I have been thinking about this concept which I call “a favourite on hold“. It’s when you find a favourite composer, author, or, in this case, a producer of whisky, then you invest in it, buying other albums, books, or bottles, and set them aside, knowing that you will definitely love them in that special moment. They’re there for you for that one time. But then, either the time never comes, or you spend the rest of it chasing the other things – the other albums, books, and bottles – and so your favourites remain on hold. This could be going on for quite some time. I have a few unopened albums, a few unread books, and, indeed, a few bottles I’ve bought up from Caol Ila to try out later. An entire shelf of unopened single malts from independent distillers – can you picture that? That’s right. Anyway, something for you to think about as a concept. And then maybe a solution, if you think it’s a real problem. But let’s get to this tasting, and of course, you know that we need music! Now playing: The Haxan Cloak – Excavation.
When I got an email from Diageo that they had some of the Fèis Ìle exclusive bottles still available, I quickly jumped to snatch up this 15-year-old Caol Ila and the 12-year-old Lagavulin, both released specifically for this particular occasion. Fèis Ìle is a festival which takes place every year in Islay, Scotland. It originally evolved as part of the Drama Festival dedicated to reviving the Gaelic Language and Culture, which was launched in 1984. In the early ’90s, the first whisky tasting took place, and by the 2000s, the local distilleries became more involved by introducing exclusive expressions for the event. This year, after the many COVID worries, Fèis Ìle returned to the island, with the representation from nearly every Islay distillery. To find a perfect pairing for this Caol Ila, I chose a 14-year-old bottling from Gordon & Macphail as part of their Connoisseurs Choice range [filled in 2003]. Besides only being a year younger, it’s also very close in the ABV – this GM bottle is at 55.6%, while the Fèis Ìle exclusive is at 55.2%. So that should be a pretty close comparison. Both are non-chill filtered and uncoloured. The GM-selected whisky was matured in their own refill American hogsheads, while the Fèis Ìle was also matured in refill American hogsheads and then finished in the virgin American oak.
The GM single malt is lighter in colour – that of an all-natural, beautiful oak cask. It’s herbaceous on the nose, with those familiar notes of Caol Ila, both smokey and fresh. The Fèis Ìle is darker in scent and smells just a tiny bit sweeter. It’s also leading me to believe that it will be meatier on the palate. But let’s try these two first without water. The GM is sharp and cuts right through with the alcohol. A bit overpowering, to be honest, while the smoke is definitely there. The Fèis Ìle is smoother yet still robust. It’s sweeter, just as I have expected, with rich bourbon rounding off on the edges. So let’s add some water. There’s now a distinct scent of that banana on the GM. It’s a lot less aggressive with its alcohol and arrives full and curvy. It’s a delicious dram, and with just a tad more water, would indeed be [this] connoisseur’s choice. I wasn’t wrong about the Fèis Ìle either – with water, it’s still nice and chewy, and the sweetness is balanced on rims with a slight [and welcome] bitterness, like the corners of burnt caramel sweet. I think it’s less smokey, or possibly I am becoming a bit numbed to its fire – I think all the peatiness is hiding in the corners, a little disguised by the additional finish.
What’s really important to note here is that this is the first time for me to taste a distillery bottling of cask strength from Caol Ila. Whereas almost all independent bottlers present this spirit in a direct and unafflicted manner, the distillery’s own bottlings of their 12-year-old and 18-year-old (both at 43% ABV) were frankly underwhelming. So I prefer to stick with independents to show off this gorgeous liquid. But for the first time in a long time, I am indeed impressed. With that statement alone, as much as I love the connoisseur’s choice from Gordon & Macphail, I have to give it to the source here and will proclaim that 15-year-old Fèis Ìle wins this round!
p.s. I am indeed also curious about other Fèis Ìle releases, like the Bruichladdich Rock’ndaal 01.1 & 01.2 (vattings of Port Charlotte and Octomore!), Laphroaig Cairdeas 2022 (fully matured in warehouse 1), Bowmore 25 (a 1996 vintage matured in oloroso sherry casks), Bunnahabhain 1989 (a 30-year-old finished in ex-oloroso for another 6 years), a few of those Kinships from Hunter Laing, and yeah, the Big Peat Beach BBQ Edition from Douglas Laing.