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.
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.
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.