Caol Ila (Pronounced: cool-EEla)
Islay (East shore)
55°50'54.042 N, 6°6'25.1064 W
Bunnahabhain, Bowmore, Kilchoman
Loch Nam Ban
3 Wash stills, 3 Spirit stills
3,750,000 litres of pure alcohol per year
Diageo > UDV (since 1986)
Port Askaig, Islay, Argyll PA46 7RL, Scotland
Not as such, but they do give tours nowadays
Below, on Whiskyfun and on the Malt Maniacs Monitor
Scores & tasting notes:
1) The name Caol Ila (pronounced as 'kul-eela' and easily misspelled as Coal Ila) is Gaelic for 'Sound of Islay' and is probably inspired by the location of the distillery along the stretch of water between Islay and Jura.
2) Caol Ila is the largest distillery on Islay by far; with an annual production capacity of almost 4 million litres of pure alcohol per year - about a quarter of all malt whisky that is distilled on the island. As such, Caol Ila's capacity dwarfs well known malt whisky brands like Longmorn, Glenfarclas, Highland Park, Laphroaig and Lagavulin.
3) Although there is a three storey warehouse on the distillery grounds, these days the entire production is sent to the mainland via tanker trucks. So, young Caol Ila is not filled and matured on Islay.
4) After the distillery was remodeled and expanded in 1974 to better suit the needs of blenders Caol Ila introduced a novel new whisky for blenders in the mid 1980's: an unpeated malt whisky known as 'Caol Ila Highland '. This product was intended for blending and most (if not all) casks would thus have gone to blenders for, erm... blending. However, in 1999 Caol Ila resumed production of unpeated whisky for the 'single malt' market. These bottlings became available in 2006 or 2007 when Diageo released the first bottling of the Caol Ila 8 Years Old 'Unpeated'. Since most blenders were not in the habit of storing their casks for very long (with the exception of Douglas Laing, perhaps) there probably are not that many casks of the unpeated Caol Ila Highland around - if any at all...
Caol Ila 12yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Light and clean start; peaty with a honey sweet undercurrent. Some clay and industrial oils.
Taste: Smooth on the surface, but it suggests a raw undercurrent. Salty episodes. Some smoke and rubber.
Score: 80 points - the dry, bitter finish keeps this 12 year old whisky at the bottom of the 'recommendable' bracket.
Caol Ila 25yo 1984/2010 (55.7%, Wilson & Morgan Barrel Selection, C#5399, Rossi Import)
Nose: Starts out fairly clean, but it picks up sweeter notes and some organic "dirty" traits soon.
Taste: Surprisingly tarry. Smoke, but some sweetness as well. A hint of menthol in the finish perhaps?
Score: 87 points - very pleasant indeed, but I'm not sure if a price tag of more than 150 Euro's is warranted.
Caol Ila 29yo 1981/2010 (47.4%, Duncan Taylor Rare Auld, C#2927, 322 Bts.)
Nose: Ah! Organic and peaty. A Kildalton malt? Sweaty & meaty after some breathing. Then more industrial oil.
Even more organics emerged after five minutes. Gunpowder? I didn't dare to add water to this one though.
Taste: Smooth, sweet and peaty - but not as powerful as the nose would suggest. It improves with time.
Score: 88 points - it started out in the mid-80's, but the nose kept evolving and showing new perspectives.
Caol Ila 29yo 1981/2010 (57.2%, Berry Brothers for John Milroy Selection, Refill Hogshead, C#8167)
Nose: Faint oily notes before more sherried elements emerge. Opens up with some more austere notes.
Taste: Sweet and peaty; fruity and a little medicinal. Very pleasant. Smoke and tannins in the finish.
Score: 89 points - very nice to find a 'dirty' expression from a distillery that usually produces a clean malt.
Caol Ila 10yo 'Unpeated' (65.8%, OB, Bottled 2009)
Nose: Wow! Sharp and tarry and quite unusual. A few smoky seconds before the fruit emerges.
A malty profile. Quite alcoholic, sweetening out after a minute. Some spices too; nutmeg and parsley.
After adding a little water more, citrussy notes emerged before the malty notes and sweetness came forward.
Taste: Solid, fruity start and centre. Quite hot, but the mouth feel is just excellent. A tad gritty in the finish.
It's surprisingly drinkable at cask strength. With a dash of water the mouth feel became much smoother.
Score: 83 points - I prefer this over the 8yo, but I'm not sure if it's because of the proof or the extra two years.
Caol Ila 1998/2009 (60.9%, Malts of Scotland, Bourbon Hogshead #12374, 226 Bts.)
Nose: Oil and peanuts. More phenols emerge within a few seconds. Growing complexity.
More sweetness over time, which balances out some of the other aroma's in the profile.
Taste: Very smoky and phenolic with a good dose of tar. Meaty. Very pleasant finish.
Score: 85 points - for me, this was the highest scoring Caol Ila at the Malt Maniacs Awards 2009.
Caol Ila 12yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2008)
Nose: Light and crisp. A touch of distant peat, but not much else. Not expressive enough to put it above average.
Maybe some faint fishy notes and organics after a few minutes - and more and more chloride. Growing complexity.
Taste: Sharp, peaty attack. Bitter finish. Sweetens out after some breathing, pushing it above average.
However, this one needs time. A touch of liquorice during a second try.
Score: 78 points - IMHO, this 12 year old whisky dropped off quite a bit since it was launched in 2004.
Caol Ila 1996/2008 Distillers Edition (43%, OB, ref 4/468)
Nose: Starts fragrant on the oily side with some fruits in the background. More smoky than peaty.
Unfortunately, this whisky is not quite as complex as the nose suggests at first - little development.
Taste: Liquorice, aniseed and dust. Feels just a tad watery at first before powering up.
Gritty, chalky finish with a hint of aspirin. Too bad; is that the effect of the first maturation casks?
Score: 81 points - which puts it in 'recommendable' territory.
Caol Ila 27yo 1981/2008 (53.8%, Duncan Taylor Rare Auld, C#2932, 502 Bts.)
Nose: Peat, of course. Restrained and a little veggy. Opens with more meaty notes. Complex and interesting.
Taste: Solid, nutty and malty. Pretty great mouth feel. Dry finish. Peat en smoke emerge in the finish.
Score: 85 points - and five other jurors also nominated this one for silver at the MM Awards 2008.
Caol Ila 8yo 'Unpeated Style' (64.9%, OB, Bottled 2007)
Nose: Light and fruity - melon sweetness. A little more complexity that this type of light whiskies usually shows.
However, it doesn't really evolve much beyond that. No wait - now I get some cardboard and organics...
Taste: Floral sweetness. Growing drier into the centre. Hey wait, is that the finish already? I guess it was...
Quite harsh. This one is hard to rate. It's very solid, but perhaps a smidgen indecisive. Beer?
The dry finish keeps it on the southern border of bronze for me. Burn of the high proof replaces the peat?
Score: 80 points - perhaps the ABV is too high to easily score this one.
Caol Ila 22yo 1984/2007 (55.9%, The Whisky Fair, Sherry, 287 Bts.)
Nose: Very rich, with interesting old fruity notes. Becomes extremely rich and complex after a while.
Definitely not a 'clean' Caol Ila according to the house style, but all the more to my liking for it.
Shows a gentler side after some more breathing - some faint fruity and candy notes. Menthol?
Taste: Tobacco. Rich fruits. Leather. Some salt at the bottom. Then the smoke is released. Beautiful.
Score: 90 points - a beautiful marriage of smoke and sherry; of the spirit and the cask.
In a blind tasting I could have misinterpreted this as a Kildalton whisky...
Caol Ila 25yo 1970/2005 (58,4%, OB)
Nose: Very hard to classify. Restrained & pretty austere in the nose but friendlier and fruitier on the palate.
Opens up after some time and water - but it demands attention. Clean peat, but this is not a peat monster.
Taste: Beer? Hey, and then I thought I found a pinch of peat. Dry finish. It livened up after I added water.
Score: 84 points - with enough time and water that is...
Caol Ila 12yo 1992/2005 (46%, Whisky Galore)
Nose: Peculiar. Faint organics with something grainy in the background. Opens up with light fruits.
Is that a hint of peat? Yes it is, and it grows more prominent with time. Some meaty notes as well.
A little too bashful for my tastes at first, but over time this 12 year old whisky develops a wonderful complexity.
Taste: Sweet and softly peated. Peanut fleece. Smokier towards the centre. Lovely - a gentle peat monster...
Score: 90 points - this malt needs a little time to reach its prime, but when it does you're in for a treat.
Ah yeah, I LOVE it. Not overly complex, but it fits my nose and palate like a glove! 90 points it is!
Caol Ila 1993/2005 (59.9%, Adelphi, Cask #6779)
Nose: Lemon and dust. Grainy. Not much else, it seems. After a long time some peat emerges - but not a lot.
Taste: Wow. A super sweet punch, only slowly revealing a peatier side. Oh, what lovely peat! Smoke too.
Brilliant mouth feel. Some fruits. Liquorice. Salami. Hot and cold at the same time. Liquorice & cinnamon.
Score: 89 points - one of the few malts that reaches the 90's mainly on the palate. What a stunner!
Aaaah! A hot & heavy peat monster! Right up my alley, but not quite 90's material...
Caol Ila NAS 'Cask Strength' (55%, OB, Bottled +/- 2004)
Nose: Grainy, then paint thinner. Harsh and quite odd. Later more organics emerge. Something coastal.
Is that peat? Yeah, it seems to be. More peat, organics and complexity in the nose with time.
Taste: The obvious high proof gives it substance. Wonderfully sweet and peaty on the palate.
Score: 86 points - it's far from perfect, but there's a lot of fun to be had here.
My surprised response: Haha; another Caol Ila OB that seems on the way up.
Caol Ila 12yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2004)
Nose: Hey, this is a peaty one again. Lovely! Light and transparent with organics. Leather.
Brine. There's a fruity sweetness as well. Now I get some more spices - really quite lovely.
Great development and complexity. The nose just needs some time. Opens up quite nicely.
Taste: Oy, not quite as powerful as I'd expected. Watery start, then sweet and peaty.
It becomes more powerful after a few seconds; big peaty burn - but just a little too 'flat'.
Score: 84 points - Plenty of fun to be had here, although it's not very 'deep'.
Caol Ila 18yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2004)
Nose: Much lighter than the previous blinds. Sweet grains. Then hints of oil, opening up.
Spices. Yes, I think I finally get some peat - not a lot, though. Another malt that needs time.
Taste: Very weak start, then drier with the faintest hint of liquorice. Gritty. Then sweeter.
Score: 82 points - a little too dry; not the good sherry drought, but the bourbon kind.
Caol Ila 25yo 1979/2004 (61.2%, Blackadder for Sun Favourite Taiwan, Hogshead #5334, 44 bottles)
Nose: Aaaah. Lovely sweet peat in the start, developing into an unusual direction. Shoe polish. Quite unique.
Gasoline. Rubber. Something medicinal. Laphroaig or an old Ardbeg? Faint horse stable aroma's. Magnificent!
Taste: Sweet peat as well. Magnificent explosion of peat and smoke after a few seconds. Salted liquorice.
Score: 90 points - maybe not a 'perfect' malt, but it fits my nose like a glove. Not for everyone, though.
Some nice meaty notes now as well. Oh boy, this really is a 'rusty nail' malt. Liquid paint stripper...
Caol Ila 24yo 1975 (54.3%, Wilson & Morgan)
Nose had organics, a little oil and plenty of peat. Very 'farmy'. Cow stable. Leather. Quite unique.
The style is very much that of a 'Kildalton' malt whisky - just like the 2004 W&M 'House Malt'.
Taste: There was a subdued peatiness on the palate, growing stronger. No sweetness at all.
I usually like my malts quite sweet, but in this case it works for me. The last few drops were the best.
Score: 89 points - almost 'legendary' 90's material, but I prefer the 'dirtier' Islays myself.
Caol Ila 21yo 1975/1997 (61.3%, UD Rare Malts, Bottles #0519 and #1437)
Nose: Peaty, flowery, smoky, oily, salty. Changed quite a bit when adding water.
The sweetness became more obvious and more like molasses - both in nose and in taste.
Taste: Quite drinkable after two splashes of water (to maybe 45 Vol% alc.), but still numbing.
Score: 90 points - Great stuff... Oh, man. This malt has got it all...
Caol Ila 15yo 1969 (40%, Connoisseurs Choice, Old Map Label) - distilled before distillery refit (!)
The nose was very rich with lots of organics. Peat, of course, but that's just the 'foundation'.
I probably would have mistaken it for an Ardbeg in a blind test. This is a highly enjoyable dram.
Taste: It performed excellent on the palate as well; much more character and depth than other CC's.
Very powerful with just that hint of bitterness in the finish that makes you long for one more dram.
Score: 89 points - this came very close to becoming my favourite ever Caol Ila. A blast from the past.
These were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Caol Ila Scotch whisky I've tried over the years.
Besides, these tasting notes only reflect my own, personal opinion; your tastes might be different from mine.
Fortunately, you can find the scores and tasting notes from up to two dozen other whisky lovers in the 'Malt Maniacs Monitor' - an independent whisky database with details on more than 15,000 different whiskies from Scotland and the rest of the world. Visit the Caol Ila page on the MMMonitor and select 'scorecard view' if you want to know how other whisky lovers felt about the hundreds of Caol Ila expressions that have been released in recent years. However, if you'd like to learn more about whisky in general (and single malt Scotch whisky in particular), you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky (10 chapters filled with everything you need to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky) or the mAlmanac (sort of a rudimentary whisky shopping guide.)
- Caol Ila has been one of Diageo's 'volume' distilleries for quite some time. Consequentially, the only (semi-) official releases were a 'Flora & Fauna' bottling and a few 'UD Rare Malts' expressions. However, at the start of the new millennium Diageo decided that they wanted to
strengthen the Caol Ila brand. They introduced a range of official bottlings; the "standard" 12 years old whisky, an 18 years old and a cask strength version (no age statement).
2005 - Caol Ila is added to the 'Classic Malts' range of Diageo. This range used to contain only six different single malts - Cragganmore, Dalwinnie, Glenkinchie, Lagavulin, Oban & Talisker - when it was introduced in the late 1980's, but in 2005 a bunch of other single malts suddenly became classic, including Cardhu, Clynelish and Glen Elgin.
2006 - The Caol Ila "Unpeated" (formerly known as "Caol Ila Highland" to blenders) is released as a 8yo.
2009 - A ten years old version of the unpeated variety is released at an even higher cask strength than the 8yo.
Although the profile of Caol Ila as a single malt has
been enhanced in recent years, the main function of
the distillery is still the production of malt whiskies for
the Johnnie Walker blends. Among single malt whisky
lovers, Caol Ila is known as a relatively clean peated
whisky. In fact, their 12 years old official bottling has
quickly grown into a "daily dram" for a few peat loving
friends of mine.
However, it might surprise you to learn that part of
the Caol Ila whisky that is used for the Johnnie Walker
blended whisky is actually unpeated. Unbeknownst to
many, the Caol Ila distillery actually started with trial
runs with unpeated whisky in the 1980's; the so-called
'Highland' Caol Ila. For circa two decades this whisky
was used almost exclusively for blends, but in 2006 it
was introduced as an 8 years old single malt.
This new expression of Caol Ila went down pretty well
with audiences around the world, and that was probably
because it already was a pretty good whisky at the
relatively tender age of eight years old. A batch from
2007 scored 80 points on my personal hit list - which
means that I would recommend that whisky to friends.
That's something that I would not do in the case of
some malt whiskies that are 12 or even 15 years old.
That's it for the historical review of the Caol Ila distillery.
The next paragraphs look at the development in recent
years and provide trivia and tasting notes.
And of course, by 'dating a bottle of whisky' I mean: 'establishing in which year the whisky was bottled'.
During the 1990's and before, there were no official bottlings of Caol Ila whisky at all - unless you count
the bottlings in the UD Rare Malts series as official bottlings. One argument against that classification is the
fact that these bottlings do actually specify a bottling year, just like independent bottlers do on their stuff.
So, that makes the Caol Ila 21yo 1975/1997 (61.3%, UD Rare Malts) the oldest (semi-)official bottling on
my track record. In fact, I liked my first bottle of that whisky so much that I bought another one. So, bottles
#0519 and #1437 have been proudly displayed for years in my historical collection of empty bottles.
As for the official bottlings that were released since 2002: as far as I can tell, the packaging hasn't changed
since these bottlings were introduced. Some information might be gleaned from the printed batch code that
you can find somewhere on the bottle, but only if you know how to "translate" those codes into vintages.
These were the only periods Caol Ila was silent; despite the many changes in ownership Caol Ila has been in production almost constantly since 1846. After World War II, things proceeded relatively uneventful at Caol Ila for a few decades before it was rebuilt and extended from two to six stills between 1972 and 1974. The distillery was completely rebuilt in order to meet increased demand from the blenders, only the warehouses (still filled with maturing whisky) were spared. After 1974 Caol Ila started to buy their malted barley from the Port Ellen maltings. Some connoisseurs make a clear distinction between the heavier 'old' Caol Ila that was produced before 1972 and the lighter, cleaner spirit that was distilled after the expansion in 1974.
The Caol Ila distillery became part of the United
Distillers conglommerate in 1986. In 1989, the
first 'semi-official' bottling was released in the
'Flora & Fauna' range. This would be the only
official bottling in a long time (not counting
releases in the 'Rare Malts' series). Fortunately,
official bottlings are widely available these days.
Caol Ila's current 'core range' was introduced in 2002.
Apart from the standard 12yo, 18yo and Cask Strength bottlings, Diageo releases occasional single
cask bottlings as well. When casks of Lagavulin and Laphroaig became harder to acquire after the
year 2000, independent bottlers started to release more private and 'bastard' bottlings too.
The Caol Ila distillery on Islay is located near Port Askaig, on the
northeast corner of the island. It's quite isolated, it's closest neighbor
being the Bunnahabhain distillery. Caol Ila was built in 1846 by Hector
Henderson who also owned the old Camlachie distillery in Glasgow.
Consecutive owners included Henderson, Lamont & Co (1852-1854),
Norman Buchanan (1863-1879) and Bulloch, Lade & Co (proprietors
of Camlachie) who rebuilt and expanded the distillery. Caol Ila was
liquidated and sold to J. P. O'Brien Ltd in 1920, who in turn sold it to
Caol Ila Distillery Co Ltd. the same year. DCL took control in 1927 and
transferred Caol Ila to SMD in 1930 who shut it down. Caol Ila was
silent until 1937 and had to close down during part of WWII as well.
Is the distillery or