting with the Bowmores.  At the very end, I get a subtle sense of something musty or stale.


I really enjoy the Caol Ila 12. At $50 locally, it will probably end up being my favorite value in Islay single malts, once stock of Laphroaig 15 disappears. I like the Caol Ila 18 as well, but I’d rate it a couple of points below the 12 year, so I don’t really see a scenario where I purchase a full bottle of that one in its current form. Having it as part of a gift pack is fine, though. I’ll certainly continue to drink it, and enjoy it.

I have exactly the opposite reaction to the Caol Ila 12/18 as to the Talisker 10/18 expressions. In both cases, the older one is mellower and has more going on. However, the Talisker 18 retains enough of the energy of the younger drink to stay interesting, and the additional complexity provides a significant increase in enjoyment/interest. With the Caol Ila 18, I feel like it loses a little of the pizazz that I like so much in the 12, and the additional scents and flavors distract me slightly from the primary profile that I enjoy so much.

Other opinions

  • Whisky Fun – Whisky Fun has notes specifically on the 2007 bottlings of both the 12 year and 18 year Caol Ila, along with a slew of IB expressions. They rate the 18 year a few points higher than the 12.  Funny, they also mention a “tea” flavor (earl grey) on the palate of the 18, but I think they found that to be a positive.
  • Whisky Magazine – Notes and ratings, along with links to related discussion forum threads.
    • Issue 25 (CI 12) – Review of Caol Ila 12 by Michael Jackson and Dave Broom
    • Issue 50 (CI 12) – Notes on Caol Ila 12 by Martine Nouet and Dave Broom.  The numbers are not ratings, but peat levels out of 5.
    • Issue 25 (CI 18) – Reviewing Caol Ila 18; Michael Jackson rates the 18 over the 12, while Dave Broom is less impressed with the 18.
    • Issue 50 (CI 18) – Like the 12 year issue 50 link above, these are peat level numbers, not overall ratings.
  • Whisky for Everyone – Review of the Caol Ila 12 year, along with interesting info about the distillery.  Matt also notes something salty on then nose like I did, and compares it to bacon crisps.  I’m not sure if I quite get bacon, but that analogy of salty meat being cooked is a pretty good one.
  • Scotch Chix – The Scotch Chix find Caol Ila 12 to be a good stepping stone to stronger Islay malts.
  • Whisky Party – “dodgydrammer” compares Caol Ila 18 to Talisker 18.  He rates the Talisker slightly higher, but it’s reasonably close.  He’s probably a little higher on the Caol Ila than I am, and not quite as impressed with the Talisker 18 (one of my absolute favorites).
  • YouTube – IslayScotchWhisky reviews Caol Ila 12 and has good things to say about it.  He gets tart apple on the front of the nose, as opposed to citrus.  He also takes the spiciness a different direction at the end.

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A pour of Port Askaig 17

A pour of Port Askaig 17

Tonight, we have the Port Askaig Islay 17 year single malt scotch, bottled at 45.8% ABV, non-chill filtered, and no added coloring.  Port Askaig is a new range of single malts from Specialty Drinks Ltd (SDL), a sister company of The Whisky Exchange (TWE). Along with the 17 year, they offer a No Age Statement (NAS) cask strength, and a 25 year. Apparently, they’re also going to introduce a limited release 30 year expression later this year. This range was just introduced in late April, 2009, but is already getting a lot of buzz around the online whisky community. I think I have more links in my “Other Opinions” section on this post than for any other scotch I’ve blogged about.

One of the things that’s interesting about this range is that they haven’t disclosed which distillery the whisky actually comes from. Current consensus on the internet seems to be Caol Ila. More about this later in my post. Port Askaig 17 is available from TWE for 50 GBP (current equivalent: $75). I believe it’s also available through select importers in other European countries, but it’s not currently exported to the United States.

Tasting Notes

Port Askaig 17 Back Label

Tasting notes on the bottle

On the nose, the Port Askaig 17 immediately reminds of Caol Ila. That honey-sweet citrus right up front, with peat that isn’t quite as tarry as Ardbeg or Laphroaig, or as medicinal as Lagavulin. However, as I spent some more time taking in the aroma, I noticed that the citrus seemed different than the Caol Ila 12 or 18 original bottlings (OBs).  With CI, I get a very strong citrus zest. The PA seems to take a little of that zesty edge off, like you’re just getting the inner fruit. With even a little more time and imagination, the citrus started to turn to apple, like I get with Ardbeg. Perhaps, also, that honey sweetness is a little deeper than CI, again more along the lines of Ardbeg. The last bit of “Ardbeg” that I’m picking up is a hint of “art store”…the aisle where they have the ink and pencils. Very interesting. I like this nose a little better than the CI 12 or 18.

On the palate, I’m again immediately reminded of Caol Ila. The citrus and sweet peat are still there from the nose. It’s a tiny bit “hot” on the tongue, but in a good way, not a rough/cheap way. As it works its way towards the back of my tongue, some pepper starts to come on, building into the finish and slowly dying down. Also coming on with the finish is the Caol Ila coal smoke, and the earthy peat continues to linger. There are no bad after-tastes, and it goes down with a pleasant warming. My glass is emptying rather quickly.

Conclusion: This is a very enjoyable dram. I think it’s a step up from the Caol Ila 12, Ardbeg 10 and Laphroaig 10 standard bottlings. Then again, so is the price. Port Askaig 17 strikes me very much as a bridge between Caol Ila and Ardbeg, which I think is a positive thing. It makes me want to try experimenting with my own vatting of CI 12 and Ardbeg 10. I’m going to put this close to (but after a head-to-head comparison, a little below) the Laphroaig 15 as one of my favorite whiskies so far, with Talisker 18 and Lagavulin 16/DE above that.  If you’re an Islay scotch lover, you really should try to get your hands on this. If you’re a big Ardbeg fan, but Caol Ila not so much, I think you should still try this out. You might be surprised. If you’re in the U.S., the shipping cost makes it a little less cut-and-dry, as the Caol Ila 12 (Edit: or the Signatory 14 I’ve now tried) gets you pretty close to PA 17 for a lot less money.

Update (head-to-head): The above notes were done without directly comparing the PA 17 with Caol Ila and Ardbeg. It’s a couple of nights later, and I decided to pour small drams of Caol Ila 12, Port Askaig 17, Ardbeg 10, and Ardbeg Uigeadail. So, any change of heart from what I stated above? A little bit. I said that I felt the citrus “zest” from Caol Ila was rounded off a little on the PA, but I’m not so sure about that. I’m getting that lemon zest this time. I also felt that the PA was much more clearly in the Caol Ila camp with this hands-on comparison.  My bottom line here is that Port Askaig 17 is what I think Caol Ila 18 should be. I would gladly pay the additional $7.50 at TWE for this over the CI 18.

Update 2 [6/4/09]: I’ve got samples of the PA 25 and Cask Strength on the way, so I’ll be able to compare the whole range. Woo hoo!

A Caol Ila by any other name…

Nobody from Specialty Drinks Ltd and/or The Whisky Exchange has come right out and stated that Port Askaig whisky is distilled by Caol Ila, and industry insiders that have probably been clued in seem to be playing along, just offering clues. Not convinced that Port Askaig is really Caol Ila?  Let’s take a look at the evidence:

  1. The name: Port Askaig is located on the East side of Islay, a short ferry ride from Jura.  If you look at a distillery map of Islay, you’ll see that Caol Ila is located right in Port Askaig, with Bunnahabhain just a little bit north of the Caol Ila location.  The rest of the distilleries are much further to the South or West.
  2. The ages of the expressions: The NAS Cask Strength, 17 year, and 25 year expressions sure line up nicely against other common bottlings of Caol Ila, both by the original distiller (OB) and independent bottlers (IB). I mean really, how easy would it be for Specialty Drinks to come up with a bunch of 17 and 25 year (and don’t forget the 30 year later on) casks of Ardbeg?  Ardbeg can’t even seem to get 17 and 25 year casks of Ardbeg.
  3. Port Askaig 17 Bottle Seal

    Port Askaig 17 Bottle Seal

    Geographic Coordinates on Bottle: Printed on the seal of the bottle is the following coordinates:  N. 55:50:41 W. 06:06:10, which converts to Lat. 55.8447, Lon. -6.1028 in decimal. I saw this and thought perhaps this would be a clue. If it’s from another distillery, would they potentially provide a Latitude/Longitude that doesn’t match the actual Port Askaig location? However, punching in the  numbers in Google Maps puts you right in Port Askaig, just a bit south of the Caol Ila distillery.

  4. Taste profile: While I could potentially be fooled in a blind test into believing PA 17 is an Ardbeg, the overall profile is certainly in line with the OB Caol Ilas I’ve tasted. Don’t take my word for it, though. The many tasting notes in the “Other Opinions” section below (by people with much more tasting experience than me) show a strong similarity to the Caol Ila profile.
  5. Clues from industry insiders: Check out the Malt Advocate blog post and comments, linked in the “Other Opinions…” section below.
  6. I know somebody who knows somebody…: I got a tweet (Twitter post) from @whiskyfan who says that  “according to @hansemalt the German importer verified that Port Askaig is Caol Ila.”  So there you go…I know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody with inside information.

Other Opinions

  • The Whisky Exchange Blog - Tim F. writes about the new Port Askaig releases, and provides his own tasting notes for the 17 year.
  • Malt Advocate Blog (What does John know?) – John Hansell provides notes and ratings for both the 17 and 25 year expressions.  He really likes the 17 year.
  • Edinburgh Whisky Blog – Notes and ratings personifications by Lucas of both the 17 and 25 year expressions.  More extremely positive feedback.
  • Caskstrength.net – More notes and discussion about the 17 and 25 year expressions, and more of a “statement” than a guess that this is from the Caol Ila distillery.
  • Spirit of Islay (once it’s archived, this will be the link) – In the May “A Whiff of Peat Smoke…” newsletter, Gordon shares his notes on the 17 and 25 year expressions. There is also a discussion in Gordon’s Warehouse No. 4 forums.
  • Whisky, Whisky, Whisky – Tasting notes on the Port Askaig 17 year. Making me feel much better about myself, Mark also noted a similarity to the Ardbeg profile. There’s also some additional discussion in the WhiskyWhiskyWhisky forums, kicked off by none other than Tim F. from TWE.
  • YouTube – Ralfy (from ralfy.com) has now reviewed the PA 17 on his video blog. Quite entertaining…check it out: [Added July 10, '09]

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