Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Two Expressions of Caol Ila

In my regular blog, I reviewed a sample-sized bottle of Caol Ila 12 that came in an "Isles of Scotland" gift set. At the time, I wrote:

Caol Ila is a pale amber dram, considerably lighter in color than the Lagavulin 16 I reviewed yesterday. On the nose, Grace reports a citrus tang (as in Tang, the fruit drink; I'm calling it Mandarin orange, which Grace says is "grilled.") She commented on the legs and the syrupy texture (but this Scotch is not oily), and says it reminds her of a nice white wine.

There's a light and pleasant smokiness, but it's not overpowering. Grace reports charcoal and an anise (licorice-like) flavor. There are modest notes of caramel and vanilla. There isn't much iodine or sea salt to speak of. The burn is mild, and the oaky, peaty, smoky finish is long and dry, tempered by some bittersweet spices, like nutmeg (Grace says cinnamon, I say bittersweet chocolate -- Grace suggests that it reminds her of Maya Gold chocolate, produced by Green & Black's, which is flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange -- and I concur! There's quite a strong resemblance.)


Well, that bottle was a bit older. I am unhappy to report that I have purchased two recent bottlings of Caol Ila: the standard 12-year-old, and a "Distiller's Edition" finished in Moscatel casks. Both are disappointing. Those delicate cooked fruit and dark chocolate notes aren't there. It's lacking those nice spices. But this malt's problems go beyond just lacking a little complexity. It's got some notes that I just don't like in the finish that really knocks it down in my estimation.

To my taste, the problem seems to be what Mr. Murray refers to as "that damnable oil." By this, I don't think he means oiliness in texture -- the Ardbeg Uigeadail has what I would call a thick texture: oily, syrupy, or even gelatinous texture. That can be very nice. No, what I think he means is the tendency of certain Islay whiskies to finish on a very bitter note. I am not sure how to characterize this flavor -- it tastes to me like lime oil, or the aftertaste from kimchee (hot pickled cabbage), or chili oil. It almost reminds me of the aftertaste you might get from chewing an aspirin tablet.

The flavor lingers unpleasantly. Does it come from a particular type of cask? I'm not certain. Is it related to sulfur-treated casks? I've tasted sulfur in some whiskies, and I know it can take different forms -- I've tasted the faint "cooked egg yolk" note, and it also shows up as "burnt rubber" or "burned matches." But I'm not sure this bitterness is sulfur-related.

I know that the budget bottling McClelland's Islay has it, and the flavor sticks with me for hours; I know that my bottle of Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist exhibits the same "afterburn," which makes it my least favorite Ardbeg. And both of these Caol Ila bottles have it. It isn't that I don't like Islay whiskies in general -- the Uigeadail has a wonderful finish and is my absolute favorite whisky to date; the Ardbeg 10 has some nice citrus on the finish that doesn't veer into this bitterness. I also am very fond of both the Laphroaig Quarter Cask and 18 year old -- they finish wonderfully. The wonderfully in-your-face, up-your-nose, "Wow!" Lagavulin 16 does not seem to have this flavor. So what is it that I'm tasting? Do some people like this on the finish?

Anyway, now my review. I've spent a lot of words talking about this specific problem, so my review itself will be brief. Caol Ila 12 is a somewhat lighter Islay whisky; the nose is quite smoky. I also nose idione (seaweed), bacon, something like turpentine, a hint of vanilla, and a trace of lemony citrus.

In the mouth, there is some slightly hard-to-pin down dry fruitiness -- maybe a tart apple juice, maybe a bit of unripe banana. The bacon on the nose becomes smoked kippers. The dark chocolate and mandarin orange notes that I found excellent in my old sample bottle are lacking in this bottle. There's a little bit of something like tar, or pine oil (the cleaning product).

On the finish, I taste smoke, citrus, and chili powder. The peat is not overwhelming in this whisky, but it seems unbalanced to me; there isn't enough in the way of barley, malt, or vanilla flavors on the finish to balance it. So the Caol Ila 12, sadly, gets only a B-. It seems to have been bottled at a standard 43%. In general, I prefer to taste whiskey at cask strength, or at least closer to it.

The Distiller's edition is finished in Moscatel casks. Moscatel is a sweeter, white dessert wine, often fortified, with a light, "grapey," fairly simple, and distinctive flavor. So, it makes sense that if you wanted to try to "sweeten up" a Caol Ila, you might try this type of cask. And in fact on the nose we now have a very distinct and clean Moscatel wine flavor -- not aged notes like you might nose on a Reisling or a Chardonnay, but simple sweet wine notes, almost like nosing a sweet white un-fermented grape juice. But the translation from cask-imparted nose to palate is not so straightforward -- after all, the whisky is not actually mixed with Moscatel. Those sweet grape notes are there on the palate, and they don't overwhelm the Islay flavors -- and they do improve it slightly.

But just slightly, because that bitter finish is still there, waiting for you. So, the Moscatel finish gets a B. It seems like Moscatel is an interesting choice and could create quite an interesting extra-aged whisky if applied to the right stock -- but this whisky, also at a standard 43%, isn't quite it.

It is tempting to blame this on Diageo, which now owns a huge number of distilleries, including Lagavulin, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Knockando, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie, Oban, and Talisker. It is hard to believe that they can properly take care of so many distilleries. And reading Jim Murray, it is clear that Caol Ila has a history of inconsistent quality. I'm sad to say that these stocks probably should have been sold off for blending along with the rest.

There's a saying: "there's no accounting for taste." It means, literally, that it is fairly pointless to try to justify or explain why one person likes something and another doesn't. Nevertheless, since Caol Ila is a fairly popular whisky and a big distillery, I do feel as if I need to attempt to justify my reviews; I'm still pretty new to this, and don't feel as confident in my palate and nose yet -- they aren't "calibrated." As they say, your mileage may vary. If you agree, or disagree, I'd welcome your opinion on either or both of these whiskies.