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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Caol Ila 30yo (Master of Malt)

A single cask Caol Ila from Master of Malt.

A single cask Caol Ila from Master of Malt.

We all have our own idiosyncratic methods of getting through the day: overcoming the arduous, tedious or simply mystifying duties whose application to ourselves is impossible to account for, and yet equally impossible to escape. Instead of model-building, gardening, recreational drug use or wandering about with a concealed weapon, I reach for a sample of whisky to reconnect me with a region of satisfaction and fulfilment.

With exams not at all far away, therefore, I need all the help I can get and fortunately enough, those charming people at Master of Malt are doing all they can to provide that assistance. Having already encountered their own expression of Highland Park, I had a wax-sealed jar of seriously mature Inner Hebridean nectar in the desk drawer. Perhaps my favourite distillery, I was anxious that this Caol Ila would represent an improvement on the Orcadian malt. Find this wee dram for yourself here.

Caol Ila 30yo 57.4% Distilled in 1980, filled into refill Bourbon wood. £99.95

Colour - Reasonably rich full gold/amber.

Nose - This one came in a trio of waves, each more involving than the last. The notes go on and on but I shall summarise: intense and quite dry golden apply sweetness at first with an assertive waft of crisp and quite deep fruity peatiness. This peat note is the first to develop, turning industrial with soot-blackened Islay jetties with impressions of a cool warehouse filled with old hogsheads. Lemon and orange sneak in. Finally it becomes perfumed with spearmint chewing gum. Very soft and creamy with grist and salt. Cow shed-like peatiness appears with bonfire wood and there is also a very fetching baked earth sweetness.

      Water accentuates the seaside much more with fresh fishy sweetness – all seared scallops with a delicious liquid tablet quality alongside. Stewed green apple and almond/hazelnut. The oak is very generous but not overpowering, allowing masses of sweet flavours to emerge such as lemon and lime tart, barley sugar and grape with jellied sweets. More time does this dram every possible favour, becoming – to my mind – a classic Caol Ila: peaty with dry husky-sweet malt, nuttiness, wet logs and a touch of stem ginger.

Palate - Peppery and spicy with plenty of peat and soft, chewy-sweet citrus. The peat is more evident in this expression than a Bladnoch Forum Caol Ila 30yo I have had.  Caramelising sugar sweetness comes along, too.

      Water ramps up the fruitness to the point where it is acetone-esque. Hot, very sweetly spicy with smooth peat and Earl Grey. Clean and not as cutting, with a little toffee. Rich and complex.

Finish – Warming and extremely smooth. Delicate soft fruits and maritime. Peated wash. Grassy and gentle with a conifer-like sweetness.

      Water transformed this malt, for me. Beginning with a medium-sweet maltiness it builds into gently earthy phenolics and sloe gin. Clean and syrupy, it coats the tongue and continues to enthrall long after it has gone down. It lent me the impression of May in the Hebrides, beginning on the beach with the dunes and sun-bleached shells. A spirit of adventure draws you towards the low-lying cliffs, however, surrounded by rocks and covered in tough, new-green and wind-clipped turf. This Caol Ila, once the fireworks have died away, is exactly like lying on one of those wild lawns. I felt the sun’s heat and the earthy aromatics released from the dark soil beneath. Fantastic.

So…?      As the biggest producer on Islay by some distance (and with expansion plans approved it will only get bigger) it goes some way to explaining why so many Caol Ilas appear under independent labelling. That they appear to be all so intriguing is testament to the inherent quality of the spirit produced in such quantities. and after 30 years? Caol Ila doesn’t age like other whiskies. There is none of the darkness velvety richness I have noted in other 25yo+ drams - just, as I said, never-ending panoramas of sweetness. I would quite happily go for a full bottle of this – so deftly-handled is the Caol Ila signature I love so much.

Master of Malt have chosen a stonkingly good cask to bottle for their customers and with only 154 bottles emerging from that hogshead, I’d be quick. I’m extremely grateful to Master of Malt for giving me the opportunity to try such a marvellous whisky – and forget about exams for half an hour.

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Highland Park 13yo (Master of Malt)

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

A single cask Highland Park from Master of Malt.

The text from home read: ‘there’s a parcel for you down here. I think it’s whisky.’

It was just about the only news which could have perked up the nauseous, limping and suffering agglomeration of body parts which some suspicious dried apricots had rendered me. It might not have been the apricots, but either way it hadn’t been an easy morning.

Having been authorised to rummage, I was told that Master of Malt had been kind enough to send me out their two latest independently-bottled single malts. One was the Caol Ila 30yo, which Chris had airily mentioned over a Coco Aztec hot chocolate in January might be on its way. The second was a single cask Highland Park, and one I was only to eager to try. A favourite of independent bottlers, it is also a favourite of mine following a peerless distillery tour last May. Never having had the fortune to come by an expression drawn from a single cask – and being profoundly partial to those, too – I shattered the ever-so-cute wax seal during my break from university and poured. Find this dram for yourself here. I would urge you to read Graeme’s review of this malt on Edinburgh Whisky. A much more exciting venue for a tasting!

Highland Park 13yo 57% Distilled in 1997, filled into refill Bourbon wood. Bottled 2010. £44.95

Colour – Clean intense gold.

Nose – At first very light with intense sweetness. I find honey-accented peat with creamy vanilla from the cask. Gristy in texture. Dipping my nose into the glass, there are freshly-baked white rolls with a lush grassiness and root vegetable sweetness. This sulphur unfortunately persists a little too long: dark grains plant, mushroom ketchup. However, it clears at last to reveal maritime character: like kelp-covered malt. Cow sheds make a not unwelcome appearance together with coal smoke, bonfires and appley citrus.

      Water plucks out delicate and rounded pear notes with more characteristic Highland Park heathery peatiness. It’s spicy, too, with creamy oakiness. The earthy peat notes are attractive, but the alcohol just intrudes a little too much. Slowly, the nose freshens with more of that maritime sweetness. I detect some charred cask, too, and nail polish.

Palate – This is very intense indeed with dark maltiness, peat and smoke. Creaminess from the American oak gives way to an equally intense char.

      Water creates a more balanced and integrated experience with peat, soft malt and drily oaky citrus. However, it loses much of its oomph in the process.

Finish – Burning logs and eventually embers. There is an interesting blend of hard and soft textures, with cereal sweetness being of the latter sort. Bread on the barbecue. Quite short.

      Water confuses things: flavour is delayed but it does come. Double cream, wood chippings and faint peat. Stewed apple appears with barley, charred oak and crumbly earth.

So…?      A metaphor for this dram came quite quickly to mind: imagine an over-enthusiastic schoolboy rugby player – maybe a flanker or centre – who has spent more time in the gym than honing his skills on the pitch. The intensity is there, but it isn’t coordinated and ultimately lacks endurance in the final quarter. It is great for the big hits but the savvier off-loads and distribution is not there yet. Whisky-wise, then, I think a few more years in cask may have worked wonders. The Highland Park spirit appears more rambunctious than the standard bottlings have led me to believe, and the cask here has not yet been allowed to perform its subtractive and interactive functions. I would stick to the standard 12yo.

I owe a massive thank you to Natalie and co. at Master of Malt for the samples, and I shall see how the Caol Ila measures up, both to the Highland Park and another 30yo single cask I have had the good fortune to come across from the Bladnoch Forum.

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Encounters With Wild Whisky


In the two-and-a-half years between the light bulb, grand induction moment into the single malt galaxy at The Glenlivet and alighting on to the 09.56 Edinburgh-bound train in April to begin my Scotch Odyssey, only one experience truly volunteers itself as an essential giant leap forward in my appreciation of whisky.

While my boutique (and marvellous) tour of Auchentoshan in 2008 afforded me more time observing the process, it wasn’t until my top-spec potter around Aberfeldy distillery last autumn that I gained privileged and enlightening insight into the mercurial DNA of Scotch malt whisky, contained within its individual casks. Therefore, ahead of my VIP tour of Glen Garioch and the inauguration on Scotch Odyssey Blog of my personal views regarding the many bespoke distillery guided tours available in addition to the basic packages, I would like to tell you about my time at Dewar’s World of Whisky and what single malt, untamed by reduction or filtration, tastes like.

The dunnage warehouses at Aberfeldy, Perthshire. Sadly, they are empty, but a few gems were left behind.

The dunnage warehouses at Aberfeldy, Perthshire. Sadly, they are empty, but a few gems were left behind.

The Aberfeldy Signature Tour [now the Connoisseur Tour and with added bells and whistles] cost me £30 and for that I was granted private access to the fount of knowledge that is Bruce. He guided me through a tasting of the Aberfeldy single malt and Dewar’s blended ranges, and then around the distillery. The climax of the tour – and the reason I had only nosed many of the drams in the gorgeous visitor centre – was the final point on the tour specification. I was going beyond the mesh gate and into the warehouse.

Very sadly, it was not the same breed of ambrosial vapour of The Glenlivet or Auchentoshan that greeted my quivering nostrils. John Dewar & Sons ceased maturing Aberfeldy on-site more than a decade ago and the hundreds of casks to be seen stacked deep into the depths of the gauzy darkness are empty. All bar three, that is.

“Take your pick,” Bruce encouraged, and I concurred with his recommendation, selecting the 24-year-old cask from 1985 in preference to two from 1983. Bruce produced a mallet and a valinch, beating the bung out of hogshead no. 1321 with the former and drawing out a measure of Highland single malt with the latter.

Aberfeldy Cask

I held my Glencairn glass below the valinch and a stream of sparkling rich gold passed from it to the glass. As I held my sample up to the solitary spotlamp I could see tiny black flecks of charcoal floating like dust motes in the glowing spirit. Tentative sniffs revealed apples, vanilla, and classic Aberfeldy heather honey but nothing more. It was only then that I realised how cold it was in the shadows of the warehouse. My skin felt clammy, as if the thousands of litres of whisky, which had once evaporated from their wooden bonds, were being squeezed from the blackened walls like water from a sponge, trickling over me.

24-year-old, single cask Aberfeldy: divine.

24-year-old, single cask Aberfeldy: divine.

When Bruce kept surreptitiously nosing the hole in the cask I followed his example and warmth returned. My head filled with sweet spicy aromas, partly from the alcohol, partly from the rich firm oak and biscuity, fruity, raw whisky. Each had been interacting with the other since before I was born. It was such a complex, enthralling fragrance – so much more so than even the best whiskies sampled in dull glass.

My dram had been transferred from cask to copita, however, so I dashed back across to the visitor centre where I might warm it up and unlock its character.

Over the next half-hour or so, I fell in love. The weight, muscularity but powerful pungent smoothness that all well-aged malts possess held me; sweet honey and vanilla charmed me, and heather-like aromas intrigued me. Amazingly, there was still much in the way of freshness and cleanness, despite its 24 years. Water pulled out richer caramel and butterscotch aromas.

Cleanliness and firm richness continued on the palate with the addition of wonderful warmth. Vanilla ice cream, nuts, fruit and what can only be described as “honey mist” made for a beautiful gently fading finish. On the Cask Tasting Tour [£12], there is a 25-year-old to sample straight from the cask. It may be the same one, or another very similar to it.

Ever since then, I have been dangerously vulnerable to the attractions of single casks: their focus and power, character and purity. I howled with lust and longing when Diageo announced the Manager’s Choice series. I subsequently howled with rage and dismay when the prices followed. I did put my name down for one of the limited edition Chris Anderson Cask Aberfeldys on the basis of that malt. 18-years-old directly from one cask; so severe was my desire that the asking price of £150 [now £180 at the distillery] didn’t deter me. I suspect my name was not transferred to the official waiting list, however, for I was not contacted again. In the long run, this was probably just as well.

My afternoon at Aberfeldy was an invaluable education, then. Indeed, what I learnt returned to me in April when I had the opportunity to compare it to another single cask encounter, this time at Aberlour. The experience at this Speyside distillery is made doubly astonishing when measured against this previous specialised tour. Aberlour is the only standard tour (besides Glen Moray) to economically reveal the majesty and charm of wild whisky.

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