Caol Ila, long owned by Diageo (from back when it was DCL) and long used as fodder for blending because of its subdued peatiness and round, nutty undertones has in the last decade won more recognition as a single malt. The distillery itself, rebuilt in 1974 to crank out whisky for blending, has the largest capacity of any distillery on Islay. While considered to be milder in peat flavor than its contemporaries (Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig), its malted barley (from the maltings at Port Ellen) is the same as the 35ppm peated malt used by Lagavulin. Caol Ila’s quiet nature must be derived from some element of its process of distillation, some characteristic of its stills, or perhaps from the minerality of its water.
Caol Ila is a component in Bell’s, Johnnie Walker (especially in Double Black), and other Diageo blends. It’s interesting to note that Caol Ila switches to production of unpeated malt for part of the year (sometimes released as a single malt as well), which is also a component in Diageo’s blends. Caol Ila is shipped via tanker to the Scottish mainland, filled into ex-bourbon barrels, and aged in a Diageo warehouse. 95% of its production goes into blends.
Nose: Wet bog, a dominant peatiness that seems more like wet leaves, humus, and decaying fallen trees than smoke or sea. Very light oakiness underneath, with only a thin layer of malt serving as a vehicle for the peat. Caol Ila has a reputation for being one of the “lightest” examples of Islay peat, but I would say that the peat here is simply less brash and smokey. There’s no denying that the dominant note here is peat.
Palate: Soft in texture, but with a lot of tongue burn for 43% ABV. The peat is subdued on the palate, revealing instead waves of chocolatey malt and a bit of nutty oak.
Finish: Medium-Long. The peat becomes almost fruity, with a hint of strawberry jam. Chocolate fudge and hazelnut butter. Tasty.
With Water: A few drops of water make the peat more pungent, but don’t affect its character. The water might tame the tongue burn somewhat. It certainly doesn’t hurt.
Overall: The nose is a little off-putting for me, even though I enjoy peat. The muddiness and earthy quality of the peat seems “lower quality” to me than the peat of other Islay distilleries. However, that all changes on the tongue, where the peat gives way to a very tasty chocolate note. This continues through the finish, which has the strangest merging of boggy peat, strawberry jam, and chocolate fudge. Weird, but very satisfying. I would score this higher if the nose were either more clear and refined, or less peaty. Either way, the rest of the experience makes up for it.