Caol Ila is a distillery on the famous whisky island of Islay. It is the largest distillery on the island with an annual production capacity of 3.5 million litres but despite this, is one of the least known. The main reason is that the majority of the stock goes to the Johnnie Walker blended whisky range, which is produced by the current owners, Diageo. However, this is changing as they begin to increase the promotion of Caol Ila as a single malt and release more bottlings.
Caol Ila (pronounced cull-ee-la) was founded in 1846 by Hector Henderson, who had formerly owned the Littlemill distillery near Glasgow. It is located on the northeast coast of the island and means ‘Sound of Islay’ in Gaelic. This is the name of the fast flowing, narrow stretch of water that separates Islay from the neighbouring island of Jura and the distillery overlooks this. It has a remote location and is surrounded by cliffs and caves on three sides. This difficult site was selected for its proximity to an abundant water supply from the nearby Loch Nam Bam and the good access to local shipping routes.
The core range of single malts currently includes a 12 years old, an 18 years old, this Cask Strength version and a limited Distiller’s Edition which is matured for its last two years in Moscatel fortified wine casks. Other limited bottlings are occasionally released and Caol Ila is extremely popular with the independent bottling companies. This bottling from Caol Ila has no stated age and is bottled at the natural cask strength - a whopping 61.6% ABV! It is available from specialist whisky retailers and should cost between £36-40 for a bottle.
Our tasting notes
This Cask Strength has a very light lemon yellow colour and the nose is vibrant and expressive. There is an immediate hit of burnt oat cereal aromas, creosote (that brown stuff that you paint on fences) and spicy hot peat smoke (you can almost smell the peat burning). These aromas relent briefly so as to allow other notes through - plenty of citrus zest (think of lemons), salty brine and hints of vanilla and honey. You couldn't describe this nose as subtle but is surprisingly underplayed for something of this strength. This whisky lulls you in to a false sense of security, because when you taste it you get ... KABOOM, as it detonates on to your taste buds! It is immediately oily in your mouth and grips hard with its collection of intense flavours - think of cereals (especially oatcakes), tangy zesty lemons, fiery and peppery hot chilli spice, salty brine and robust ashy peat smoke. Subtle notes of vanilla and honey linger underneath. The finish is long and powerful with plenty of robust cereals, wood ash and hot peppery spicy notes on offer. These seem to burn away for ever!
The powerful alcoholic strength and the intensity of the experience makes you want to add some water. This helps to soften the whisky greatly, allowing increased notes of cereals, vanilla and honey to come through better on both the nose and palate. There is less heat and spiciness and it feels creamier and more buttery than before, with very pleasant and soft notes of ash and a hint of burnt rubber. This whisky can take plenty of water and it becomes more accessible by doing so.
What's the verdict?
This is one serious whisky! The power of the alcohol heightens the senses and exaggerates the aromas and flavours that are present. It is tangy, zesty, spicy and briny and not for the faint hearted. This may be too much for some but the whisky takes water very well, which softens it and makes it more palatable. An immediately brash, bold and feisty dram develops in to a lovely one when given time in the glass and a helping hand from some water. A must try for smoky whisky fans and those that are up for a challenge!