One good look at Caol Ila

Caol Ila

‘They say it’s not the bonniest, but the view makes up for it. What other distillery gets this?’ – David Wood, the new Distillery Manager at Caol Ila, draws a wide semi-circle with his hand, pointing to the Sound of Islay, after which the distillery is named, the Paps over on Jura and beyond. There is a tone of apology in his voice but also, right underneath, a hint of quiet defiance. After all, which father wants to admit his baby is ugly? His remark is nothing more than a pre-emptive strike, a gentle self-deprecation to prevent any further discussion.

But I like the grey slab of Caol Ila. Even though a couple of weeks ago I visited for the first time, the biggest Islay distillery felt like an old friend, every inch of it.

I love the location because it’s easy to love, and love the old warehouse – if you don’t you have no heart. But I’m also one of the, presumably, few people who find the newer main building aesthetically pleasing. Although erected around the time postmodernism in architecture was taking root across Europe, luckily it was a conservative project, nodding decidedly to the previous order. It’s much more Le Corbusier than ripe Philip Johnson. In many ways it’s a bit like the whisky itself, unassuming, in no way flashy and easy to overlook but purposeful and noble in essence. You arrive at the car park and if you don’t pay attention and listen to the beat of the place, you’re going to feel like turning around and heading back up the hill: ‘Hey, did you hear? Bruichladdich is filling quintuple-distilled spirit into casks seasoned with unicorn blood. We can’t miss that.’

But the home of Caol Ila is well proportioned and doesn’t lack architectural merit. It’s just too recent to be appreciated, for now it hangs in a limbo between excitingly new and heart-warmingly old. But look at the ‘teeth’ of the roof mimicking of the short wave rippling the surface of the Sound. Look at the façade, light and elegant, designed to invite the water, the rock and the sky in, make the elements part of the process. Step inside and climb into the control room to peer down at the opaquely blue sea through a tangle of copperwork in the stillroom.

No, Caol Ila is not bonnie. But it is beautiful.

Enough about the building, though. I am perhaps blinded by my love of the whisky. And it’s the whisky flowing from the coastal giant that’s truly worth our attention. A few days ago I reviewed the latest Caol Ila 30 Year Old 1983, part of annual Special Releases. Take a look if you haven’t seen it yet. I thought the liquid was special and the price, I can’t believe I’m saying this, not entirely outrageous. But I also said I’d rather buy a bottle of the 25 Year Old and keep the change. Here’s why.

Caol Ila new make spirit
68% ABV

Incredibly citrusy. Cold smoke, almost metallic, punches through. It’s perfumed and has that slightly sickly but oh-so-moreish sugar puff sweetness. Candied orange. This is good.

Caol Ila 12 Year Old
43% ABV

There is a green tint to it. Sugared lemons and marzipan hug the familiar clean smoke closely. Yellow Haribo bears, pineapple syrup and cotton candy follow. The palate is stung by the smoke, it bounces up and down like a hyper child on a spring mattress. There is white chocolate and honeycomb there, that sensation of teeth-desolving sweetnes without the actual sugary hit, set off by an acidic sharpness. It’s a classic and deservedly so, a fantastic dram at its price point.

Caol Ila Fèis Ìle 2014
Distilled 2002, refill hogsheads
55.5% ABV

Ah, the fèis bottling this year was just cracking. I had the liquid at the time of release and thought it was everything I expected and more, but just didn’t find the time to write about it. Revisiting this stonking drop at the distillery was a rare treat.

It’s clean and citrusy with that lemon meringue combination of sharpness, chewiness and sweetness. Piercing smoke, intense. Water makes it pop out of the glass with even more citrus, oily and green this time, floral overtones and processed sugar. Superb mouthfeel from the entry, German stollen, bursting with marzipan, raisins, orange peel and peach. All that sprinkled with salt, it’s surprisingly savoury on the finish.

It’s almost a caricature of the distillery style, Caol Ila in overdrive. Not a dram to relax with but what an excellent insight into just how clean and pronounced the heart of this malt can be.

Caol Ila 18 Year Old
43% ABV

The citrus is now grown-up. It’s gone all candied orange, some of it has morphed into apricot glaze and green banana. Treacle depth. The palate too shows maturity and clear sense of direction, the acidity is smoothed, peat subdued but warmed up and the orange turns into bitter marmalade. 1990s-style radiant blue cocktail type of sweetness. Ginger biscuits and grist on the finish. This is just amazing, Caol Ila at its best, flexing muscles and smiling at the same time. It’s a shame about the strength though. I’m told it’s well thought-through and a concious, drinking-experience-driven choice. I accept that explanation, frankly what choice do I have, but don’t stop dreaming of the 18 Year Old at 46-48%.

Caol Ila 25 Year Old
43% ABV

Big and bad. Mango, passion fruit and bruised banana reign supreme, supported by an entourage of dried fruits, burned prune syrup, wine reducing over butter and finally fresh coconut. The smoke is now as soft as chamois leather but dense and choking, like somebody has put a silk pillow over your face. The palate is incredible too, if you’re not careful Caol Ila 25 Year Old will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth permanently. Try explaining that to the nurse at the A&E. Bitterness runs through it, finally, and there is that sense of uncompromising maturity. This whisky is not here to please, it’s here to impress you into submission and I feel sufficiently submitted from the first sip. This is one of the all-time greats, and one of my personal favourites. I’m trying not to imagine what it would be like at higher ABV, I mean why do it to yourself? But I’m convinced it could be even greater.

At inside £150 it’s far more accessible than any other official bottling of this age from the Islay Greats, and a lot of punch for the buck. And that’s why I said I’d prefer this to the 1983. I’m not a whisky collector, I’m a whisky drinker. I know you can be both but that’s not me. Beautiful bottles make me smile and rare whiskies excite me but ultimately I don’t want them to stick around. I’ve shown on many occasions a decidedly destructive attitude towards my whisky shelves and I’m proud of it. Every bottle polished off or given away is a solid result as it makes room for another. And Caol Ila 25 Year Old is a whisky for someone like me, a drinking one, not fussy and just begging to be opened and shared.

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