Caol Ila 20, 1996 (Montgomerie’s)

Here is the second of three simul-reviews this month with Michael K. of Diving for Pearls of whiskies that were bottled as exclusives for Total Wine (and here now is his review). Our first was last week’s Glen Ord 18, also bottled by Montgomerie’s. This Caol Ila—which rounds out a week of Islay reviews—is a bit older. The bottle cost $125; I’m not sure if it’s still around—I didn’t notice it at the store I purchased it from when I was in there again briefly earlier this week. Even though this is at 46% and not cask strength, it does seem like a fair price for a 20 year old peated Islay whisky—there are certainly older Caol Ilas from other independents that are going for a lot more in the US; and next Friday we’ll have a simul-review of a younger Laphroaig whose list price was almost $100 more.

A good price relative to age then, but what is it like in the glass? 

Caol Ila 20, 1996 (46%; Montgomerie’s; cask #3706; from a bottle split)

Nose: Coal smoke, wax, mineral oil, a bit of vanilla. Soft and smoky all at once. With more time there’s more coastal stuff: kelp, shells, salt. A few drops of water pull out some musky fruit.

Palate: Leads with the sweet smoke and then there’s pepper and vegetal bitterness as I swallow. The smoke is more tarry on the second sip and a bit more phenolic. With more time there’s some lemon, some rubber bands and some bandaids. Water pushes the bitter notes back and pulls out a bit more lemon.

Finish: Medium-long. The smoke fades slowly; the bitter edge remains. Salt emerges here. As on the palate with water, which also extends the finish a bit.

Comments: Nothing remarkable but a solid, smokier than usual Caol Ila that’s at its best on the nose. A few percentage points of abv above the OB 18 yo and about as good. Would I want to pay $125 for a full bottle of this? I’m not sure. There’s not as much of the mineral and lemon notes as I like in Caol Ila but, again, $125 for a 20 yo is probably decent enough in this market in the abstract. It must be noted, however, that this tastes quite a bit younger than 20 years old.

Rating: 84 points.

3 thoughts on “Caol Ila 20, 1996 (Montgomerie’s)

  1. I was in on this bottle split. Here are my review notes, delivered before reading your review. They are remarkably (and unusually) consistent with yours. Thanks for inviting me on the split and on the simul-review!

    Nice and clear color, oily consistency, both very inviting!
    Nose: Warm and inviting, with all the Caol Ila signature notes: oily black olives in brine, sweet meyer lemons, salty ozone, iodine. Maybe fruitier than expected. Also, grape seeds, betraying a young-tasting whisky. Very savory and mouth-watering! In the background, the smoke is closer to a campfire in a dry forest, like in a young, well crafted whisky (Kilchoman Machir Bay, Port Charlotte, or Balcones Brimstone). The wood is present – first fill cask? The age is not very evident.
    Palate: similar flavors as those suggested by the nose, but disjointed and undifferentiated, with some sharp and bitter notes that are not very pleasant. Again, the age is not evident, and the wood and spirit are not in harmony here.
    Finish: long, but not really satisfying.
    Overall: This is a strange one! It is not a harmonious whisky, and it falls apart on the palate. It’s almost as if it aged in a neutral cask for most of its life, but then it was moved into a first-fill cask for a year or so, to bring it to life. It is saved by all the Caol Ila goodies delivered by the nose.


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