Caol Ila (18 year)

Long-time reader Jamie was kind enough to send me another sample, this time from his recent purchase of a bottle of Caol Ila 18 year (purchased in 2019). I was very happy with his previous sample, an Unpeated Caol Ila 18 from 2017, so we both thought it would be interesting to see how the “standard” peated 18-year compares. My joy at receiving this sample (and the previous one) is compounded by the fact that this whisky is inexplicably unavailable in the United States (there is a 750ml version, but the distribution is so small that all retailers appear to be continually out of stock).

Most of Caol Ila’s output is peated and most of it (95%!) ends up in various blends, as it’s the go-to standard for adding smoke to blended malts these days because of its inherent softness and willingness to play with others. This being a Diageo malt, there is essentially no information online. It’s clearly been aged in ex-bourbon casks for its 18 years of maturation, but were they refill casks? First-fill? Who knows. I’d guess refill. Was the whisky chill-filtered or did it receive coloring agents? No idea. And onward we proceed, as uninformed as we began:

Nose: Smoke-forward vanilla-laden Caol Ila peat, like a fragrant just-snuffed candle. Sandalwood, blanched almonds, and butterscotch pudding. Downright elegant.

Palate: Medium-weight, almost oily mouthfeel. Sweet upfront (more pudding), with a sedate tongue burn. Sweet wood, pungent peat smoke with herbal notes.

Finish: Long. Caramel or nougat, charcoal, bitter herbs (like cocktail bitters) that linger for basically ever, along with the remaining wisps of smoke.

With Water: The addition of a few drops of water seems to initially mute the aroma, requiring a rest in the glass. After, the aroma seems unchanged by the water. The palate might be thinner, and offers slightly more tongue burn. The water adds a menthol note to the finish. I suggest skipping the water with this one.

Overall: 18 years in oak has not seemed to dull the Caol Ila peat like it does in other Islay malts. That same vanilla-laden peat smoke is accompanied by a greater amount of wood sugars and caramelly (it’s a real word damn you, spellcheck) notes than younger Caol Ilas, and they meld harmoniously. That sandalwood note on the aroma, the vanilla throughout, and the oily mouthfeel are highlights. I could wish for the finish to have a little less of that bitter herb flavor, but it is really a problem easily solved by taking another sip. I could also wish for a push higher in ABV, as 43% is a little lackluster for an 18 year-old release. That said, the price is not outrageous. Depending on exchange rates, it can be had for around $90 to $100, which is what we all USED to pay for 18 year-old single malt scotches.

For the record, I did like the unpeated Caol Ila 18 better. It probably helped that the unpeated release was at cask strength. Still, if you’re a fan of smoke but prefer it to be presented in an elegant package without taking the top of your head off, Caol Ila 18 delivers on all fronts.

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 (18 year)
43% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $90-$110 (estimated, depending on exchange rates)
Acquired: Sample from a reader's bottle. Thanks, Jamie!

Share This!

  • Glad you liked it.

    I am afraid that the days of unpeated Caol Ila are over. The bottlings got older and older every year until it disappeared from the Special Releases lineup altogether in 2019. Here’s hoping that they still have some lying around for the future.