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Pär Caldenby practices as a lawyer in Gothenburg, Sweden, but he also has a great passion for whisky, a love affair that has developed over the past 15 years. He is the author of The Enthusiast's Course on Enjoying Malt Whisky, which is reviewed in out Book Reviews section.

Caol Ila - Out of the Shadows

by Pär Caldenby, 2006

There's a steep slope for 200 metres before you reach Caol Ila, the distillery just north of Port Askaig on Islay's east coast. However, the setting alone makes the effort of getting there well worthwhile. The still house offers a spectacular view, with huge panoramic windows overlooking the currents of the Sound of Islay, facing neighbouring Jura.

In the early 1970s, the distillery was largely rebuilt, save for a massive warehouse. The old buildings from 1846 were levelled and new ones erected in a contemporary shoe-box like design, more or less shared with the then brand new Clynelish distillery. While Caol Ila was closed, the old Clynelish distillery, renamed Brora, filled in by producing a heavily peated new make, in order to safeguard supplies for future blends.

While the buildings may lack that romantic character often associated with malt whisky distilleries, the spirit produced on the site more than compensates for it. Caol Ila has eight 60,000 litre wooden washbacks, where the peaty wash is fermented for at least 80 hours.

   The six stills are copies of the old ones, traditionally onion shaped, with wide necks and long, downward sloping lyne arms. The wash stills hold around 35,000 litres, and the spirit stills some 29,500 litres. However, the charges are only around a third to half of the full volume of the stills. This increases the
reflux action, as the top part of the kettle of the pot still practically forms a section of the neck. Shell and tube condensers are used to condense the spirit vapours into liquid.

Caol Ila boasts the largest output of any of the Islay distilleries, but almost all of the production is used for blending purposes. Such is the quality of the spirit that it in addition to the usual heavily peated version, an unpeated 'Highland' style is also produced, and this is now available as an eight-year-old expression from Diageo.

Although the large, original warehouse remains on site, very little Caol Ila whisky is matured on Islay. Most of it is tankered away as new make, to be filled into casks and then matured in the Central Belt of Scotland. It is therefore highly unlikely that any Caol Ila whisky has spent more than a few days on Islay. The olive-like, briny, fruity and often intense character will clearly not have much to do with the coastal location of the distillery itself. Caol Ila is, nonetheless, very distinctly an Islay whisky.

Usually matured only in ex-Bourbon wood, regular samplings of the bottled product suggest that the average quality of Caol Ila is high and the balance good, matching spirit and oak with ease. A Mr Consistency of single malts, if you will.

So why then did the owners, Diageo, release virtually no official bottlings on a general basis for so long? Instead, they insisted that Caol Ila was a 'Hidden Malt'. Even after issuing a 12-year-old, an 18-year-old and a cask strength version, spiced up with the occasional 25-year-old release, there has been virtually no marketing of the whisky. Is all this just to safeguard Lagavulin's star-like position as The Islay Malt Whisky, Diageo-style?

The independent bottlers have long recognised the quality of Caol Ila, despite its huge output, and surely, Diageo's blenders will also know its worth? But the marketing department has insisted that the largest Islay distillery was a malt to be hidden from the market. Were they scared to negotiate that last, steep slope down to the distillery?

Now however, given the current bullish drive for peaty whiskies, even the marketing department has woken up.

Caol Ila and a couple of Diageo's other former 'Hidden Malts' now form part of their revamped Classic range, together with the original six Classic Malts. So Caol Ila finally seems to be set for some well deserved time in the limelight. Relatively speaking. But I still wonder why it took them so long, when it is acknowledged that Lagavulin has had problems maintaining the very high standards for which it has long been known.

At a recent nosing session, a range of Caol Ila bottlings was scrutinised, and they offer a good understanding of the malt's character:

the whiskies

Caol Ila 'cask strength', distillery bottling, 55.0% abv.
Noses and tastes of tar, leather, horses' stables, some brine and a background of fruity notes; good, but the finish is still somewhat weak and spoils the balance it should have. To summarise: big and young, peat and fruit, in a nutshell. Score 82.

Caol Ila 11-year-old, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, No 53.90, 58.3% abv.
Matured in an ex Bourbon hogshead, it is pungent, strong and somewhat simplistic. Notes of seaweed, iodine, horses' stables, tobacco and a citric fruitiness. To summarise: peat fire and star anise. Score 82.

Caol Ila 11-year-old, Gordon & MacPhail, 57.8% abv.
From two fresh ex Sherry butts, this bottling shows why it is right to question the practice of maturing most Islay malts in ex Bourbon casks only. Big peatiness meets big oakiness and sherry-like sweetness and spices. To summarise: intense, Euro-oak and smoked fruits. Score 89.

Caol Ila 12-year-old, distillery bottling, 43% abv.
Fresh, and a quintessential Islay malt in the standard age spectrum. Peat, brine, fudge, olive oil and liquorice, but all on a fruity base, with a dualistic character of intense peat and sweetness. To summarise: fruity-salty liquorice. Score 84.

Caol Ila 18-year-old, distillery bottling, 43.0% abv.
The class act of the owner's bottlings, very elegant and eminently sippable for an Islay malt. Notes of refined peat, softening oaky notes and a thoroughly good balance. To summarise, refined elegance, on peat and dried fruit. Score 86.

Caol Ila 25-year-old, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, No 53.98, 60.4% abv.
This is a demanding and 'difficult' bottling from a refill hogshead, but it will reward the patient noser! Given due time, it is not just intense but big and complex, with notes of vigorous oak, spruce, sweet oranges and iodine. To summarise: high end sweeties…and peat. Score 90.

Caol Ila 25-year-old, Douglas Laing Old Malt Cask, 50% abv.
From the word go, this is sheer elegance and oh so lovable, with a sweetish fruity base character and generous, softening oak notes, rounded off by a cooling herbal twist. Terrific balance. To summarise: elegance, oaky vanillins and smoky iodine. Score 91.


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