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Caol Ila – “the Sound of Islay” on whose shore it stands!

The view of the famous Paps of Jura out from the still house at Caol Ila A ROOM WITH A VIEW

The Caol Ila distillery is tucked in the lee of a hill on the seashore by the ferry from Jura and you look over to the famous Paps of Jura rearing on the far hinterland. Caol Ila is not a pretty distillery by any stretch of the imagination, but the view outwards from it is exhilarating. The still house is glass-fronted and these shapely mountains are always in view as the still house staff go about their daily work.

ORIGINS

Caol Ila dates from 1846 and was built at this lovely but remote spot by Hector Henderson who had business connections with Littlemill (Lowlands) and some now long-defunct Campbeltown distilleries. It was bought by the owner of the Isle of Jura distillery in 1852.

Caol Ila distillery

THE MODERN ERA

Caol Ila continues to produce up to the present day with short periods of closure from 1930 to 1937 (under new owners DCL) and during World War II.

In the early 1970s, the distillery was largely rebuilt, the stark functional structure that makes you wince when you first glimpse it from the ferry, save for a massive warehouse. The old buildings from 1846 were levelled and new ones erected in a contemporary shoe-box like design, more or less shared with the then brand new Clynelish distillery. While Caol Ila was closed, the old Clynelish distillery, renamed Brora, filled in by producing a heavily peated new make, in order to safeguard supplies for future blends. Some of the casks of spirit from Caol Ila are matured in the warehouses of the old Lochindaal distillery near Port Charlotte, which was closed in 1929.

A BLENDING MALT

While the buildings may lack that romantic character (the 1st Islay distillery to be made of concrete in the 1800s) often associated with malt whisky distilleries, the spirit produced on the site more than compensates for it. Caol Ila has eight 60,000 litre wooden washbacks, where the peaty wash is fermented for at least 80 hours. The six stills are copies of the old ones, traditionally onion shaped, with wide necks and long, downward sloping lyne arms. The wash stills hold around 35,000 litres, and the spirit stills some 29,500 litres. However, the charges are only around a third to half of the full volume of the stills. This increases the reflux action, as the top part of the kettle of the pot still practically forms a section of the neck. Shell and tube condensers are used to condense the spirit vapours into liquid.

Caol Ila boasts the largest output of any of the Islay distilleries, but almost all of the production is used for blending purposes. Such is the quality of the spirit that it in addition to the usual heavily peated version, an unpeated ‘Highland’ style is also produced, and this is now available as an eight-year-old expression from Diageo.

THE SINGLE MALT

Although the large, original warehouse remains on site, very little Caol Ila whisky is matured on Islay. Most of it is tankered away as new make, to be filled into casks and then matured in the Central Belt of Scotland. It is therefore highly unlikely that any Caol Ila whisky has spent more than a few days on Islay. The olive-like, briny, fruity and often intense character will clearly not have much to do with the coastal location of the distillery itself. Caol Ila is, nonetheless, very distinctly an Islay whisky.

The independent bottlers have long recognised the quality of Caol Ila, despite its huge output, and surely, Diageo’s blenders will also know its worth? But the marketing department has insisted that the largest Islay distillery was a malt to be hidden from the market. Were they scared to negotiate that last, steep slope down to the distillery? Now however, given the current bullish drive for peaty whiskies, even the marketing department has woken up, as it has only recently become available as a bottled malt with a very limited distribution.

Text from The Whisky Trails, Copyright © Gordon Brown 1993; The Whisky-Pages, Copyright © Par Caldenby 2006; Edited by R.P. McMurray, Copyright © 2007

I found a couple of pundits’ reviews of Caol Ila 18 which I reproduce here the day before our tasting. Beneath that, I thought it might be interesting to distill a common view out of that wind.

Michael Jackson – rates Caol Ila 18 an 8.5

Nose
Fragrant. Menthol. Markedly Vegetal. Vanilla pod. Creamy.

Palate
Firmer. Much bigger. Much more expressive. Sweeter. Leafy sweetness. Spring greens. Crushed almonds. Rooty, cedary.

Finish
Some peaty bitterness. Big. Long, warming.

Comment
The most vegetal and assertive of the three expressions. Lots of contribution from the wood.

Dave Broom– rates Caol Ila 18 a 7.25

Nose
Darker in colour, some vanilla and a heavy floral note (bluebell). Light oaky notes, orange/lemon and some smoke.

Palate
Rounded and quite sweet to start then begins to dry in the centre. Good weight. Some oak.

Finish
Lightly smoky and herbal (dried thyme).

Comment
Dry, crisp and mature with more of a contribution from the cask (not OTT though).

What observations of Caol Ila 18 did these two pundits agree on (if anything)?

Nose
Jackson always seems to me to throw as many descriptors as possible up and hope that maybe one sticks. He does not disappoint here with his all-over-the-map description.

Look for some “vanilla” here as both observers noted it. Jackson thought there was a vegetative influence on the nose, however, I don’t think he had Broom’s mixture of bluebells and citrus specifically in mind.

Palate
Our experts seem in alignment on the palate. Look, perhaps, for a broad, sweet flavor to this whisky. They both seem to think there is some kind of arborial influence. They just can’t seem to agree on the species – one thinks cedar the other oak.

Finish
The two descriptions of finish share nothing in common unless you happen to think that thyme is a smoky herbal contributor. I suspect it might have a big finish to it though.

Comment
Looks like an interesting experience ahead for those of us who are “palate guys”. Caol Ila 18 looks to make an impression. I’ll be interested to see what it’s like.

Most age expressions from distilleries are a vatting of casks, the youngest of which is the designated age expression. So Ardbeg 10 is comprised of a mixture of Argbeg casks aged 10 years and longer. This enables the producer to create a consistent taste profile from bottle to bottle, year to year, accounting for such variables as barley variety, climate, peating, etc.

Indy bottlers generally do not vat as described above. They release single cask or single year expressions. They are not trying to create a consistent taste profile. In fact the advantages of drinking indy bottlings is that it’s inconsistent (sometimes in a good way) with the distillery bottling—even of the same age expression. Indy bottlers may take possession of casks, storing them in a different type of climate than the distillery casks. With scotch being comprised of primarily water, the water used to dilute the cask at bottling is often different. And bottled alcohol levels can also vary between distillery bottled and indy bottling. All of these variables play a significant role in effecting the whisky’s profile.

Scotch Malt Whisky is made from malted barley, water and yeast. The first stage of production is the malting of the barley. The barley is first steeped in tanks of water for 2 to 3 days before being spread out on the floors of the malting house to germinate. To arrest germination, the malted barley is dried in a kiln, identifiable by the distinct pagoda-shaped chimneys, characteristic of every distillery.
Peat, a natural fuel cut from the moors of Scotland, is used to fire kilns in the drying process, along with more modern fuels. Smoke from the fire drifts gently upwards through a wire mesh floor to dry out the barley, and the “peat reek” imparts a distinctive aroma which contributes to the character of the final spirit. When dried, the malt is as crisp as toast.
The malted barley is then ground to a rough-hewn grist and mixed with hot water in a vessel known as a mash tun. This process converts the starch in the barley into a sugary liquid known as wort. The wort is transferred to a fermenting vat, or washback, where yeast is added and the fermentation process converts the sugary wort into crude alcohol, similar in aroma and taste to sour beer. This is known as wash.

Murray McDavid was formed by Gordon Wright, Mark Reynier, and Simon Coughlin in1996. Gordon’s family own Springbank Distillery and Cadenhead’s (another independent bottler). Gordon was the sales and marketing director for nine years before starting Murray McDavid. Mark and Simon own four fine wine stores in London and specialise in Burgundy. Nine generations in the whisky business between them. Murray McDavid is now owned by the Bruichladdich Distillery.

“Murray McDavid are Independent Bottlers with a difference. The tradition of independent bottling goes back 150 years and was, until fairly recently, the only source for many of Scotland’s finest malts. The practice of distilleries bottling their own malts started in the 60s, but only became a major event in the last few years. Independent bottlers offer the consumer many things. They offer the opportunity to taste some of the more esoteric malts not bottled by their owners. They offer the chance to try well known and widely available brands at a different age, a different strength, possibly even a different type of barrel than the distillery bottled product. ”

Murray McDavid prides itself with its cask selection. “The selection of casks is of prime importance and great care is taken to find the finest available. Murray McDavid only selects for bottling those casks that they feel represent the best the distillery can produce. All the Single Malt Scotches are bottled without chill filtering, which removes many of the oils that carry the flavour and complexity of the malt. They are not coloured with caramel like many other bottlings which gives the drinker the chance to sample the Scotch in its most natural form. The bottling strength is 46% Alc/Vol (92 proof) which is an ideal drinking strength, no complicated mathematical calculations to work out how much water to add! ”

The philosophy is largely inspired by the traditions from the top-of-the-range wine world. Mark Reynier a third generation wine merchant, uses several aspects from the wine world in the preparation of their bottlings, for example always tasting each cask, creating an assemblage of several casks from the same distillation for maximal complexity.

Murray McDavid represents a particular trend in the world of independent bottlers, due to the wine traditions inherited by its managers. Great respect for tradition and a constant search for quality. Unlike many others, they never bottle a “single cask”, arguing that these kind of bottlings never guarantee a constant quality, are unrepresentative, and often out of balance. There are many factors influencing the quality of a cask (poor quality wood, nails, poorly coopered casks, the proximity of the windows or ceilings, the humidity and temperature in the maturing warehouse, etc…)

Murray McDavid also does not alter the color of the whisky and all of the whiskys are chill filtered.