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Samaroli Caol Ila 1998

Silvano Samaroli is a bit of a legend in the world of independent bottling, so I was surprised when I noticed that there were no reviews of any Samaroli whisky bottles in the MALT archives. For those of you not familiar with his myth: young Silvano started the first non-British independent whisky bottler in 1968, at the tender age of 29. Somewhat paradoxically, he was at the forefront of both bottling single casks at natural strength (three cheers!) as well as bottling blended malts without an age statement (crickets chirping).

Over 40 years, he established a reputation as a source of single malts of extraordinary quality and rarity. He eventually branched out into single island rum where he found no little success, paving the way for the current rum boom (Mark reviewed one here and another one here). Silvano Samaroli handed over the management of the business to his Roman friends at Casa Bleve in 2008, but by all reports he remained active in the selection of casks until his passing in 2017.

That cask selection, more than anything, was signor Samaroli’s strong suit- though putting it that way is an understatement on the order of saying that “running is Usain Bolt’s strong suit.” He was the man with the Midas tongue. I’ve had a several excellent Samaroli bottles spanning the tonal spectrum from Glenburgie to Laphroaig. Individually, they are as diverse as the range of distilleries they represent. However, they share the qualities of concentration, intensity, and depth. The wood balances the spirit, and vice-versa; they’re selected judiciously and bottled at optimal maturity.

I’m not the only one that thinks highly of this house, as evinced by the astronomical sums their bottles fetch at auction. A signed bottle of 1967 Laphroaig 15 year old sherry cask recently sold for a price that would also get you on the road in a new BMW 7 Series. The company seems to have caught on in recent years, and one now seldom sees a bottle of single cask single malt for less than $200 at retail.

Setting the bottler aside for a moment, let’s discuss the distiller. Caol Ila has been covered by MALT before in both own bottlings (see Mark’s Feis Isle 2016 review) and independently-bottled variants (most recently in the form of a Cadenhead’s release reviewed here, by Jason). The frequency with which a whisky drinker encounters this distillery is a product of its industrial scale and resultant prodigious output.

I’ve always liked Caol Ila best among the Islay malts. For me, it achieves the optimal equality of light, fruity, citric notes from the malt and the smoky and earthy influences of the peat. There’s typically a maritime salinity that is allowed to show through. The effect in total is usually balanced and harmonious, different from the increasingly dilute output of Laphroaig, the aimless and muddled official bottlings from Bowmore, or whatever they’re doing at Bunnahabhain these days. I’ve got my opinions on Ardbeg; I’ll keep them for another time, as I know that the ferocity of the Pro v. Con debate on this distillery makes The Old Firm look like a snuggle-fest by comparison. So: Caol Ila for me, please.

That said, I’ve had a range of experiences with the whisky itself. Independent bottlings can be touch-and-go. In the last few months, I’ve enjoyed a perfectly serviceable 5-year-old sherry cask from Càrn Mòr, as well as a disappointingly weak 18-year-old cask bottled at a flaccid 40% by Berry Bros & Rudd. They’re seldom overtly flawed, but I’m left wanting a bit more from time to time. A roll of the dice, in any case.

The bottle in question today is a single cask, bottled by Samaroli for Salumeria Roscioli which is – I’m happy to inform you – the best restaurant in Rome. You might think that there are other, better restaurants in Rome, but you’d be incorrect. Don’t let the fact that it’s a humble salumeria fool you. If you haven’t dined at Roscioli, you haven’t dined in Rome.

At least, this was the advice I gave a good friend when he and his Mrs. recently traveled to the Eternal City. In the form of compensation for this golden nugget of a recommendation, I asked them “only” to bring me back a bottle of Samaroli Caol Ila. By my dear pal’s account: when he requested this, it sent an Italian bloke scrambling up a ladder towards a dusty top shelf, where some determined rummaging produced today’s bottle. There was still a decade’s accumulation of musty cupboard funk on this when first I received it.

This is one of the pre-Bleve bottles, under the old “Coilltean” label. I still don’t know what that term means, and there is a dram of this set aside for anyone who can provide a satisfactory explanation in the comments section.

It is a single cask of Caol Ila, distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2007 (making it 8 or 9 years old), at 45%. Roscioli used to sell it for €200, in keeping with the eye-watering prices that these mouth-watering bottles fetch.

1998 Caol Ila, Single Cask #12383 for Roscioli – review

Color: Pale straw color.

On the nose: Perfect balance between a sweetly creamy richness, peat smoke, a stony note of wet black slate, and salty ocean spray. There’s a hint of red chili pepper and fresh sarsaparilla lingering at the periphery.

In the mouth: Starts with mouth-puckering seawater, blooming into campfire flavors as smoke fills the nose from the back. There’s tart key lime zest to finish the midpalate, before this turns into a very dry, ashy mouthfeel. All of a the sudden, another kick of roasty heat sends this down the gullet. Long after the last sip, this keeps going with recurring marine flavors, vanilla frosting, and more aromatic smokiness.

Conclusions

My Platonic ideal of Islay malt. Balanced, clean, subtle – yet persistent. There’s smoke throughout, but well integrated and soft spoken enough in places to allow the other aromas and flavors to show through. I especially love the purity of this, as though all the character evolves naturally from the distilled spirit, rather than being overlaid by a cask finish or forced by a blender’s hand. There’s not a hard edge or off note to speak of.

To paraphrase Joe Theismann: “Nobody in whisky should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.” That said, Silvano Samaroli came close enough, and this bottle is an exemplar of his preternatural skill and impeccable discernment. Lest you think this is all too hagiographical, rest assured that I am currently working on a more pointedly critical review of another Samaroli bottling. Thankfully, nothing about this particular whisky warranted an unkind word.

Score: 9/10

CategoriesSingle Malt
    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Thanks James! I had seen this definition, but was unable to establish a direct tie to Samaroli. If you can provide some documentary evidence about the connection, the dram has your name on it.

  1. PBMichiganWolverine says:

    Probably a stupid question…but why are Samarolis at a premium, considering so many others offer also single casks? Can’t be because he had a superior olfactory sense. Is it just the belief of his being better?

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Hello again PB! Not a stupid question at all. For years, the house established a reputation for top-quality output. Very judicious cask selection and limited breadth meant an assurance that any bottle with the Samaroli name on it would be a good – nay, great – one.

      As a consequence they developed a cult following, with the bottles becoming highly collectible. Secondary market prices shot up, and retail prices followed the trajectory.

      Unfortunately the quality part has changed in recent years, but the price has not. As you’ll see in short order, those now trading under the Samaroli name have sacrificed selectivity for quantity, with disappointing results.

      Keep the questions coming, and GO BLUE!

  2. PBMichiganWolverine says:

    Taylor: thanks for the amazingly quick reply. On a side note—-I just read your short bio here, re: pre-boom Japanese whiskey. A decade ago ( probably also when Wolverines had a damn good basketball and football team 😉 , I kind of stumbled unknowlingly into $80 Karuizawas, a few less than $70 Hanyus, $70 Yamazaki 18s, and $150 Hibiki 21. Those were the good days…

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      PB: I hope you still have a pile of them in your basement; you’d be able to cover out-of-state tuition at UM with that treasure trove!

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Ha! Thanks Nikko. This bottle is stored safely on the top shelf, away from the little hands of LEGO guys and other denizens of my flat.

  3. Welsh Toro says:

    Nice review Taylor. I’ve not been to Rome for many a year but that restaurant tempts me as much as the Colosseum itself. Samaroli are legendary of course and I’ve wanted to get some but for once my common sense (usually nowhere to be found) kicks in and warns me about the price/quality question. There are other fantastic independent bottles that are a fraction of the price. I’ll buy one eventually though.

    I think I agree with you about Caol Ila. I’ve had thunderous cask strength stuff full of fishy goodness from G&M to sublime elegance from Hunter Laing (OMC 18yr). The independent bottles are far superior, as is the case with Bowmore and Laphroaig.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Nice to hear from you again, WT. I’m not warning off Samaroli generally, but it pays to be selective and hunt around for the pre-Bleve bottles. That said, they still churn out a stunner or two; the 1994 Braeval cask #165653, 22 years old, was a gorgeous Speyside dram. Thanks again for stopping by!

  4. James Sampford says:

    Hi Taylor

    I have involved Italian friends with this. They called Samaroli but the person they spoke to had no idea. They are going to try again tomorrow!

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