Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Caol Ila 12 is big peat married to a lush floral honeyed flavor and a soft gentle manner

Caol Ila (kaal ee-lah) was always the last word in iodiney in my previous tastings of the 1991 Cadenhead 15 year single cask bottling. This current 12 year expression impressed the heck out of me with its sweeter flowery side and gentle nature. I usually dock points for being less assertive - but this is a real winner.
Pale gold/straw color in the glass.

The nose up front is peat smoke and iodine. With time rubber and medicinal notes and a hint of sweetness and richness come underneath that opens into toffee and nougat. It's a complex and lovely aroma.

Entry is toffee and vanilla sweet with immediate vanilla floral notes and a nicely moderate peat smoke presentation that turns intensely honeyed and floral at midpalate after extensive time in the glass. At the finish the smoke and medicinal iodine reasserts itself and a bitter edge adds a citrus quality. As the afterglow fades the medicinal note lingers and becomes herbal - eucalyptus? Finish is long but gentle. Mouthfeel is silky and light. There is a deft and nimble quality here that is absent from most Islay malts with this much peat smoke in evidence.

Big honeyed peat, but with a gentle edge (for an Islay, anyway). Caol Ila 12 is a vibrant strong peat and sea air voyage with a lovely honey sweet floral quality. The whole ensemble of disparate elements is remarkably well balanced and, frankly, delicious. This is a must for Islay enthusiasts of peat and ocean, but with it's flowery sweetness and lighter texture, weight, and proof, it's also a bridge into this flavor profile for drinkers of "regular" scotch. Highly recommended.



  1. Josh, I am presently sipping some Caol Ila 12. As I read your review, I get it, and I can pick out a lot of that stuff. You're better than I am at picking out these flavors! That said, I don't think the whole experience wows me in the way it does for you. I find Caol Ila to be too unrefined, tired, and somewhat flat in a way - meaning that I don't feel like the desirable flavors assert themselves the way they should. It just doesn't do much for me. Nice review, though!

    1. How much breathing time in the glass do you allow before beginning to sip, Ryan? If the bottle is new I would recommend at least 15-20 minutes of breathing time to open up before sipping. Caol Ila 12 is a fairly thin bodied malt so it really needs the air time to maximize the apparent sweetness and richen up the mouthfeel at mid-palate.

    2. Yeah, I think I did notice it getting a bit sweeter and richer later on. I generally just do one pour per evening which lasts me 2 hours or so, so I definitely get the whole gamut of breathing time experience, and this is my third night with it. I don't know if it's a big enough difference to change my mind about it, but you're right it does improve from right out of the bottle.

    3. Islays are polarizing in general and Caol Ila has a flavor profile that tends to provoke passions both pro and con. The iodine and rubber band flavors cause some people to intensely reject it sometimes - although it sounds like your issue is a lack of density of flavor - which wasn't really my experience. I found Caol Ila 12 to be gentle and floral; light but not too thin. Admittedly this is totally subjective. Thanks for discussing this. I wish I could share the 15 with you.

  2. For some reason my bottle of Caol Ila 12 is cask-strength and the label has the word Unpeated on it... okay this is a limited edition bottle and I'm debating whether to open it now or save it for a special occasion.

    From the reviews I've seen the flavor profile is closer to a Highlands malt than Islay. And the whisky is still smoky despite being unpeated.

    1. I'm jealous, Eric. That is a hard to find bottle. Do you have the 2010 edition? A great description of the flavor profile is at Royal Mile's web site:

      "Nose: Opens keen, fresh and minerally, as with scented bath-salts or a tart cheese-cake. Behind this lies a soft malty or fudge-like note, like that cheesecake’s crisp base. It is soon joined by the faintest balancing acidity in the shape of familiar Caol Ila beach smells, here of dried salty seaweed. Later, some oat cereal. Water releases more fresh crunchy cereal (muesli biscuits) then introduces an intriguing but brief trace of mentholated sweets, before the tasteheads once again for the beach

      Body: Medium, rich.

      Palate: Rich, oily-smooth and sweet, with creamy fudge, and also alive with crushed black peppercorns: fresh and invigorating. Fewer fruity notes than younger versions. Water brings a softer, pleasing mouth-feel. Predominantly sweet, with crisper, salty notes and some dry acidity to keep things fresh, clean and by the sea.

      Finish: Crisp and clean, with a tongue-tingling after-taste (bitter-sweet plum tart) and a warming, medicinal after-sensation."

      That sounds just lovely.

      Unpeated whisky can be be smoky. I review the unpeated Bruichladdich expression "Rocks" and note an "anthracite coal combustion note" that I find on many of Bruichladdich's peated expressions:

      Why? Even if the malt is unpeated, there may still be peat in the water, and salt air in the warehouses, and the influence of place (terroir) in a million little ways. I find it a fascinating topic to consider how a whisky comes to taste like the place its from.

      As to whether to drink it or save it? DRINK IT! Whisky is for drinking. Save it til when? When is a better or more important time? How do you know you'll even be alive then? As for investing - if you really want to do that, buy several, but always drink one now. ...just my 2 cents.

    2. Yes it's the 2010 bottle but I just bought it a week ago at Beltramo's in California. Sounds like they got one of the last cases because I can't find it anywhere else. There were about six bottles left on the shelf last week. You might as well check if they can deliver to your location.