Sweet Eighteen.

I realized recently that some of my all-time favorite whiskies are 18 year old expressions. Talisker. Yamazaki. Macallan… just checking if you’re paying attention. What is it about 18 that makes it a sweet spot? Is there a talismanic potency to this number? Those of you in Britain will recognize the special resonance of this being the age of legal alcohol consumption, while those of us hitting this milestone in America need to make do with lottery tickets and cigarettes. In both countries it is the age of majority in terms of voting rights, and there’s nothing like paying attention to politics to induce a powerful thirst for whisky.

For whatever reason, 18 is a popular demarcation point for officially bottled expressions. The three big Glens (Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, and Glenmorangie) all have entrants of this age, as do dozens of other distilleries. Islay is no exception, with offerings of this type from Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Laphroaig and – the subject of our interest today – Caol Ila.

Mark is MALT’s resident high priest of Caol Ila, having reviewed most of the official range: Moch, the 12 year old expression, the annual Distiller’s Edition (in its 2005 incarnation), and the 25 year old. The team has undertaken periodic reviews of other expressions, including festival bottlings like the 2016 Feis Ile release or the 2019 incarnation. We’ve also tackled numerous independent bottlings; the Samaroli single cask for Roscioli remains one of my favorite whiskies I have reviewed for this site.

Most recently, Mark treated us to a review of a bottle he pulled from a basement in Nottingham. He conjectured that, given the prevalence of indie bottlings of Caol Ila, they may actually outsell the official range. We’ve certainly got our fair share on the site, from all different bottlers. Considering all of the above, you’d think we’d have covered this distillery more or less comprehensively, right?

Astoundingly, we’ve collectively missed this 18 year old… until now. A sample from the always-generous Carl landed in my lap recently, and I was shocked to find this as a rare omission from the MALT archives. Happy to place the last piece in the puzzle I’ll be considering a dram, hoping to add to my collection of favorites emblazoned with the big one-eight.

As we’ve discussed before, Caol Ila remains a hidden gem, to the extent that those exist anymore in our information-saturated world of whisky. It is buried in the Diageo portfolio, where it doesn’t even crack the six “Classic Malts.” Rather, as Jason mentioned in his notes from the distillery tour, it is an industrial-scale concern which churns out Islay malt for the parent’s portfolio of blended whiskies. Most of the output doesn’t even get matured on Islay, being shipped in bulk to the mainland for aging there.

While I’ll admit that all this sounds like a recipe for some woefully insipid whisky, the reality couldn’t differ more from that hypothesis. Against a landscape littered with overhyped underperformers, Caol Ila stands out for its low profile and the inversely high quality, on average, of its whisky.

Thus, my expectations are elevated going into this. The whisky in question is Islay single malt, aged 18 years, bottled at 43%. It carries a retail price of £81.95 from the Whisky Exchange or via Amazon £80.96; it does not seem widely available in the U.S. at the moment.

Caol Ila 18 Years Old – review

Color: Medium-pale golden maize.

On the nose: Light and fruity. Immediately shows a sweet note of ripe guava. Unbaked white bread dough. A creamy whiff of unsalted butter. Some scents of fresh leather and new rubber. There’s not much seaside to this, only the wispiest residual iodine aroma. While there are some appealing aspects, this has an airiness that makes me fear that it might be underpowered due to the dilution.

In the mouth: Starts with a lean stoniness. All of the sudden, this perks up with the savory spiciness of Japanese curry sauce. Some charming salty flavors of cashews and walnuts emerge at midpalate, which persist into and through the finish. There’s a vaguely stale woodiness at the back of the mouth before this is rounded off by the lingering sickly-sweet flavor of overripe pineapple. Throughout, there’s more of the subtle iodine as a nod to Islay’s maritime environment. As with the nose, there are some wonderful elements here, but they seem watered down.

Conclusions

I would have loved to try this at cask strength, or at least at 46%. There are so many elements which have left their traces, but which don’t present themselves fully due to the low strength. In total, I am intrigued but left wanting more.

Speaking of wanting more, I revisited the aforementioned Samaroli bottle immediately after finishing this one. Though only marginally stronger at 45%, it is an order of magnitude more forceful, especially in the mouth. You’ll recall that the whisky was a maximum of nine years old. Several observations follow: age isn’t everything, small differences in strength can produce meaningful differences in flavor, single casks can justify the risks… but mostly: Caol Ila can slay all day. All worth remembering, but especially that last one.

Score: 5/10

There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. Photograph kindly provided by the Whisky Exchange.

CategoriesSingle Malt
Taylor
Taylor

Taylor's a native of Chicago. After heading to university in Scotland, he graduated from drinking Whyte & Mackay and Coke to neat single malts. He's also a keen fan of Japanese whisky, having visited the country regularly over the last several years, where he was able to assemble a decent collection before prices went batty.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Duncan, you’ll get no disagreement from me (or Jason either, probably). Talisker 18 remains consistently great, in my opinion. Cheers!

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    Richard says:

    In my experience, Caol Ila 18 and 25 both benefit significantly from sitting in an opened bottle for a few months. The subtle flavours really explode, especially the pineapple in the 18, and make these whiskies exceptional. I hosted a Caol Ila vertical tasting some time ago to celebrate the purchase of my first 18yo. Tasting the 18 was truly a disappointment at the time, much like your experience, but a few months later I revisited the bottle and it was exceptional, and remains my favourite whisky to this day.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on the benefits that opening a bottle and exposing the contents to oxygen can have on a whisky. Is it just my subjective imagination or do all whiskies ‘change’, for better or worse, after opening?

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Richard, I’m sure this is the topic of lengthy debate. I can only share my personal experience, which is: “it depends.” I’ve had whiskies that were ready to go as soon as the cork was pulled, and never changed much after the first sip. I’ve had others that were shrinking violets to start, but evolved along the trajectory you noted, gaining body and complexity over time. I’ve also had some that degraded slightly as they sat open for a few months.

      A note about methodology: I try to sample every whisky I review at least twice. When that’s not possible, I try to linger as much as I can, stretching a single dram into an hour or more of sniffing and sipping. I’ve never had a whisky that metamorphosed so radically that I felt compelled to go back and edit the review or the score, but there’s definitely change at the margin – for better and worse.

      Unfortunately I won’t be able to revisit this Caol Ila (unless I can wheedle another dram out of Carl) but I am reasonably certain this bottle had been open for some time. Cheers!

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      bifter says:

      I was just thinking the timing of this review might have been unfortunate. I jumped on a recent offer to acquire this for £65 and had been left a little underwhelmed (even at the price), concurring with Taylor’s review. However I did have the thought that it may improve with oxidation and I would put it to the back of the cupboard for a while and come back to it.

      Your comment has given me hope!

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        bifter says:

        Regarding the general theme of oxidation I have also had mixed experiences. I found really peaty stuff mellowed and enjoyed/suffered a drop off in intensity after a few months.

        One whisky in particular that I recall benefiting from a bit of oxygen is Dalwhinnie 15, which went from being tinny and metallic on opening to being integrated and mellow after some weeks.

        I have also found that any sulphur notes become much more pronounced with oxygen thus a single cask Ardbeg went from being ‘meaty’ to tasting like neat balsamic vinegar. Boke!

      2. Taylor
        Taylor says:

        Bifter, sorry I was unable to provide this in time. I’ll be keen to hear, though, whether you think this gets better with some time in the opened bottle. Please check back in a while and share your thoughts!

        1. Avatar
          bifter says:

          Naturally I hang on every review of the Malt experts 😉 but I wouldn’t want you to feel bad so let’s blame it on Ralfy, he scored it 88/100. I will check back with an update.

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            Welsh Toro says:

            I don’t think you will regret it Bifter. £65 is a good price for this whisky and it is good whisky. I can see where Ralfy was coming from. However, it has more to offer and just a tiny 3% extra abv would lift it up a gear.

  2. Graham
    Graham says:

    Taylor,

    Interesting post. I enjoy the younger Caol Ila that are arriving independently on the market. Mostly sub £50 and a good 6/10 for the price. However I had remembered Jason responding that 30yo+ Caol Ila seem to be something special. At the weekend I happened upon one in the excellent Naticus Bar in Edinburgh. A 36 yo which blew my mind. Perhaps this 18yo is straddling the great young releases and the distinguished older releases being neither one nor the other.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Graham, having yet to sample one of the much older expressions, I’ll have to take your word gor it. However, one of the thibgs Zi love about Caol Ila is how well it shows at a comparatively younger age. Cheers!

  3. John
    John says:

    “He conjectured that, given the prevalence of indie bottlings of Caol Ila, they may actually outsell the official range.”

    This is very interesting! The very few Caol Ilas I’ve tried are pretty good. I can’t forget a XOP Caol Ila 30. It reminded me of eating seafood in HK. Lots of crab and other seafood notes

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      John, I too enjoy the seashore and maritime notes (reminds me of the briny liquid inside an oyster). Not many in this expression, unfortunately. Cheers!

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    Welsh Toro says:

    I was looking forward to the conclusion having read the Patreon preview. Well, good review Taylor and I very much agree with much of what you say. Age isn’t everything and that is especially true of Islay whisky. I have a terrific 8 year Caol Ila released by Gauntleys and bottled by Morris & MacKay. It’s cask strength (61.2 abv) and recently reviewed by Mark. It tastes young but that’s compensated by peat, power and flavour. My problem with Caol Ila 18 and, indeed, the 12 is that they are underwhelming compared to their independently bottled counterparts. They also have that Diageo house style mouthfeel – (filtered, coloured). I last tasted the 18 side by side with a superb Hunter Laing 18 year old bottling (50% abv, no filtering or colour) and there was no contest despite costing the same. The official Caol Ila 18 is not a bad whisky but it could be better. It’s 18 year old whisky so why add colour? More than anything though, please, please, Diageo, increase the strength. At 46% this whisky would be a lot better and I think it would sell more.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Toro, welcome back and thanks for the kind words. I agree that we’re spoiled for independently bottled Caol Ila, both in terms of diversity and in terms of quality. I’m not the most influential bloke in whisky, but there’s enough of a consensus building here that I hope Diageo will take note and consider releasing this at an ABV that will highlight more of this wonderful distillery’s strength. Cheers!

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