It’s almost impossible to discuss Caol Ila without mentioning Johnnie Walker. Malts.com, the page for Diageo’s multiple scotch brands, literally calls it “the Islay home of Johnnie Walker.” That alone should clue curious minds into just how big this Islay distillery is, but if you want numbers, the distillery is estimated (by Cask Trade) to have a productive capacity of 6.5 mLPA (million liters of pure alcohol). For context, that narrowly exceeds the export of single malt bottles to the United States from 2021 by .1, comfortably producing twice as much whisky as Laphroaig.
And yet, Caol Ila isn’t a terribly storied distillery. Rather, its somewhat hidden location feels fittingly analogous to the space it occupies in the world of single malt scotches. And when we consider that every non-warehouse building of the distillery was demolished in 1972 to build its current form, this makes even more sense from a symbolic standpoint. Caol Ila has produced a number of single malt bottlings, but even hobbyists are bound to only know of (or try) the 12-Year, which sees fairly wide distribution. I tried it as part of a Diageo Coastal Collection set, and like the recently reviewed Talisker 10-Year, it’s pricing seems highly volatile. I can find it locally for about $80.
Nose: Sweet, earthy peat. A touch of salt or brine with mild, underlying lemon. Faint, occasional vanilla. Coastal character flourishes with time. Marker essence creeps in, but it’s mostly buried. Post-sip sees a soft apple note emerge.
Palate: Green apple, smoke, and honey. Nicely integrated salt component strongly complements the core flavors. Smoked pork loin or chop with a discrete dose of pepper and lemon. Chocolate on the back.
Finish: Smoke and citrus elements stand strong. I begin to get either apple or pear, but like the marker essence on the nose, it’s subdued.
Caol Ila is said to use the same malt specification as Lagavulin, and it shows. The 12-Year provides a profile that’s sweet, earthy, and bright in a way that reminds me of Nick Offerman’s scotch of choice. This both bodes well and adds up, since Lagavulin is what I’d consider the most approachable peated malt brand. To that end, Caol Ila 12-Year isn’t just accessible, but competent. It’s to the point that I found myself preferring Caol Ila 12-Year to the likes of flagship offerings from Talisker and Ardbeg. And each revisit further solidified my already-positive first impressions.
I only wish I could speak as enthusiastically when considering the price. Bemoaning local scotch prices is every bit as tiring to read as it is to write. Yet it’s an ever-present reality that doesn’t just keep me from trying more world whisky, but also makes enjoying the ones I do purchase that much tougher. I’m glad I was able to try Caol Ila 12-Year as part of the Diageo Coastal Collection I mentioned in my Talisker 10-Year review. And like that expression, Caol Ila only holds up so long as it comfortably fits within my budget. Which it doesn’t. This doesn’t affect my final grade since the whisky itself is still enjoyable; it just makes the act of paying up too difficult to justify.