Have you visited Scotland before?
Perhaps you’re like I was several years ago, just dreaming of glorious ragged mountains, shimmering lochs, the sweet yet pungent air of distilleries, and (of course) a dram or three near a crackling fire. Either way, you’ve surely seen the beauty the land has to offer. And if you don’t mind a bit of fairly darn cold and wet weather, one might even think Scotland is the perfect place. No one would blame you. But, rest assured, no place is perfect, not even Scotland.
Enter the midges.
For those not in the know, Scotland is home to midges. God, or some Almighty power, in its infinite wisdom, must have decided that it wouldn’t be fair for any one territory on Earth to be perfect.
All it takes is a basic internet search to find an article about hikers being swarmed by midges or a video on YouTube called “A Cloud of Pain” and an abundance of similar blood-curdling content. These vicious beasts are a quarter the size of an average mosquito and are drawn in by the carbon dioxide of your breath, which they can detect from 200 meters (656 feet) away. They spare no mercy. Once they’ve found you, they’ll fly in, use a scissor-like action to bite open your skin and draw your blood to feed their unborn children. If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
Gruesome details aside: when the chilly and windy winters of Scotland start to thaw, the midges begin to resume their normal life, finally indulging in activities that make them hungry. Midges love the warm and wet months and appear from mid-late of May to about the end of September. The first two weeks of June are traditionally the worst of the year.
Do you know what also happens at the end of May and into the beginning of June? Feis Isle!
As a young Scotch whisky lover, Caol Ila captured my taste buds and introduced me to the island malts. Shortly thereafter I was drinking as much smoky Scotch as I could get my hands on, and looking forward to the day I could travel to the distilleries and taste the water of life straight from its source.
I learned about Feis Isle and became even more excited. Then I learned about the midges and turned considerably less excited. You see, I am a magnet for every sort of bug; merely stepping foot outdoors will likely result in a bite of some sort. Many of them will even last for a week and a half. I don’t fear much in life, but learning about midge swarms evoked some fairly terrifying mental images. Nonetheless, I would not be deterred. Come hell or high water, I would face the midges and make the trip.
Unfortunately, May and June came and went, and I had to reschedule my trip for non-midge related reasons. My inaugural pilgrimage to Scotland was moved to the end of September, and with it, a lucky avoidance of midges.
On that trip, I did make it to Islay and was incredibly fortunate to meet and spend some quality time with the simply delightful Justina McLellan, the Lead Home Ambassador for Caol Ila. Adding to my luck, the other party in my tour dropped out last minute, thus treating me to a solo experience of said favorite distillery.
Many jaded folks say when you’ve visited one distillery you’ve visited them all, but I can assure you that if you’re treated to a private tour from a passionate guide, it makes a world of difference. We nerded out on all the details (most of which were sadly lost forever due to a sample bottle cracking open and spilling its contents all over my notepad during travel) and finished up the tour with a tasting that included the 10-year-old Feis Isle bottling from 2018 (Mark previously reviewed the 2016 iteration). The tasting notes below get into the details but, let me say: it was exquisite. From the first sip, there was no doubt that I would buy the bottle and bring it home to savor and cherish.
Now – years later – whenever I pour myself a dram of this fine spirit, I am flooded with the joys of fine whisky, the warmth of Scottish hospitality, and a glaring absence of blood-thirsty midges. Maybe I will make that trip to experience Feis Isle one day, but I’m in no rush. The perfect memory exists in this bottle.
Caol Ila 2018 Feis Isle – Review
Color: Deep gold
On the nose: A big hunk of steak and a pile of citrus marinated shrimp grilling on the beach, wrapped ever so gently in the damp, salty, seaweed-y air. This really opens up in the glass, softening up a bit and hinting at a bit of sweetness.
In the mouth: Immediate presence. The first sip hits you hard, but the following ones come softer. The cask strength heat is there, but not overwhelmingly so. It’s viscous and a treat to swirl on the tongue. The flavors you’d expect from the nose carry though, but wood smoke, black pepper, and a medley of spice are much more prevalent. It’s like deep sea diving into dark pools of flavor. On the finish, the delightful flavors found on the palette pick up a little heat, slowly and elegantly perfuming out in wisps of smoke, spice, and salt. As it fades, just the tiniest bit of sweetness lingers, like an all-encompassing fog that rolls slowly back out to sea.
This is everything I want in sub-30-year-old Caol Ila. Cask strength? Check. Beach barbeque-y? Check. Viscous? Check. Lengthy and memorable finish? Check. Plus, this has the bonus of being aged in rejuvenated European oak. I know this is a glowing review; I’m aware that I spent my entire preamble hyping up the sentimentality of the dram. Thus, you may take my opinion with a grain of salt if you must, but damn this is good! If someone has access to a case of this that they’re looking to find a good home for: you know who to call!