From London, with Love – Caol Ila 19yo “The Whisky Exchange”

Music: The Cranberries, “Dreaming My Dreams”

Caol Ila reminds me of London. The last (and only) time I was there, I spent one sunny May afternoon working in a small flat, enjoying Shropshire cheese, fresh bread, and some Caol Ila Cask Strength. Everything just seemed to work. It was there that I picked up this TWE bottling of a 19yo Caol Ila. Now, independent bottlings are largely a hit and miss, so I’ve read. With that level of risk, however, comes a higher return. When you get a good’en, you get one for a bargain. Independent bottlers also provide the chance for folks like me to try older whiskies that are usually unaffordable when packaged by the providing distillery.

Nose: It takes time a little bit of water (5 drops or so) to open up. Whereas the 12yo is upfront with its nose, this 19yo is mellow. Fresh top soil. Fireplace mantel. Vanilla. Similar to the Laphroaig Cairdeas, it has that unlit cigar tobacco. Olive oil and espresso. Coastal sea air, and seaweed, much like you’d expect with Caol Ila. An odd (but pleasant) pairing of lemon merangue and coal soot. Cherry cough drops. Some furnisher polish (distinctly lemon Pledge). Anise and, oddly, Pho.

Palate: Cool, refreshing, and oily. Bloody hell, there’s really nothing like an oily bourbon-cask whisky, something I find more often in older whiskies. It’s somewhat nippy, so in a way it’s still young, but that’s ok. Sherried whiskies like Glendronach’s 15yo give you that oily mouthful at 46% with a middle-age. It’s great, yes, but it’s almost a given. When I get that viscosity from a bourbon cask, I’m just all that much more astonished and appreciative. Coal smoke, sweet and sour citrus (in a good way), and fresh oysters in salt water. Chocolate and anise. Hints of leather, pear and coffee.

Finish: Long, with lingering peat smoke, lemon and salt water. Barbeque sauce. Hazelnuts on the tail.

Grade: A-

At first, I was really disappointed with this whisky. I opened the bottle, and the first two drams were so restrained on the nose, as to almost be lifeless. The palate was sharp and bland. The finish was long, but not all that interesting. I thought that I’d wasted some good money on this bottle until I watched Ralfy’s video on the 30yo Mackillop’s Choice Caol Ila. Old whiskies, he said, needed some time in the bottle to open up. Then I remember the sample I tried at the TWE came from a bottle 1/3 done, and I understood.

One month in, and this bottle is different.  The nose is somewhat quieter than the Caol Ila 12yo OB, but it’s much more talkative.  It reminds me of the Signatory 19yo Mortlach UCC I had a while back: oily, complex, but quiet. The whisky fans are right, too, that peat is sexy when it’s older. It becomes understated in the nose, present in the palate, and lingers throughout the finish.

I’ll summarize that it’s not the earth-shattering whisky I hoped it would be (I’d hoped to grade it an A), but it’s definitely a damn good one. As far as older whiskies go, too, it was reasonably cheap, so it has that going for it as well.

One last note: A Caol Ila is a Caol Ila is a Caol Ila. There are some drams out there that, if you’re blindfolded, you may not be able to guess that they’re from the same distillery. Caol Ila, so I’ve found, is not one of those. Every Caol Ila has that distinct coal smoke, lemon and sea salt base, and in that way, the distillery is remarkable.

“All the things you said to me today, changed my perspective in every way.”

Make it a Moscatel: 2011 Caol Ila Distillers Edition

As a preface, I’ve started reviewing whisky while listening to music on some good headphones, and I’m liking what it’s adding.

Music: Genesis, “Blood on the Rooftops”

Whiskies like the Caol Ila DE are examples of purchases I would never make on my own. At $100 a bottle for a 12yo+ @ 43% ABV, I’m not going to waste my shoestring budget on such an experiment, unless reviews tell me it’s the greatest thing since Lagavulin’s 16yo.  I received this whisky, instead, as a gift. As a gift, it’s a lovely whisky, and a step up (as one would hope) from the standard 12yo bottling. Not as good as the natural cask strength NAS, though.

Nose: A rare chance to summarize all the key notes in one go: buttered raisin toast. The sweetness of the moscatel turns the citrusy hickory smoke of the standard 12yo into BBQ sauce. White pepper. A little olive oil. Bubblegum and tobacco notes sit as a nice base.

Palate: Medium oily. Smooth, peaty citrus. Here is where the standard bottling comes in, but just a hair more mature. Salty, smoky over sour red grapes.

Finish: The peat is what sticks around. It sours a little bit, and then gets rather dry and peppery.

Grade: B+

I really wanted to like this much more than the standard bottling, but it’s just a tad better. In the end, the moscatel cask is interesting, and the nose superb, but the palate blows up into something sour, and that sort of lingers. It’s not bad, but we’ve got to split hairs somewhere, and this blog is supposed to do just that. Verdict: a novelty, worth picking up a small sample in a trade, but not a bottle at $100.

“Seems Helen of Troy has found a new face… again.”

Classic Coal: Caol Ila 12

Bought a full litre of this wonderful stuff at the Denver Airport Duty free for $54. That’s about half of what you’d pay at the LCBO. Most of the offerings they had were slim in the scotch category, so I decided that I should give this old classic a try. I usually like to travel off the beaten path with my whisky purchases, but as an Islay fan, and a Caol Ila fan, it was about time to give this classic dram it’s due.

Nose: Coal, tar, dill pickles and orange candy. Smoked fish and ham. Cookies. Barley notes.

Palate: Smooth, somewhat oily arrival. Peat and smoke. Sweet citrus. Ashy (in a good way).

Finish: Long and pleasant, dominated by notes of chili pepper, lemon, smoke.

Grade: B+

Very rarely do I give a “standard dram” more than a B. Caol Ila 12 deserves such a grade, however, because it manages to do with 43% what so many others cannot. It’s complex and medium oily, with a long finish. It’s bizarrely refreshing for an Islay, something that can be enjoyed on a cold winter night, or a not-too-hot summer’s day. I look forward to doing a flight with the Natural Cask Strength, 1998 Distillers Edition and the 19yo TWE CS sometime in the near future.

A Year In Review

Updated January 7th, more in-depth.

It feels about that time of year, where whisky fans/bloggers/maniacs alike are likely posting their favourites from their 2012 journeys, and being my first real serious year as a whisky blogger, I’d like to do the same. The whiskies that I’ve tried this year for the first time, and thus, all those eligible for consideration, were:

Bowmore “Tempest” 10yr (Batch 3)
’93 Ben Nevis 17yr (Signatory, UCC)
Caol Ila Natural Cask Strength
Aberlour a’Bunadh (Batch 36)
Springbank 12 Claret Wood
The Glenlivet 16 “Nadurra” (0911P)
Bruichladdich ‘The Laddie Ten’
Auchentoshan Valinch
’91 Mortlach 19yr (Signatory, UCC)
92 Clynelish 18yr (Signatory, UCC)
Port Charlotte (Bruichladdich) An Turas Mor
Highland Park 12
Glenmorangie 12 ‘Lasanta’
Cragganmore 12
Aberlour 10
The Glenlivet 12
Dun Bheagan 8 (Islay)

*Eligible whiskies must have been tasted for the first time in 2012, and I must have owned at least a 20cl bottle, and had at minimum, 4 drams of it.

I’ve been fortunate enough to try a number of great whiskies this year, and when I look back on the one’s I’ve tried, the ones with the highest price-to-quality ratio, in a few different categories, were:

Best Nose
Runner-Up: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength
Winner: Bowmore Tempest III

Best Palate
Runner-Up: ’93 Ben Nevis 17yo Signatory UCC
Winner: Bowmore Tempest III

Best Finish
Runner-Up: Bruichladdich ‘Laddie Ten’
Winner: Springbank 12 Claret Wood

Favourite Peated
Runner-Up: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength
Bowmore Tempest III

Favourite Unpeated
Runner-Up: Springbank 12 Claret Wood
Winner: ‘93 Ben Nevis 17yo Signatory UCC

Favourite No Age Statement
Runner-Up: Auchentoshan Valinch
Winner: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength

Favourite Overall
Runner-Up: Caol Ila Natural Cask-Strength
Runner-Up: ’93 Ben Nevis 17yo Signatory UCC
Winner: Bowmore Tempest III

Bowmore really took me by surprise this year. If you would have asked me last January what distillery I would expect to try something truly great from this year, I probably would have said Ardbeg, maybe Auchentoshan or Laphroaig, but never Bowmore. My initial taste of the 12yo had really ruined Bowmore for me, and I’m lucky to have been not-so-stubborn so as to give the tempest a chance. I eagerly await Batch 4.

The Springbank 12yo Claret Wood was also an excellent pick from earlier in 2012, as was the “carnival-in-a-glass” pick from Ben Nevis. My hopes are still to get a hold of the 17yo Cask strength version from ’93 (or ’92) before supply vanishes. Lastly, the Auchentoshan Valinch was a huge surprise in the NAS category, especially for the price it came in at. It was also the best whisky under $65 this year. I would love to say under $70, but then it would have to contend with Laphroiag’s QC, and I don’t think it was that good. Caol Ila’s win in the NAS category wasn’t as much of a surprise, as serving their younger stuff at cask-strength seems like it would be naturally good, given the rave reviews that the 12yo gets. The Auchentoshan, though it wasn’t the best NAS whisky of the year, sure took me by surprise. The Auchentoshan Classic/Select gets mediocre reviews—average at best—for an entry-level NAS malt at standard ABV. I was initially skeptical as to the merits of amping up something so banal to cask-strength, but was easily swayed when I opened the bottle. You go, Auchentoshan.

Here’s to another great year at “Whisky, Empirically”, where we will get to review #50, (at least!) a special Signatory bottle from the Whisky Exchange that I picked up for Christmas. Expect that review around Valentine’s Day.

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.