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 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.Cheers, Jeff