A Coal Islay: Caol Ila Natural Cask Strength

A friend from England brought me a quarter bottle of this little gem on a recent visit of his to our side of the pond. Caol Ila is not something that is readily available here in Ontario, so despite being a rather serious fan of Islay whiskies, I had only the experiences of Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bowmore and Lagavulin to date. After enough peated drams, I’ve begun to think that there is no more room on the peat spectrum in my head for more “unique” whiskies, and at some point, they have to start tasting like each other, in some linear combination or another. Caol Ila’s NCS, however, has managed to find some more room on the spectrum.

Nose: Peat, of course, but this one is more about the coal smoke (straight-up BBQ), tar and phenol. The coal smoke sets itself apart from the other notes that are more mingled–that is, the lemon, grape, and coastal sea salt that follows, along with some seaweed notes. There is also something like the smell of good baking. A little sweetness in the baked good, likely honey. Lastly, there is some requisite smoked bacon, as is par for a really good smoky dram.

Palate: Oily as all hell, in the most pleasant way. Mouth-coating, and not all that hot for something that’s 58%. The previous batch of 61.6% may have been a bit much, (just speculating) but this one is perfect. Honey, lemon and a hint of grape. Then comes the salty bacon and tarry ashy BBQ smoke. It’s a sweet-then-salty palate. While water opens it up, it’s perfectly drinkable at 58%, and there are very few drams I’ve tried where I can say that at such a high percentage.

Finish: Long peaty finish with coastal sea salt and spicy bacon.

Grade: A-

They’ve managed to find that nice balance of smoke and peat, coupled with a unique flavour (in this case, lemon, salt and bacon) that Bowmore’s Tempest III and Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask have managed to do, and it works so well at such a high strength that in some cases, you don’t even need the water. A truly great whisky that I wish we were able to stock over here.

Update (05.07.13): I’m here in London for a conference, and decided to pick up another quarter bottle of this to enjoy while I’m here for the week. For a late lunch today, I sat down with some smoked mackerel, sourdough, plum tomatoes and Shropshire cheese, which I paired with the Caol Ila NCS. This dram and smoked fish are made for each other. Full stop.

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