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Signatory Vintage and North Star Caol Ilas

There have been whisperings in the whisky community, a murmur steadily building to a crescendo of consensus. Has the worst happened? Have Diageo made the decision to stop sales of Caol Ila casks to independent bottlers?

I am not on social media, having made the decision a year or two ago that, being old, time poor, and naturally grouchy enough as it is, that it wasn’t for me. Thus my final account, Twitter, went by the wayside, joining my long defunct Facebook account, my even longer extinct LinkedIn account, and never existed in the first place accounts for TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and so forth. You name it, I don’t have it.

Therefore, if chatter on the topic of Caol Ila’s imminent discontinuation to the indie market is prevalent on those channels, and I’d assume it is – whisky Twitter is, if nothing else, prolific – I’m none the wiser. I do, however, still check in with various blogs and have seen this news mentioned independently across various platforms. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, so for argument’s sake – and because I can’t find any official word – let’s assume it is true.

Over ten years ago I attended a tasting in Melbourne’s Whisky and Alement bar. At the time I asked the proprietor of the bar, Julian, what his favourite distillery currently was, and he said Caol Ila. At the time I barely knew it, but hopefully nodded authoritatively enough that he didn’t pick up on my awkwardness.

Delve into whisky in any meaningful fashion and you’ll have owned some Caol Ila, either indirectly – as part of a ubiquitous Diageo blend or a Port Askaig bottling (possibly even a ‘Secret Islay’ bottle) – or directly, with an official bottling or one of the many, many independent bottlings.

Rare is the outturn from an indie bottler that won’t feature a Caol Ila. Travellers in Europe have a saying – “ABC,” as in: “another bloody church.” Arrive at a new 1,000-year-old European city and boil it down to yet another place with a grand medieval church. Such is the feeling with Caol Ila; peruse an indie outturn, and you may feel a dose of “ABCI”.

Or at least that’s how I felt until two or three years ago, when, perhaps in a case of Stockholm (while on the subject of European cities) Syndrome, I started to grow rather fond of Caol Ila. Maybe you’ve had a dull Caol Ila, or a merely average bottle. But I’d wager (hopefully) you haven’t had a bad one, and more than a share of good to spectacular bottles.

So how should we feel if Caol Ila were to fade off the indie scene? Myself, perhaps at first the slightest melancholy, but tempered with a few settling thoughts. Firstly: even if sales stopped tomorrow, it’ll be years – decades, even – until Caol Ila disappears altogether. An indie bottler may choose to bottle a cask immediately, or they may perform a finishing or allow a cask to age a few more years. Don’t forget the gracefully aging stocks at the independent bottlers that acquire new make spirit and age it themselves.

Secondly: if Caol Ila did disappear from the indie market… find your next Caol Ila! Make it Benrinnes, Dailuaine, Longmorn, or Teaninich, which seems to be gaining a growing fandom. There’ll still be plenty of whisky for sale. Keep a few bottles of Caol Ila open and run them down over the course of a few years. The news of Caol Ila’s slow demise is a worry, but not a fatal blow.

I browsed through my own collection to see what I haven’t reviewed for Malt and came up with two candidates, including one unopened, and you don’t have to ask me twice to open a Caol Ila.
First up, a Signatory cask strength version. This sold for around $220 to $240 in Australia upon release; too pricy, though that is the tax you pay for cask strength Signatory these days. Given the specs, a bottle from another independent would be anywhere from $50 to $75 cheaper.

Signatory Vintage 2010 Caol Ila 10-Year-Old Cask #316650 – Review

Distilled 22 September 2010. Bottled 20 April 2021. Matured in a refill sherry butt. 58.9% ABV. Cask number 316650. 578 bottles.

Colour: Dirty copper.

On the nose: Nicely smoky, briny, and salty. Black olives, barbeque meat spices, and charred steaks. Maybe my nose is deceiving me, but I keep coming back to an underlying dirty sweetness, like rotting plums or stewed rhubarb. This is in no way unappealing; instead, it adds layers to a peaty dram.

In the mouth: Kapow! Do you love a peater that doesn’t merely burn the back of your throat and make your eyes water? That has some velvety softness to counterbalance the smokiness? This is your dram. Fried up bacon, fine cigars, diesel fumes. Across the back of the palate, I detect bananas, mandarins, and sweet and sour sauce. The salty tears of an English cricketer complaining about the “spirit of cricket” when it suits them. Just divine.

Conclusions:

Truly a fantastic bottling from Signatory and reminds me of a recent Bunnahabhain I reviewed in providing some depth and layering to a peated malt. The refill sherry butt stayed well out of the way and merely let the spirit shine. I’ve had this bottle open for a while and wasn’t aware quite how much I liked it. This is the highest score I’ve assigned for Malt, no qualms or apologies offered.

Score: 9/10

Next up, a North Star. This was originally a Children’s Hospices Across Scotland bottling, but seems to have been repurposed in Australia because I picked it up as discounted unsold leftovers from a Whisky Show exclusive. It retailed for $200 originally, then was discounted to $149, before I finally picked it up for $119 at 20% off in an end of financial year sale. That price is bit of a once in a blue-moon occurrence; though $200 seems overs, somewhere between $150 to $200 might’ve been expected.

North Star Caol Ila 8 Year Old – Review

Matured for eight years, bottled June 2022 as part of outturn 19 from a refill butt. 51% ABV. 600 bottles produced. Available in Australia for $149 here or Canada for CAD $75 here.

Colour: Apple juice.

On the nose: Another peated bottling, however, far fruitier than the Signatory, with apple and mashed banana. There’s also cherries and incense smoke. Black coffee and smoked kippers.

In the mouth: Certainly softer than the Signatory on the palate. The ABV is lower, though still above 50%, so there’s still plenty of punch. Peaty and maritime with that iodine, medicinal quality that Islay whiskies are famous for. King prawns off the barbeque and grilled octopus. Lastly, some more of the mandarins from the Signatory Vintage.

Conclusions:

I am torn on how to score this one. The price I paid was unreasonably cheap, so I won’t allow it to affect my score. It’s not qualitatively as good as the Signatory… but is damn good, and cost me about half as much, so ultimately which would I buy again?

This is all the Caol Ila I have in my cabinet so, unfortunately, I can’t offer a review of a non-peated dram. If the rumours are not to be believed, and Caol Ila is not leaving us, my advice is not to take this distillery for granted (something I have done). If finances are tight, there’s sense to be made of sticking with the classics, rather than rushing to buy up and try every new distillery under the sun.

If Caol Ila does gradually depart the scene, my memories will indeed be fond.

Score: 7/10

Prices in Australian dollars, unless indicated otherwise.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Ravi Vyas says:

    ‘Tears of an English cricketer crying about spirit of cricket’ – sublime, Mark.

    When I first saw JW Island Green, I thought Diageo is going to put Green Label out, yet again. Will be a sad day, if that is to happen. Second thought was, the single malts going into the Green Label were each special on their own, and with the exception of Linkwood, the rest also have a strong global brand.
    So, let’s hope that Diageo is thinking of putting more weight behind Caol Ila and not thinking of putting it out. Unless the distillery is running out of juice.
    In that case, I agree with you, we should all go Bazball on any Caol Ila we can lay our hands on.

    PS
    Carey was playing professional cricket; Bairstow was acting like he was at a day care centre.

  2. Mahmoud Ali says:

    Mark, that North Star Caol Ila 8 is a lovely malt and your review does it justice. I bought a bottle here in Canada but before I opened it found some on sale for $60 Canadian. I took one home and opened it right away. It was delicious and the next day I went back and bought the last two.

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