This week I tackled a couple more of Diageo’s “classic malts”, a range of iconic whiskies from highly regarded distilleries that Diageo keeps locked in its cold, skeletal clutches.
One of Diageo’s biggest prizes is the Caol Ila (kah-lee-lah) distillery on Islay (eye-lah) – a massive production that pumps out millions of liters of fresh, peaty whisky (whiss-kee) every year. The vast majority of that precious spirit gets shipped off for Johnnie Walker (no complaints here) but a fraction is kept aside by the Soulless Overlords for single malt expressions. There’s a 12, 18 and 25, along with various NAS and/or cask strength releases, in addition to a yearly limited edition. But the one that really typifies the style is the classic 12-year-old. No fancy stuff here – American oak, 43% – just a clean canvas to show off their heavily peated signature.
Pale, not Ardbeg pale, but I have to assume Caol Ila has taken a ride on the Crayola Express.
Caol Ila is like the lovechild of Ardbeg and Talisker. You get that heavy, grassy Ardbeg and the oceanic sea salt of Skye’s finest. There’s a light caramel (it’s actually quite sweet), vanilla, toffee and plenty of peat. Think “grass fire” more than “barbeque”. Terrific stuff.
I always smile when I try a peat monster that doesn’t turn out to
suck as badly be as underwhelming as Laphroaig (ducks the rotten tomatoes). Sure, it packs its fair share of manky Scottish insect, moss and poo residue, but the peat isn’t all this has to offer. The similarities to Ardbeg are fairly striking, just slightly tempered at the lower ABV. You’ve got a little of that charcoal, moss and leather. Some stewed fruits. There’s a lovely, unique little orangey tang at the back, and an umami saltiness that ties it all together. Two thumbs up! And a backwards peace sign in defiance of the English.
Grassy, smoky and floral. Not a hint of bitterness, just Islay all the way.
Like all whiskies of the style, water amplifies the woodland flavours at the expense of taking the peat down a notch. Water to taste, but be careful – this puppy can drown.
Caol Ila 12 is a fresh, chewy, moreish little dram. Dead easy to appreciate if you’re a sucker for a peat monster, and a good gateway-drug for the peat-curious. It’s got just enough complexity to render it enjoyable for the duration of a couple of glasses, while not so much that you feel your life has changed.
My favorite thing about Caol Ila is the integral part it has to play in some of my beloved blends and malts – the creamy, smoky quality behind Johnnie Walker Green & Black, and many premium Compass Box blends.
But when it comes to buying a benchmark, peat-heavy single malt, I remain steadfastly on Team Ardbeg. Not only is Ardbeg 10 a couple of bucks cheaper, but the higher strength packs a lot more flavour for the money. And the natural presentation tickles my whisky nerdery in just the right way.
That being said, Caol Ila 12 is nevertheless a fantastic diversion and a must-try for peat heads and blend lovers alike.