Caol Ila distillery is one of the highest producing distilleries in Scotland. This powerhouse produces 6.5 million litres of whisky per year, and is a major component of both Johnnie Walker Black 12 year and the Black Bottle blends. It only began producing whisky for sale as an official bottling single malt in 2002 with the 12 year old. Before that the only opportunity to taste single malt Caol Ila came from independent bottlers.
Due to the heavy focus on producing spirit which is solely used to add a smoky side to blends, you could be forgiven for thinking that Caol Ila might lack the depth required for a quality single malt but you’d be wrong. It has a lovely character of it’s own and makes a fantastic introduction to Islay malts, as it’s definitely a peat-forward dram beyond the level of Talisker or Highland Park but not as heavy on the peat as most Ardbeg or Laphroaig bottlings.
Bottled at 43%, the nose on Caol Ila 12 is one of sweet smoke like a struck match with a nutty, oaky background. There’s a slight solvent element not unlike wood glue but in a good way. It’s quite wood focused, like a smouldering bonfire.
In the mouth it’s actually a pretty sweet and gentle affair, with vanilla and cream fudge taking control. There’s a smoked element still present, but it’s more of a background note than on the nose.
The finish is where the smoky peat really makes itself known. It’s a fairly short but explosive affair, with a big burst of smoke followed by a fade into vanilla from the casks and a slight bitterness at the death.
The addition of water emphasises a little salty coastal note on the nose however I find it detracts from the palate and finish. 43% ABV is about right for this.
Summing up, this is a pleasant dram throughout and well worth trying, though it isn’t hugely complex. I found that the nose translates better onto the finish than the palate, which is surprisingly gentle. Again, it’d make a great bottle for someone wanting to try their first “proper” Islay malt.