Here are two bottles of Caol Ila from my very own collection which I have been sipping on for quite some time now. The truth is, I’m not a big fan of either. I think I am finally beginning to accept that I don’t like the ex-wine finish in my scotch. The only reason I keep on pouring myself these drams is because I just want to finish these bottles and make more room on my shelves for more single malts. But is there a way to salvage these whiskies? Is there a saving grace at the bottom of my glass? Let’s see if we can find out! But first, we need music! Now playing: Mike Lazarev – When You Are (Ian Hawgood MASTER Tests).
I picked up this Distillery Exclusive Bottling of Caol Ila when I visited Scotland. This was still during Covid, in the summer of 2021, and the distillery was closed. Luckily, Lagavulin was open for a tasting. Since the latter is part of the Diageo family, it also had the Caol Ila on the shelves in its store. And so I grabbed this limited release (only 6,000 bottles). But when I popped the cork it didn’t seem to blow me away. It’s a natural cask strength whisky, from a vatting of refill and first-fill Kentucky Bourbon barrels, plus a first-fill “specially-charred” California red wine casks. There’s that bourbon cask on the nose, that slight Caol Ila peat, fresh cherries and light fruit, with a little bit of sea saltiness on the finish. It’s a pretty easy sip, surprisingly even at 57.4%, ABV, but nothing special to remark on, to be honest. I add some water and see how it blooms. There’s more caramel now, with just a hint of bananas and peach, but I still don’t taste any wine here. And that’s a good thing. The finish is a little strange now – it feels up my mouth like a warm air balloon, then quickly deflates and collapses. It’s a bit disappointing, I must admit. Especially because I hauled this bottle in my bag on my hump all the way from Islay [and around Scotland for another week] before finally trying the dram. And I’m pretty sure I paid slightly north of £100 [checking my credit card statement – okay it was £90] for this non-age-statement single malt. Still, nothing ‘special’ to write home about, like meeting a nice easy-going person, but one with no character, sparkle or grit.
This Gordon & MacPhail (GM) independent bottling of Caol Ila is part of their Connoisseurs Choice series. It’s also a pretty limited release of only 3950 outruns, filled in 2004 and bottled in 2018 [so, it’s about 14-year-sold]. Just like the Distillery Exclusive Bottling above, the whisky was matured in first-fill bourbon and refill American casks [different wording, but very much same process]. But instead of being blended with a batch that has been aged in California wine cask, this scotch was laid to rest in the Hermitage (French wine) casks for 3 more years. And that’s the “wine finish”. It is darker in its natural colour and there is no chill filtration [presumably in the one above there is], bottled at 45% ABV. There are ripe red cherries on the nose and palate. Red currant. Red grapes. This one tastes less “winey” than I remember from my past tries [I think my palate is slightly blunted from the first cask-strength sip], although there is a particular tannin on the finish, that slightly tastes of empty wooden casks where all the wine was held. And just a hint of smoke. I let some time pass and taste it again – ah, there it is – that, almost Armagnac flavour at the end of the arrival. Only with a tiny drop of water do I smell a bit of that ex-bourbon caramel, but otherwise the winey aftertaste is still a bit of a turn off [for me]. Again, I make a mental note to stay away from whiskies aged in wine barrels – I’ve had the same response to Bowmore 19 matured in ex-wine oak barriques from the French Château Lagrange and the Glenmorangie Milsean matured in ex-wine barrels from Portugal. So yes, it is not my thing.
What I did next was a bit interesting and is worth noting. I have combined the two. That’s right, I poured one dram into the other and reflected on the change. There is more of that red fruit on the nose now, but with some stewed plums. The higher ABV from the cask-strength bottle has really pumped up the alcohol content of this blend while slightly diluting the Hermitage flavour. There’s still that winey finish, but it’s not pronounced as much. I bet that if I add more peaty or sweeter whisky, I’d finally be able to embrace the flavour. In fact, I have a bottle just for that! With that, I will proclaim that my very special blend wins this round, and I’ll be back to update you with more!
[Update 2/25/22] I have blended what’s left of the Caol Ila from the distillery (about 400ml) with the rest of Gordon & MacPhail (about 200ml), then added 100ml of very strong Laphroaig bottled as Williamson for Christmas of 2021 by the Berry Bros. & Rudd at 60.9% ABV. This has added more smokiness and drowned a bit of winey flavours [in a good way] – so I may have “saved” these bottles! There’s more room now in this ‘blended’ bottle – and I may keep on adding other whiskies later on.