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.