After a somewhat disappointing young indie Caol Ila a couple of nights ago, here’s a much older one from one of the most famous names in indie whiskydom: Samaroli. This Italian bottler is well known to those of us in the US who entered into our whisky mania via visits to Serge Valentin’s Gilded Palace of Whisky Sin, I mean Whisky Fun. Its allure came both from the high scores their bottlings routinely receive from the redoubtable Serge and from their unavailability–unlike other “exotic” marques like Silver Seal or Moon Import, Samaroli is not usually available from the stores in the UK and EU I have access to thanks to the kindness/patience of travelling friends. Hearts were therefore set aflutter in the US when they unexpectedly entered our market a little over a year ago.
My excitement was very quickly tempered when I discovered the prices being asked for the bottles that were initially introduced (I’m not sure if there have been more since): in the neighbourhood of $380 for a 1977 Glenlivet, $330 for a 1980 Bunnahabhain, $300 for a 1983 Linkwood, $250 for a 1989 Highland Park, $190 for a 1996 Laphroaig and $300 for this 1980 Caol Ila. Usually, you expect independent bottlers to offer far greater value than the owners for older whisky, and even with a premium added on for the Samaroli name, this seemed like a bit much. For reference, you can get Glenlivets and Bunnahabhains of similar age/vintage, for example, from other independents for less than $200. (It’s also not clear if Silvano Samaroli still has much to do with the selections or if it’s merely his name now that’s on the labels. Can anyone clarify?) There was no way in hell the romance of the name was going to lead me to pay these prices. Luckily for me, a fellow whisky geek in the Twin Cities was gifted a number of these bottles by a friend and he very generously shared large samples of many of them with me.
And so, this Caol Ila. I first tasted it alongside the BB&R 1980-2011 I reviewed some weeks ago, and was a little underwhelmed. Let’s see how I feel about it tonight.
Caol Ila 1980-2011 (45%, Samaroli for the US; from a sample received in a swap)
Nose: Lemon verging on citronella, salt; some paraffin and acidic smoke. Gets a little sweeter with time and there’s also an organic note now, of rotting kelp perhaps. With more time I get the wet stones I associate with Caol Ila (would I get them if I didn’t know this was a Caol Ila?) and the smoke gets a little more ashy. The lemon is the dominant note throughout, however. Water doesn’t do anything interesting for the nose.
Palate: Sweet peat and then minerally peat mingling with musky, ashy lemon. Then come the wet stones and a little white pepper. A little too “thin” at first, but with more time the lemon does get a little more intense; later there’s increased sweetness. The mouthfeel is somewhat watery and I am hesitant to add water. Let’s do it anyway: okay, water does add some pungency to the lemon and make it more ashy.
Finish: Longer than expected given the thinness on the palate: musky, lemony peat and smoke. Not much development. Water gives the lemon more acidic bite.
Comments: This is very nice on the nose and solid on the palate and finish, but it’s a bit of a letdown, on the whole, given both the age and the astronomical price it sells for ($300 and way, way beyond). Now, I know that price and quality (or age and quality, for that matter) have no necessary relationship, but you’d think–especially given how many aged Caol Ilas from the late 1970s and early 1980s are floating around–that a whisky priced that extravagantly would be at least a little unusual if not transcendental. This is a textbook Caol Ila but a book not very different from others you could read at younger ages and for far less money. And while 45% is not an implausible natural strength for a 30-31 yo whisky I don’t think this was bottled at cask strength: it doesn’t have the, for the lack of a better word, intensity of flavour of some older malts whose abv dropped naturally to the low-mid 40s in the cask. If that’s true, that’s a shame, as a few more percentage points of abv would have made this much punchier on the palate (and probably not too far away from the BB&R 1980-2011). Either way, I don’t really know what the justification for pricing this whisky this high could possibly be. As it stands, this seems like the ideal whisky with which to demonstrate the fact that a famous distillery, an indie bottler with a storied pedigree, three decades of aging, and a high asking price don’t in any way guarantee great whisky.
Rating: 85 points (but if I’d paid for a bottle of this I would vindictively downgrade it to the 70s).