I’d love to smash your preconceptions.
It’s astounding, to some extent, that whisky biases still exist. Of course, there’s human nature to blame; we have good evolutionary reasons for developing heuristics and rules of thumb that may be incorrect on occasion. However, our daily lives are filled with examples of overcoming the limitations of our Cro-Magnon brains. Why can’t we do the same with whisky?
I’m typically not one to violate Hanlon’s razor, the principle that one ought “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I don’t think folks persist in their misconceptions because they’re trying to deceive others. Rather, I believe that simply being ill-informed – often by others with a financial incentive to do so – is more likely the culprit.
Thinking back to the earliest part of my whisky journey: I used to love finding reviews on Malt. The way Mark skewered the conceits of the big whisky marketing juggernauts – intelligently and entertainingly – felt like a revelation. From “only the finest casks” on down, the shibboleths and puffery used and abused by the trade were comprehensively debunked.
Now, as then, Malt remains somewhat of a voice in the wilderness. While the diehards are well versed in the industry’s chicanery, the global audience for whisky is growing by the day… and that means a constant stream of new, credulous drinkers in the fold. It is with them in mind that I am penning this piece.
Look, I get it. Whisky is big, diverse, and confusing… often intentionally so. When someone new to whisky is read a “rule,” they’re inclined to believe it, no matter how empirically falsifiable it may be. The goal of the reviews below is to illustrate that some of the most common tropes in whisky – the types prefaced by phrases like “Everyone knows that…” – frequently buckle under the most casual scrutiny.
I feel as though the drams assembled here today would be a good crash course for someone toward the end of the beginning of their whisky journey, if that makes sense. These aren’t expressions for total novices; we’ve got three IBs and a festival bottling, coming to us at cask strength. However, they would probably go a long way towards making people think twice about the received “wisdom” they parrot.
Starting at the start: the color of a whisky is often (mistakenly) presumed, in terms of its darkness, to correlate to flavor. Setting aside the use of E150A to artificially darken a dram, I believe many newer whisky drinkers would be shocked that these light, translucent whiskies could pack such a punch on the nose and in the mouth.
“Age ain’t nothing but a number,” as we were informed by the Aaliyah song written by R. Kelly (talk about things that don’t withstand scrutiny!). The whiskies I’ll be reviewing today are between 10 and 11 years old; respectable, perhaps, but not anywhere close to the high end of the official ranges of most established Scotch whisky distilleries. I hope to illustrate, via my tasting notes, that the comparative youth of these bottlings is not indicative of any lack of flavor development, either in terms of breadth or depth.
Another source of potential bias is the strength (or lack thereof) of the brand on the bottle. While the likes of Macallan are renowned the world over – often without merit – today’s drams come from a relatively unheralded workhorse distillery. While Caol Ila (especially in its independently bottled incarnations) is known among the Scotch whisky connoisseurs for consistently above-average whisky at below-average prices, its name is not the popular Islay byword that Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig are.
There are other themes at play here: the variation between single casks, the similarities (or differences) between whiskies from the same distillery, the palatability of peated distillate… and don’t even get me started on price. That’s a sticky one, here; most of these bottlings are a few years old, and all have disappeared from primary retail outlets. Auction sites are likely the only source for these bottles nowadays, with prices inflated accordingly, if the bottles can be found at all.
However, Malt utilizes a price-sensitive scoring framework, so I’ve got to come up with something. The official Caol Ila 12 year old bottling sells for $80 at my local. Independently bottled Caol Ila expressions between seven and 13 years old are currently available from between $70 and $90, so I’m going to score these as though I paid $80 or thereabouts for them. Imperfect methodology, to be sure, but I’ve got quite a bit of whisky ahead of me, so I press on (if you feel strongly that this is a fantastical price, please feel free to drop suggestions in the comments).
Starting off, we have the Feis Isle bottling from 2018:
Caol Ila Feis Isle 2018 – Review
10 years old. 58.2% ABV. Thanks to Bryan for the sample; he previously reviewed the whisky here.
Color: Darkest of the bunch (not that it matters); a medium-pale brownish gold.
On the nose: This has a superb marriage of dark red, wine-y fruit, as well as all the hallmark notes you’d expect from Islay. The smoke here is of a rich, almost savory variety, but any time I focus on it too intently I find a counterbalancing note of berries, freshly baked pastries, tarragon, or warm butter. The best of both worlds in terms of balance between peat and malt; can’t wait for my first sip of this.
In the mouth: The first sip of this is a dazzling parade of flavors from the front to the back of the mouth, ones that rush by in an instant. Composing myself and approaching this again: there’s a salinity to start that feels like a palate cleanser, preparing the way for what is to come. In the middle of the mouth, this transitions to an effervescent texture and some meaty and nutty notes, though these want for a bit of heft, for my palate. There’s a woody accent here that carries the whisky into the finish, where there’s a brief burst of seawater and a sharp minerality before this transitions into a long, smoky fade accented by a surprising and delightful note of mocha. The ABV pleasantly warms the soft tissue of the mouth for a minute after the last swallow.
I’m not madly in love with this in the way Bryan was, but that’s OK. It’s still damn fine Caol Ila, a clear notch above the mainstay official bottlings. Great nose, lovely texture in the front and back of the mouth. Throughout, the elements imparted by the peat are incorporated elegantly; not one to share with a peat-phobic, perhaps, but it might go a long way toward converting a peat-skeptic. My major qualm is that this is a bit light in the middle of the mouth, where I might have liked a bit more of that fruity body from the nose. All in all, still very solidly above average, and one I am grateful for having had the chance to try.
Moving along, we have a pair of Thompson Bros. bottlings for the London Whisky Club. I’ll be tasting them in order of ascending ABV.
Thompson Bros. Caol Ila 10 Year (2010) – Review
For London Whisky Club. Single refill bourbon hogshead. 500 bottles. 52.9% ABV. Sample courtesy of Graham.
Color: Very pale straw.
On the nose: Butter my biscuits! This is possessed of the sweetest, richest, most appealing note of… well, buttered biscuits, with all the creamy and baked aromas that you’d expect to associate. There’s a bit of sour and sweet fruit in here – lemons and lychees – but mostly the buttered biscuits are the star of the show.
In the mouth: Starts with an odd flavor which is hard to put my finger on. Almost like a bit of plastic, or a chemical taste? The more I consider it, I am leaning toward latex bandages. Regardless, this off note sits for an uncomfortably long time between the front and middle of the mouth. It disappears eventually, though, and the whisky moves into the finish with a slight salinity and a wee wisp of peat smoke. This thins out noticeably toward the back of the mouth, leaving mostly a hot tingly texture – rather than any flavor – as a souvenir.
Even without the off note, this is pretty middling as far as Caol Ila goes. That peculiar flavor is so distracting and unpleasant, though, that I am docking a pair of points. In full disclosure: this was sent to me in a plastic sample bottle, and had sat in the cupboard for a good long while, so maybe there is some contamination? If you’ve had this yourself and not been troubled, please feel free to let me know. As it stands, I’m scoring this punitively.
Thompson Bros. Caol Ila 10 Year (2010) – Review
For London Whisky Club. Single refill bourbon hogshead. 294 bottles. 54.2% ABV. Once again, a sample courtesy of Graham.
Color: Palest shade of yellow.
On the nose: Not pale at all; this is hardcore Islay upfront, with a salty and smoky blast of peat that jumps out of the glass. Underneath this are layers of ripe tangerines, a meaty note of roasted chicken breast, and a citric note married to a dash of Christmas spice. Nuanced enough to keep me sniffing a good long while.
In the mouth: This starts with a dry, mouth-puckering mineral note. It then begins a very slow build into a crescendo of flavor in the middle of the mouth. There, some rich woodiness meets with the nutty flavor of cashews, as well as a surprising expression of malt. There’s a smokiness to this that tends toward ashy as the whisky moves into the finish. There, a momentary burst of floral and citric fruit flavors yields to a firm note of saline. The flavor fades, leaving a numb tingle in the mouth and on the lips.
Right down the middle of the fairway; this would be an excellent introduction to Caol Ila for someone who had never tried any. The nose dazzles, though the palate is a bit more conventional. This isn’t a bad thing; it delivers all the expected flavors in good proportions, but there’s never really a moment where I say “wow!” To reflect this, and to signal my relative preference for the Feis Isle bottling, I am scoring this a notch above the midpoint of the range.
To round out the tasting, we have the oldest of the bunch: an 11 year old from The Single Cask. John gave us a deep dive interview with this bottler back in April, if you’re curious about their story.
The Single Cask Caol Ila 11 Year (2020 Christmas Bottling) – Review
Distilled 2008. Ex-bourbon barrel. 233 bottles. 57.1% ABV. As before, courtesy of Graham.
Color: A slightly darker – but still exceedingly pale – hay.
On the nose: Christmas, indeed; this has restrained notes of berries, dried fruit, and spice. There’s also a stale woodiness on the nose that comes off as almost acrid. It’s reminiscent of the raw woody note I sometimes get from craft whisky matured in small barrels. Overall, this is much more simplistic – aromatically speaking – than the others. Let’s see if the mouth isn’t any better?
In the mouth: That stale woody note is once again present upfront, and somewhat mars the entire presentation from the front to the back of the mouth. It’s like an awkward guest at a party who won’t shut up or go away; all the other flavors in here struggle to make themselves heard above that very weird flavor. I’d be grasping to provide you my notes on other flavors like saline and mocha; they’re simply drowned by that awful note.
Flawed, similar to the first Thompson Bros bottling, though in this case I have no reason to suspect that the packaging is to blame. This tastes like a bum cask got foisted on the independent bottler; the whisky is actually unpleasant to drink. Thus, I’m scoring it accordingly.
I hope this was as engaging a tasting to read about as it was for me to write. Even the bad whiskies in the bunch were educational; you really need to know your bottler and, when possible, try before you buy. Rather than re-hash the list of themes I led with, I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions as regards to their applicability. Instead, I’ll simply encourage you to keep challenging both your preconceptions and your palate by trying lots of different whiskies with an open mind. The results might surprise you.
Feis Isle bottle photo courtesy of Bryan. Thompson Bros. bottle photos courtesy of Whisky Auctioneer and Whiskybase. The Single Cask bottle photo courtesy of The Single Cask.