I don’t get to drink a lot of Caol Ila. To me, it sits in an awkward place in the scotch whiskey pantheon: not as heavily or intensely peated as its neighbors Laphroaig or Ardbeg, and used in higher proportion than other peated malts for various blends (especially the Diageo blends), it feels like the “middle child” of the Islay drams. When I’m in the mood for peat, I usually don’t feel like going halfway and I turn to something intense like Ardbeg Corryvreckan or Lagavulin 16 or Laphroaig 10. Caol Ila just doesn’t spring to mind.
Luckily for me a longtime reader of this blog, Jamie, offered to send me a sample of his newly-acquired Caol Ila Unpeated 18-year. I’m always up for a chance to try something new without having to purchase a whole bottle! The “Unpeated Style” releases, from an annual run of unpeated Caol Ila made by the distillery for blending purposes, are a Special Release series bottled by Diageo once a year, often at different ages and always at natural cask strength. The 2017 release is the oldest bottled to date, at 18 years in (ex-bourbon) refill American oak hogsheads. There is no added color and the whisky was not chill-filtered.
I find this kind of expression to be a valuable learning opportunity: if you remove a familiar aspect (the peat) from a familiar dram, tasting the differences teaches the mind and the tongue how to identify and appreciate those aspects and allows one to understand how that flavor fits into the whole. You can also sometimes uncover beautiful notes that were otherwise masked by (in this case) the peat.
Nose: A flurry of fruit (tropical in nature: mango, kiwi, passion fruit), which settles after a rest in the glass into a sedate lemon-lime affair flecked with vanilla and a well-rounded custardy sweetness. A twinge of smoke – not peat! – and delicate florals add interest. Despite the high ABV, the nose tickle is under control.
Palate: Syrupy body. Oaky upfront, with a sultry layer of mossy (but not smoky) peat. The tongue burn is fierce and numbing, but is accompanied by a fiery note of cinnamon and stonefruit – plum? This subsides into a typical banana-and-vanilla ex-bourbon flavor profile with a pleasant earthy note like freshly-dug garden soil.
Finish: Medium-long. Faint licorice, some oaky spices (including the cinnamon), and a large helping of somewhat bitter charcoal which obscures the rest of the finish, the only mar in an otherwise excellent dram. Fades with a ghost of menthol.
With Water: A splash of water adds a tutti-frutti or bubble gum note to the aroma, and melds the fruits into a cohesive sweet dessert-like package. The water thins the body somewhat, and does very little to tame the tongue burn. I think you’d have to aggressively water it down to achieve that. The finish is a little brighter and sweeter – again with the bubble gum. I suggest at least smelling a dram at full-strength before adding any water. Progressively add small amounts of water – allowing each time to meld – until the tongue burn is acceptable to you.
Overall: Do I lose my blogger cred if I say I like this better than the peated version? Do I have any blogger cred? This has a phenomenal whirl of fruit, a bit of sweetness, a bit of smoke, and robust texture and flavor. I could wish for a little less bitterness on the finish, but the entirety is well worth the price tag (and the experiment of leaving the peat out of a peated classic). It goes well with a splash or two of water. Either way this is a contemplative, multi-layered dram which completely does not make me miss the peat.
I’m marking this as a “Must Try” to recognize its quality and to encourage any fans of Islay malts (and Caol Ila in particular) to experience what lies underneath all the smoke.