In the east of Scotland’s famous peated whisky-producing region’s lies a distillery that has long been revered for its commitment to crafting exceptional Scotch whisky – Caol Ila. Nestled on the rugged shores of the Isle of Islay near Port Askaig, one of the two ferry terminals bringing thousands of visitors to Islay every year, this iconic distillery has been a beacon of peaty excellence for close to two centuries. Close, but not quite two full centuries have passed since our exploration, as we try a 24-year-old whisky released in 2021 in commemoration of their 175th Anniversary. We’ll compare it to the 22-year-old released for Fèis Ìle Festival in 2019.
Caol Ila 24-year-old 175th Anniversary Review
We start with the 24-year-old released in 2021 to celebrate Caol Ila’s 175th anniversary. The distillery did not disclose much about its conception, as we don’t know what types of casks were used nor if it is a single vintage from the end of the previous millennia. We do know, however, that just 3,000 bottles were released, filled at 52.1% ABV, without colouring nor chill filtration. Its original recommended price was £295, but it was sold out in minutes, and buying a bottle know on the secondary market or shops having kept a few bottles will definitely require fronting £450 or more (€500 or more).
Neat: It starts with a gentle yet robust peat aroma, accompanied by pronounced maritime elements such as iodine, sea breeze, and sea-shell notes. Hints of vanilla extract, cough syrup, a fresh but unlit cigar, and citrus notes reminiscent of freshly squeezed lemon juice are also present.
With water: Adding water to the whisky softens and rounds out the nose. The wood and smoke notes become less dominant, while a saltier element becomes more prominent.
Neat: The palate offers pronounced smokiness and woody notes, with a distinct presence of black pepper and wood. There’s a unique astringency that falls somewhere between woodiness and grapefruit, though it’s a bit challenging to pinpoint precisely. Other flavours include walnut, tobacco, dry peat, salt, and dried algae. Amidst these, tropical fruit notes emerge, primarily dominated by passion fruit with a hint of papaya.
With water: Diluting the whisky reveals flavours of smoked dark chocolate, the creamy essence reminiscent of an espresso, and a touch of olive brine.
The finish is of medium length, characterised by smokiness and a salty undertone, with the lingering presence of that wood-induced astringency.
While undeniably excellent, it falls slightly short of my preference for a fruitier profile. Nevertheless, the peat strikes a harmonious balance between being round and gentle whilst retaining a robust presence without overwhelming the palate. I really liked its saltiness, which gives it an additional appeal.
Caol Ila 22-Year-Old Fèis Ìle 2019 Review
Now, let’s turn our attention to a slightly younger (in age) release, the Caol Ila 22-year-old, which made its debut at Islay’s Fèis Ìle Festival in 2019. This 22-year-old expression packs more punch compared to the 24-year-old, boasting a robust 58.7% ABV. It was matured in Sherry-treated American Oak casks and yielded a limited outturn of 3,000 bottles. As for the 24-year-old, this single malt is not chill-filtered and retains its natural colour. Initially, it was priced at a mere £130, a far cry from the current secondary market prices.
Neat: Surprisingly, the nose presents itself softly, without any perceptible alcohol heat, which might lead one to assume a lower ABV. It features notes of sherry-red fruits and a gentle, warm smokiness from the peat. There are hints of embrocations and a pleasant sweetness akin to vanilla, accompanied by faint herbal nuances, perhaps reminiscent of eucalyptus, with a subtle hint of camphor.
With water: The addition of water brings out the influence of American oak, accentuating the sweetness of vanilla and honey.
Neat: The smokiness takes centre stage here, blending seamlessly with the sherry-induced flavours of red fruits, tobacco, and a touch of wood. The mouthfeel is pleasingly thick and oily. The palate is imbued with coastal elements such as seaweed, sea salt, brine, and iodine, which complement the sherry notes exceptionally well. Additional nuances include soot, leather, smoked bacon, and a subtle herbal undertone.
With water: The introduction of water introduces citrus notes, along with a surprising chili pepperiness that imparts a welcome kick and a new dimension to the whisky’s character, catching us off guard in the most delightful way.
The taste of burnt toast, ash, sea salt, and charred seaweed lingers on the palate for a long finish.
I can’t recall trying a Caol Ila of this age that boasts such remarkable complexity, and it makes me really regret not being able to buy a bottle at the time. Despite being two-years younger than the 175th Anniversary release, it feels more complex, fruitier, with wonderfully integrated smoke and alcohol. A must-have I … unfortunately have not.
Thank you Eraldo! Bottle pictures courtesy of Whiskybase.