Poor Caol Ila distillery. It’s pretty much the ugly stepchild of Islay whisky, often forgotten about, locked in a cupboard under the stairs, churning out whisky for blends for their evil stepmother Diageo. Which is my rather glorified way of saying it’s a pretty neglected distillery. When people talk of Islay, they first mention Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bruichladdich or Bowmore. At a push, they’ll try to pronounce Bunnahabhain. Those in the know will mutter Kilchoman quietly to themselves whilst buying up bottles to sell at auction.
But Caol Ila?
Located near Port Askaig, Caol Ila – pronounced “cool eye-la” (or something like that), was founded in 1846 but had something of a rough history, being mothballed between 1930-1937 and 1942-1945. Now it is in the hands of Diageo, and is used for producing whisky for blends such as Johnnie Walker and, dare we say it, Bell’s. But they also release a range of single malt whiskies on top of this, one of which is the Caol Ila 1998 Distillers Edition – distilled in 1998, left to mature in Bourbon casks before being finished of in Moscatel sherry casks, then bottled at 43% ABV.
Colour: a kind of smoked-fish gold. On the nose: ooh. Now there’s a nice bit of peat. Gentle, penetrating, not overwhelming. It seeps into your bones. That’s what Islay’s about. Dirty, briny, lovely. Very faintly, in the distance, is the promise of something sweet.
In the mouth: that’s very different. A lovely oily, slippery, seaweedy, smokey sensation. Beautiful balance, however it’s quite straightforward and not much goes on. There’s a gentle black pepper finish, again with that subtle brown sugar sweetness. The peat is warming, but not at all as big as you’d get with a Laphroaig or Ardbeg 10. In fact, it’s more malty on the finish, and leaves you just a little disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a delightful sipping dram, and peat-heads will find there’s much to admire. In fact, it’s enough to convince me to try even more from this distillery. There must be a gem in there somewhere, judging by this, and I’m determined to find it.