This month we vist the Island of Islay (pronounced ‘eye – la’) and try out the Caol Ila 12 year old.
Founded in 1846 by Hector Henderson, Caol Ila of Islay has changed hands several times, even with some silent periods through the 30’s and 40’s. It was completely knocked down and rebuilt in 1974 and today produces 3.5 Million Litres of single malt whisky annually, which is a lot of whisky. So where has it been? Where does it go? Why do we rarely see it over here? Well, it is the core of Johnny Walker’s Black Label, so has a very large market to soak up that volume.
The spirit of Caol Ila, the raw spirit, has been supplied to many of the independent bottlers who have release Caol Ila in a variety of oak finishes and ages. Longer standing members would remember the Gordon & McPhail bottling of Caol Ila 1996 vintage, which is a great independent bottling, aged in sherry casks – which we featured back in 2010.
The Caol Ila distillery bottling was only released as a single malt in 2002, but alas not on this side of the world. It was initially kept out of the Australian Market, and only started being made available in spits and spurts last year. We’ve had the devil of a time sourcing it in the quantities we need for the club. This is a whisky I have been wanting to try since its release in 2002. A mate did actually bring it with him on a skiing holiday. He picked it up going through Heathrow at the duty free. Unfortunately it didn’t last long, and I had to share the bottle with quite a few mates, so I have been looking for my own ever since. There aren’t too many distilleries left on Islay, only Laphroiag, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bruichladdich and most recently Kilchoman, so the Caol Ila 12yo is well overdue for a tasting.
The Caol ILa 12 year old won International Wine and Spirits competition in 2010 for Best Single Malt under 15 years old, so it comes with some pretty big wraps. There are also many blended whisky drinkers that think Johnny Walker Black is pretty good too (in fact, Jim Murray gave it a 95.5 in his latest Bible). The backbone of JW Black being Coal Ila – if only those blend drinkers would try the real thing! Oh well, all the more for us I guess.
On opening the bottle a pleasant aroma of peat, cooking bacon, appears. Pouring it into the glass the whisky has a very pale golden hue, with little if any colour let alone the browny bronze of a whisky aged in sherry butts. So from its appearance, I assume this has been aged in American oak barrels and by its light colour they could even be second fill.
The nose is dominated by peat but a slightly porty smell, is underlying. There is that fresh smell so common in Islay whiskies of sea spray and iodine.
The bacon is the first thing tasted in the Caol Ila 12 year old, with a lovely mouth filling botrytised semillon flavour. It is not sweet, but not savoury either. It lacks the vanilla so common in pale whiskies and is not dominated by the barley sugar common to the Speysiders. The spirit is exceptionally clean and tight and a delight to enjoy.