If you've been reading my reviews, you will recall that I was quite frustrated with Caol Ila after two expensive but disappointing recent bottles, the 12 Year Old and Distiller's Edition. But Caol Ila has now entirely redeemed itself in my eyes, and proven that they can make a very fine single malt indeed. Their 10 Year Old "Unpeated Style," the 2009 bottling, ranks up with the finest, and has stretched my definition of an Islay whisky.
On the nose I get fine vanilla notes, very bourbon-ish, like bourbon vanilla or natural vanilla extract made with rum. It seems very odd given the light color, but there are also some very dark, bittersweet burnt sugar notes, like molasses but with no sulfur, or nearly-burnt pecans on top of a pecan pie left in the oven just a little too long. The "burnt" character of the sweet notes keeps the whisky from crossing over into cloying, excessive sweetness, and I find it delicious. It's clear that a truly excellent casks were chosen to hold fantastically clean and fruity new make spirit. I'm no authority, but I'd be very surprised if the casks weren't ex-bourbon, holding their first batches of Scotch whisky.
The palate is very smooth, with a texture like a that of fruity hard candy dissolving on the tongue. I am strongly reminded of the Arran Malt 10 and its lemon-peel notes on top of a big mouthful of chewy barley. This dram is perhaps less grain-like and more candied, like chewy sesame candy. There's something of the same intense, fruity sweetness that I find in Sazerac Rye whisky. A few spices are evident: white pepper, cloves, and nutmeg. There is maybe just a hint of spearmint, fennel, tarragon, and perhaps even bay leaves.
With water, the burnt-sugar notes fade a little bit and the spice notes become clearer. Some coffee notes emerge, like in the Aberlour 12. That intensely creamy mouth feel remains intact, though. My personal preference is to sip this one neat, but please do take that 65.8% ABV as a flashing "caution" sign, and pour yourself a small serving!
The only fault I can possibly find with this whisky is that the finish is a bit short, and not quite as rich as the nose and palate. That takes it down just a hair from a perfect A+. But there are no clashing or off notes whatseover, and so not only does it get an A grade, but I highly recommend that you track down a bottle before this one disappears from the shelves. I hope to see more unpeated bottlings (or even lightly peated) whisky from Caol Ila -- they've set a very high standard and perhaps even a new benchmark Islay style!