I’m often asked about great distillery tours but no one really wants to know the disappointing equivalents. After making all that effort to reach a distillery, there’s nothing more soul destroying than a visit that fails to live up to your expectations.
The worst distillery tour I’ve ever experienced was at Caol Ila a couple of years ago. Sterile, uncomfortable and based upon a rigid formula that Diageo distributed across its distilleries. It made for a disappointing experience. In essence, it matched the stark industrial surroundings of the distillery itself. A forerunner of Diageo had levelled the distillery site in the early 1970s and plonked down this beastly and somewhat efficient cluster of buildings. Tour over and feeling rather demotivated and dishevelled, we scampered down the road to Bruichladdich for a more welcoming experience.
You make your decisions in whisky as in life, and move on. Caol Ila is an ugly duckling of a distillery with a mundane tour to match. However, what it produces can be remarkable despite all of its output heading to the mainland for maturation. Eventually, the bulk of this stock ends up as a component in Johnnie Walker. What whisky escapes to receive single malt status, really shines. Surprisingly so in many cases. A Caol Ila can go head to toe with the best that Lagavulin can produce (even the classic 16 year old) and even the core releases are able to show up Ardbeg and Laphroaig for their modern day antics.
For many years the independents flew the flag of this distillery and I still lament bottles opened into their 3rd decade. Great Caol Ila’s are in high demand and nowadays amongst the enthusiasts, the realisation of their existence is pretty commonplace. The days of being able to bag a well-aged Caol Ila without a scramble or virtual fist fight are gone.
Perhaps Diageo is finally waking up to the possibilities that the distillery can offer? A recent announcement looks set to bring some much-needed investment to the visitor attraction side of things. The huge warehouse that they didn’t knock down in the 1970’s, will now have a role as a visitor centre and bar. Whisky tourism is booming across Scotland.
The corporate giant still seems to be lacking some conviction despite this overdue investment. Labelling it under a Johnnie Walker style experience. Anyone that visited Glenturret in recent times would have taken in the attempt at the Famous Grouse experience marriage. Ultimately, it just didn’t fit well and the ‘Turret deserved more of the spotlight, with its small but perfectly formed charms.
That enticing nature stretches far and wide with a recent visit to the Whiskybase Gathering in Rotterdam heralding the opportunity to try a current bottling from an unlikely source. Amidst the international collectors, distributors and independent bottlers was representation from Ukraine. Prior to this, I had never actually considered how popular whisky was in this country. The Whisky Corner from Kiev started their own whisky journey with the release of the Super Heavily Peated Bruichladdich and have gone on to bottle several casks from other distilleries. A bountiful selection was present, including that Fettercairn that many enjoyed over the weekend, and we’ll be reviewing shortly.
A popular choice was the Caol Ila, partially due to its eye dropping colour and the prospect of an unusual wine cask finish. The art of finishing is always dangerous including the usage of wine casks that can often divert a whisky in a new direction with unfavourable results. This Caol Ila was distilled in 2010 and matured mainly in a refill hogshead before being finished in a Massandra red Livadiya cask. The cask, in this case, comes from the Crimean winery Count Vorontsov, known for their fortified port wines. The cask had been utilised for 5 decades to produce their port wine before working its Caol Ila finish over 9 months. In total, 180 bottles were produced from the cask at a robust 58% strength.
Ukranian Whisky Connoisseurs Caol Ila 2010 – review
On the nose: An unusual combination that comes across as peated rhubarb, complete with the earthiness of the soil. A strong current of redness with raspberries and red cola. A herbal slant with basil and some lemon thyme. Fading embers contrast with the revived memories of the school dentist fluoride mouthwash. Not a negative feature by any means. It just shows you what whisky can unlock.
In the mouth: plenty of Islay power but not overridden by the cask. Very interesting, peppery and more earthiness followed by the cask influence. Red apples, velvet cake and a touch of rubber towards the finish, which has a drying quality. Red liquorice, tobacco and the longer you leave the dram, the sweeter it becomes.
This Caol Ila is not for the faint-hearted. A big, bold and rugged whisky, with a twist. My general advice is to live a little more dangerously when it comes to whisky. Experiment, try new things and other distilleries. This release is proof, delights can come from unexpected sources.