Friday, September 21, 2012

Inside Caol Ila

By Geoffrey Kleinman

Caol Ila produces the most whisky on Islay but ironically releases only a tiny amount of that whisky under the Caol Ila brand. It wasn't until 2002 that Caol Ila was released in any significant quantity as a single malt. With a recent upgrade to the distillery, Caol Ila now produces 6 1/2 million liters of whisky a year and goes through 338 tons of malted barley a week. More than 95% of the whisky that Caol Ila produces is used as a key blending ingredient for Johnnie Walker Black and Double Black.

Caol Ila uses the exact same grain as Lagavulin, which is malted and peated to identical specs at Port Ellen Maltings. With slight differences in the mash tun process and fermentation, a lot of what makes Caol Ila and Lagavulin so distinct has to do with what happens during the distilling process.

While Lagavulin uses a very slow distilling process which is centered around minimizing some of the interaction the spirit has with the copper stills, Caol Ila distills much faster with stills that are less full to maximize the copper contact. Contact with copper in the still reduces the amount and intensity of volatile elements, so Caol Ila ends up with less peat reek than Lagavulin and tends to be less smoky and peaty.

Caol Ila ages their spirit on the mainland of Scotland, shipping the finished spirit in tanker trucks to be put in barrels and aged. The Caol Ila whisky is aged in barrels that were previously used to make bourbon. These bourbon casks are filled with grain spirit and left to age for three years, dumped, and then filled with new make spirit from Caol Ila.

Aside from the Caol Ila 12 Year Old Whisky, Caol Ila can be difficult to find. It's often included in Diageo's annual Classic Malts Selection series, and once in a while Caol Ila 18 (which has been discontinued) and Caol Ila 25 pop up for sale.

The 2012 Caol Ila release is a rare unpeated whisky. Caol Ila used to produce non-peated whisky for Johnnie Walker but stopped in 2006. This year's Caol Ila unpeated is a 12 year old whisky released at barrel strength (64% abv/ 128 proof). Without Caol Ila's signature peat smoke, the whisky tastes remarkably different from the traditional Caol Ila 12. Caol Ila 12 Year Old Unpeated has a strong honey and vanilla note in the nose along with strong cereal grains. The taste matches the nose fairly well until the mid palate where it picks up a fair amount of spice and heat, and then has a dry finish.

While the Caol Ila line may not be as extensive as other whisky brands, their standard 12 Year Old Caol Ila is simply exceptional. Of all the Islay whiskies, Caol Ila presents its peat smoke in a much softer and well integrated manner. It's a great way to ease into the Islay single malt whisky category and a nice transition spirit for someone who only drinks a blended whisky like Johnnie Walker Black.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Interview by Geoffrey Kleinman, a nationally published drinks writer who has appeared in Playboy, Tasting Panel Magazine, and runs

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