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!