My slow tour of “standard” expressions continues with the classic Caol Ila 12.
I first came to this one a bit after the entry-level whiskies from all the other well-known Islay distilleries and it took me a while to truly appreciate it. Not as medicinal as Laphroaig, not as smoky as Ardbeg, not as rich as Lagavulin, the Caol Ila 12 fell into a bit of a no man’s land. It seemed like Islay smoke-lite (and it didn’t offer floral compensations like Bowmore did). It wasn’t until I outgrew an obsession with peat for peat’s sake that I began to appreciate its elegant take on Islay peat/smoke. There’s some irony in this as it had taken me a while to come to like peaty whiskies to begin with (I’ve documented my initial reaction to the Lagavulin 16 before)—if I’d tried the Caol Ila 12 first I’d likely have eased into Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin.
Anyway, enough with the boring autobiographical crap. On to the whisky! (For a marginally more interesting introduction see my very first Caol Ila review, written when the blog was very new.)
Caol Ila 12 (43%; from a sample received in a swap)
Nose: Lemon, green olives, seashells, kelp and lots of soft vanilla. Oh and smoke too, mineral and sweet and mild. With more time there’s a floral, agave note as well (more mezcal than tequila) and the peat gets a touch farmy. With water the lemon gets more pronounced and more peppery.
Palate: Leads with ashy smoke followed by the sweet vanilla and some lemon. The mouthfeel is a little thinner than I’d like. With more time the sweetness recedes some, or at least it’s challenged by more tar. Later still there’s some of the wet stone quality I associate with Caol Ila. As on the nose, it’s much more lemony with water and more peppery too; less smoky. Greater balance on the whole. And the texture improves too.
Finish: Long. The smoke expands and the sweetness yields to a fair bit of salt; the mineral, floral notes from the nose show up now and now the smoke is much more medicinal as well. More of the lemon with time. With water the smoke recedes and there’s more of the mineral notes and some peppery olive oil.
Comments: Very nice nose. Neat, it’s a little too simple on the palate but water makes it more integrated and interesting. If not quite a value at the >$50 price it commands in most markets, it’s still a must-stop on everyone’s single malt itinerary. I have to say it’s a lot smokier than I remember—this was bottled in 2014 and it’s been at least a couple of years since I last tried it.
Rating: 86 points.
Thanks to Florin for the sample!
It’s a shame that shipping from the UK is so exorbitant these days, because TWE still offers a nice 3×200 mL Caol Ila set for a pretty reasonable amount of money. It’s a good way to explore the distillery without breaking the bank.
I could relate completely to your introduction – for a long time Caol Ila was that no-mans-land whisky to me. I’m still getting past this perception! Our friend from Hobart, Mooresy recently reviewed this one for our site and this, as well as your excellent review, has made me keen to try some more. Which is what a good review is for, is it not?!?
Keep on waffling,
I started on a 17 year Caol Ila bottled by Murry McDavid (which i found a few of and purchased) and then backed down to the 12 just to see what the difference would be.
Both are very good. 17 is better.
By the way I live in Rosemount and I welcome you any time you find your way to this up and coming city.
Oscarswanson whom can be found on Wiskybase,com
Thanks. Is the Murray McDavid finished/ACE’d in some sort of wine cask?
Sorry for this late response. The cask was Chateau Haut Brion Casks. 53.9 % Vol.
I found a bunch of this at a tiny out of the way store in Eagan, MN.
I bought one and went back for the lot at $100.00 each I thought was a fair price for something I really like.
Now I noticed that Blue Max in Burnsville has a couple at a higher cost and was thinking I may just have to pay it.
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