Caol Ila (12 year)

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. There is also a peated 18-year expression.

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.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

Pronounced “cull-eela”, this blender’s darling (and the largest-capacity distillery on tiny Islay) only became available as an official distillery-bottled single malt in a regular lineup in 2002, although it was founded in 1846. Caol Ila was actually demolished and rebuilt by owner DCL (now known as Diageo) in 1974. Its success as a blending component and its less “in-your-face” style has won it a reputation as a “milder” peated Islay malt, although the ppm phenols of its malted barley is the same as that used by Lagavulin (both come from the maltings at Port Ellen). Something about Caol Ila’s stills (or its distillation processes) tamps down the peaty character and renders it less smokey. The distillery, which is on the eastern coast of Islay, gets its water from a loch in the hills called Loch Nam Ban. Unlike the water that flows into the southern Islay distilleries over hard quartzite hills, Loch Nam Ban’s source rises out of limestone and glacial deposits, which give the water a vibrant minerality that sets Caol Ila’s whisky apart from its southern contemporaries.
Caol Ila (12 year)
43% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $50-$60
Acquired: (30ml sample bottle)

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  • I bought an IB of caol ila not too long ago Nathan (and overpaid for it) and it was every bit as peaty as an ardbeg 10. I think it was 10 years old too so maybe because it was younger than the 12 yr old you reviewed or the IBs hold more true character than the OBs (especially OBs from diageo).

    Aside from that i liked the white wine notes on the nose and palate from the caol ila 12s ive tried before.

  • I haven’t had regular Caol Ila, but the Distiller’s Edition (with a moscatel finish) is very good. The nose is much more fruity and hides the shortcomings of the peat.

  • A high quality malt that is much better than a “recommended” rating. One to have on hand at all times. More consistent than Ardbeg 10 and much better than Laphroaig 10.

  • Caol Ila is a great whisky and my current fave. For many years I stuck with Lagavulin 16yo, sometimes straying into Laphroaig territory (love the cask strength). For me Lagavulin in now overpriced and the quality has gone down. Caol Ila is delicious, complex, and plenty peaty / smokey.

  • I personally feel that many of those earthy even dank notes are desirable from time to time, and I always keep a bottle of Caol Ila 12 on my shelf for those moments. I sometimes get a kind of wet tree bark dominant note, but don’t know what else to call it. I’m going to do a more focused tasting again tonight and see if I can put my finger on it.

  • Caol Ila 12 is much too expensive in my area compared with Ardbeg 10 or Laphroaig 10, and probably inferior to both in quality.

    • Hi Jamie. It’s other way round in my area. Definitely up there in quality and it doesn’t numb the tongue dead with the first lashing of peat like Ardbeg and Laphroaig seem to do

      If you haven’t tried it yet, you really should. Especially if you like Lagavulin and Talisker. It has whatever other good Diageo’s seem to have 🙈

      Not that they taste the same, no, but it has a similar mouthfeel. You get a satisfying punch of smoked bacon and peat then this great mildly citrusy sweetness.
      It does take to water very well. An easy drinker.

      Try it at a bar or from someone else’s collection.

      I’ve bought another one that I am not opening until a very occasion.