By Richard Thomas
I’ve been writing quite a bit lately about people who don’t like peated whisky and how smoke doesn’t pair well with this and that, which upon reflection is an odd coincidence, because I am actually rather fond of a smoky dram. One of those distilleries favored by peat-lovers is Islay’s Caol Ila, a key institution in Diageo’s collection.
Caol Ila is a pretty big producer, turning out 3 million liters of spirit, compared to 1.4 million for Diageo stablemate Lagavulin. This only makes sense, since Caol Ila is the main contributor of smoky flavor to anything Johnnie Walker does, bottles its own single malts, and provides stock for other brands … which explains how Gordon & MacPhail can get their hands on some for their own independent bottlings.
This particular example was distilled in 2005 and bottled at 11 years old. What makes it especially eye-catching is that it was bottled at cask strength, 57.3% ABV, and from whisky aged in a Sherry butt.
In the glass, the liquid has the coloring of thick, fresh-cut straw, akin to light gold white wine. A swirl puts a thick coat on the glass, one that proves very, very reluctant to stretch its legs.
The nose is restrained, delivering understated notes of both smoked bacon and green pine, reminiscent of cooking breakfast in camp, spiced with cinnamon. I picked up a faint trace of dried apricot, but otherwise my opinion is the Sherry influence is largely absent from the scent.
On the palate, the liquid coats the mouth as thickly as the glass, and is endowed with an oily texture. At first the flavor is like pears baked with honey and spiced with cinnamon and the barest pinch of chili flakes, which is then engulfed by a puff of pine smoke. The finish rolls off that smoke, turning to ash and leaving a spicy afterglow. I personally found the whisky needed no water whatsoever, being just fine taken neat.
This single malt is being offered for a very reasonable $50 (£47). Given that this is approximately the same as the Caol Ila 12 Year Old, that makes it a big bargain buy. If you like Caol Ila, get this bottle.