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First Class First-Fill Caol Ila

No sooner had I submitted my beastly final piece of English coursework for this semester than I was back at my desk, concentrating. The subject was whisky, the work engrossing.

At this time of year in my privately-rented and above all electrically-heated flat, a dram combats the cold far more cost-effectively than the radiators. Even if that dram is a single cask, 15yo stunner from Islay. In fact, my Dewar Rattray Caol Ila can ignite the taste buds not only with its strength, but also in its gorgeous suggestions of peat kilns and beach bonfires. I can put up with the sight of my breath in the chill air providing the charming vapour from my favourite distillery is infused within it.

A zingy, vibrant step up from the standard 12yo, with much of the evolving depth of the astonishing 18yo.

 

Dewar Rattray Caol Ila 1991 15yo Cask #743 56.7% abv.

Colour – Bold lemon gold.

Nose – A curious Manichean dram at first: deep coils of black smoke smoulder at the core while dense, fuzzy sweetness oozes over the top. Bonfire smoke, peat and baked apple emerge. A little bit of heating in the hand (very necessary as I have already said) is certainly worth it as my favourite vision of Islay materialises: wintriness, frost and earth, peaty rivers and pale sunlight forming the backdrop for fruit peel, singed barley and delicate heathery smoke. There is a wonderful defined maltiness, shot through with steely apple and electric vanilla. Sweet lemon rind. Further warming and it’s like putting your head in a log-burner – dense, brown woody smoke. Beneath that, though, and so so gorgeous, is that Caol Ila oiliness and black olive note.

Water added and my notes say ‘Oh, the sweetness’. It’s a mixture of syrupy fruits, cask contributions and proving bread. Lime smoke comes next – one indivisible from the other. Slices of just ripe, chilled pear. The oak does wonderful sweet and aromatic things: first creamy with the kind of pure, natural vanilla notes you don’t come across very often, then wafts of scented sandalwood. Returns to that classic Caol Ila olive brine character. At last the peated malt makes an appearance.

Palate – Fabulously intense: prickly smoke and bursting fruits: apple, orange and lime. Burning peat and then creamy pale oak sugars drizzle over the tongue. Water did not spoil the cohesion and more of the delicious malt appeared with a friskier fruitiness. The oak is a smooth grip on the tongue now, however, with less of the sweetness.

Finish – Lactic at first, although apple builds. A soft peat reek. Develops a lot of maritime saltiness but is otherwise fairly discreet.

Water pulled out olive and green fruits. Intensely exuberant. Barrages of soft malty smoke and a touch of deisel oil welcome you back to Islay. A triumph.

Different elements of this malt appear with time and water, making for a very rewarding experience. I adore this whisky’s life and potency, which I note quite often in the 15yo region, and shows how well spirit and cask have paired up. Later in the evening I had my Aberlour Warehouse No. 1 ex-Bourbon cask and… well, that was what I tasted most of. The oak murdered my palate on that occasion, where the Caol Ila had delighted it. I’m growing slightly wary of first-fill expressions, especially ones that creep into their mid-teens, and I intend to investigate a few more refill casks in future. Any single cask is a lottery, both for the distillery workers putting the clearic in to it to the customer purchasing its eventual contents but taking heart from the SMWS refill Glen Garioch I marvelled at earlier this month, I shall be on the look-out for those instances where the whisky-wood marriage is a happy one. I’m still partial to an oaky caress from my whiskies, providing it leads to something more, however.

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Medicine with Uncle Mike

You may have heard of the description, ‘a shrinking violet’. They tend not to make good sales people. Mike Drury, of the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, is a very good sales person. He is not a shrinking violet. The shop is run as a private church to his evangelical faith that whisky ought to be better than the standard which most official bottlings, to his mind, settle for. Mike is vehemently, unapologetically passionate about single malt Scotch, and when taken together form one formidable duo.

Hopefully I can make annual visits to this tantalising apothecary shop of astounding, individual whiskies.

My staunch refusal to countenance anything other than a Mortlach last year had evidently pained him – ‘there are much better whiskies than that in here…’ he had sighed – and so last week I vowed to submit to his tutelage. Despite a rapidly congesting nose, I begged to know what was good at that moment. ‘He’s come to Uncle Mike for a cure,’ beamed Mr Drury, and I had a Douglas Laing Mortlach in my hand inside 25 seconds.

I explained my Project – cask strength, preferably single cask, non-chillfiltered: a whisky with genuine personality – and away he went to forage in the forest of bottles behind the counter. He produced a Gordon & MacPhail-sourced, Whisky Castle-bottled Arran. ‘This,’ winked Mike, ‘is one sexy whisky – if you like toffee.’ A first-fill ex-Bourbon barrel had held Arran spirit for 11 years, and the result was a bonanza of the best that wood can offer: butterscotch galore, creamy, unctuous, with a suggestion of green fruits and spring blossoms in a cool mist. We had our benchmark.

There followed many others: amongst them a Bunnahabhain (heavy lactose notes at first, then a more mature maritime character and a complex oak-malt interchange on the palate) and a ‘diverting’ A.D. Rattray melange of malts. Nothing flicked any switches, however, and I began to worry that my Cinderella whisky was simply a fantasy.

This 15yo first-fill ex-Bourbon will hopefully prove to be the ultimate Caol Ila experience.

However, Cathy – Mike’s wife, who all this time had been surfing the net calling out cruise trip options further along the counter – spoke up in support of another G&M/Whisky Castle collaboration: a Sherry-matured Caol Ila. The moment those gloriously familiar peat notes reached my nose – a mixture of peat bog and the lightest smoke eddying on the Islay breezes, my mission changed and I was acquainted with a Dewar Rattray 15yo.

Meanwhile, others were getting the Mike treatment: controversial declarations which gently put the customer’s nose out of joint. However, his bluster is always backed up by a stunning malt the customer would never have thought of. I reflected as I counted out seven ten-pound notes how effective Mike’s approach is. Whisky is a complicated matter: a wood wilfully obscured by the trees at times. I would wager that Mike’s particular methods, by starting from the customer’s own tastes and challenging them with good-natured abuse and tenacity, induce new opinion in his punters. To defend your predilections is to gain a more rounded understanding of them and with a new conviction comes new confidence. By establishing a dialogue, aided and abetted by those glorious drams I talked about, people become genuinely interested in what whisky is and can be. A steady stream of samples shows that there is no harm – only greater rewards - in exploring.

I left with my Dewar Rattray after all, similarly bristling with single malt bombast. Mike knows his own mind, and he knows whisky, and consequently I believe that it is possible at the Whisky Castle to purchase drams as they should be drunk: in lively, enlightening conversation.

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