Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Caol Ila 12 years Islay Single Malt

Do you ever form observations in your mind that you are sure are true, but afraid to voice in polite company for fear that you will find yourself committed to an asylum?  Okay, maybe not committed, but at least seriously shunned by practically everyone.  Yeah, I mean everyone.  Your life partner will look at you out of the corner of her eye late at night, while you slumber, and think:  He worries me.

Well, I do make such observations or connections via my chronically misfiring brain snapses.  Like all the time, and in spite of the risk of rejection and the stink-eye gaze from my wife,  family, peers, co-workers and even you, and living out my days in a straight-jacket, while listening to ABBA muzak in an egg shell white walled institution, I am gonna voice one right now.

I was thinking about adventure/thriller writer Jack Higgins and at the same time I was pondering the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, and realized a profound insight about the two men of the pen from different centuries:  They both were able to come up with awesome titles for their entertaining tomes!

A Sampling of Nietzsche Titles

Beyond Good and Evil

The Dawn of Day

. . . and my favorite . . .

Twilight of the Idols

Check out these Jack Higgins Book Titles

East of Desolation

The Judas Gate

. . . and my other favorite . . .

The Last Place God Made

I was thinking about these titles and what they are about?  Truth!  It must be truth.  Beyond good and evil, there must be truth.  Right?  At the dawn of day, it is Mistress Truth who is there to remind you that your headache and upset stomach is the dowry you received when you became betrothed to one of Dionysus' maidens the night before.

East of desolation?  Surely it is the cold, hard truth that you face?  Surely right?  I think so.  So, what about truth?  Well, that is why you are here right?  You want the truth about Caol Ila 12 years.  Well, I am here to give it to ya baby!



Nose (undiluted)
Gentle peat.  Still smoking, charred beach wood and a sweetness, grassy with a hint of seaweed.

Palate (undiluted)
Salty, cold orange pekoe tea, light peat notes, and smoke.  Think branches piled for a small beach-side fire.  Not overpowering.  Salted cod too.

Finish (undiluted)
Tart apple, tangy green seaweed, and the final note is salt.  Heavy salt.

General Impressions
Caol Ila is a distillery on Islay that is not as well known as the others like Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Laphroaig.  Why?  Probably because their 12 year old single malt has only been available since June 2002.  You see, Caol Ila's principal business is producing single malt for the purpose of blending.  You will taste Caol Ila in two fantastically great blends: Johnnie Walker Green and Black Bottle.  Some say Johnnie Black, but Diageo aren't talking (well, not to me).  It probably is present in other blends too.

So, what is the truth about this single malt, as I stand at the twilight of the idols and east of desolation?

Price Point - Be Wary
I paid a lot of money for this bottle.  $80 to be exact.  So, my expectations were elevated. I was disappointed.  While Caol Ila is a pleasant smoky and peaty single malt from Islay, it lacked complexity of flavor.  If there is a word I overuse on this blog, it has got to be "complexity."  Seriously lacking here.

A regular reader told me he picked up a couple bottles on sale for $29 (he lives in the US).  At $29 I would be singing the praises of this malt as a great value for money play.  But, at $60 plus, I cannot say that.  On the plus side, it is smooth, balanced, with no bitterness.  Well put together, just missing a certain pizazz or Elvis Presley karate move that malts should have at the price point I paid.  Even you lucky Americans should be cautious about picking this bottle up if it involves paying in excess of $50.

While I was drinking Caol Ila, I couldn't help but think to myself that Talisker 10 years is twenty dollars cheaper and delivers a similar flavor profile, but far more interesting and rewarding drink experience.

If you do not want to hop to the Isle of Skye from whence Talisker comes from, you can stay on Islay and try Laphroaig Quarter cask.  Again, cheaper and superior.  As for Ardbeg, it is saltier and more pronounced than Caol Ila.  The latter is really easy drinking.  No wonder it is used for blending.

Online praise is everywhere for this malt.  Ralfy rated this malt 89 out of 100 and was very pleased with it.   So were many others.  Me, I am going out on a limb here and probably will attract heaps of criticism, but oh well, comes with the territory, though I hope I don't end up instituionalized like Nietzsche.


Jason Debly


  1. Jason, Worry not for your reputation one bit. While I like Caol Ila 12y a great deal for its style, it is priced (at $68 US) maybe $15 or so too high for its competiton fopr most tasters. That said, we usually have an open bottle of it in the house, simply because I cannot resist it. I enjoy the herbaceous nature of its peat so much; I like its bone-dry maltiness. It is very much a coastal dram: oily, salty, peaty, herbal, and very very dry. As with every malt, not all tasters - or buyers - are pleased with it. Bravo for publishing your tasting notes. Here's to free thinking ! Clink. JK

    1. "Coastal dram" is a good way of putting it.

      Caol Ila also reminds me a lot of Old Pulteney,but much better in terms of integration.

  2. Nietzsche and Higgins: not a combination I am likely to make but I love it! No looking askance from here.

    Thanks for the honest opinion. As I learn more about whisky and define my taste preferences, I am ever more aware of value vs. hype. I recently tried Laphroaig Quarter Cask. It was almost as good as Lagavulin 16, (not quite there but decently close) and at almost half the cost. Sounds like I can be content to live the Caol Ila experience vicariously through Black Bottle, which better suits the budget.

    Now to dig out my old copies of Nietzsche and Higgins. Haven't read either in many years.

    Jeff The Bear

    1. Laphroaig Quarter Cask would be in direct competition with Caol Ila 12 and is more vibrant, interesting for the peat and smoke fanatic. Caol Ila tastes at times almost like a blend of Islay malts. While it packs more punch than Black Bottle, all you gotta do with Black Bottle is pour a dram and then add in a little Laphroaig and you will have a dram with just as much if not more punch and vibrant flavors than Caol Ila.

      As for Jack Higgins, his books pair well with a drink of scotch. I recommend The Eagle Has Landed or Prayer for the Dying, his two best books in my humble opinion. Cheers!

  3. Hey Jason, no harm in expressing your viewpoint having purchased the bottle yourself. Far too many blogs and twitter users are influenced by free samples and stepping out of line with PR/marketing types. More power to those that speak their mind. If we all had the same preference and beliefs it would be a dull life.

    Speaking of dull; Caol Ila is a dull distillery to visit apart the road down to it and the view from the Still room. I found the lighter Moch edition more interesting and the unpeated version more enticing than the standard version you reviewed.

    1. Dull is a good word for Caol Ila. You hit the nail on the head.

      Ralfy and others really like this standard bottling, but I just dont get it. It's ok. It is not offensive, but not awe inspiring by any means.

      I wonder if there is a correlation between dull visitor areas of distilleries and the spirit they produce?

      Anyhow, always great to hear from you.

    2. I love Caol Ila, and it really opens up with a dash of water. I like Talisker 10 as well, but where I am in the US Talisker is $60-$70, and Caol Ila is $40-$50, so Caol Ila usually wins out when I want a little peat.

  4. do you read too much Friedrich Nietzsche, dont you? lol

    what did you expect? some nectar of the gods?

    whats you nectar?

  5. Hi Jason
    You want the truth? Well, this is the truth: the cover photo of the Higgings book looks like a movie still from a Dirk Diggler flic. Yeah, the guy from PT Anderson´s Boogie Nights.
    Maybe you should taste again the Caol Illa at Chico´s Bar.
    Love your articles.

  6. $80 is simply too high for this whisky. I bought a bottle of the 12 year unpeated edition for about the same price but that one is cask strength and limited edition.

  7. Jason,

    I've been following your blog for about as long as I've been into single malts (not long, since April 2013!) but this is my first time posting.

    I was compelled to comment because this post came at a great time since I had some questions on the same topic. The main reason why I've been following your blog so regularly is because it seems like your flavor profile preference is very close to mine! I haven't had many malts, but my current favorites based on what I've tried are Oban 14 (my first love, so to speak), HP 15, and Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or.

    My question is about Islays - I have a strange relationship so far with them. The first one I've tried was Lagavulin 16, and since it was my first Islay I was virtually slapped in the face by the iodine and smoke. I didn't know what to make of it - I didn't hate it but I didn't prefer it. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wouldn't mind it on those long days when I need to be smacked in the face and comforted.

    I went back out and tried Laphroaig 10 the following time (after a long day) and I have to say - I almost liked it! I felt like I was on my way into Islay, but my question was...Did I like it because I was used to it, or did I really just prefer Laphroaig.

    This is all fresh in my mind because I am planning on hitting up the liquor store this weekend and picking up a couple of bottles to round up my liquor cabinet. I currently have Oban 14, HP 15, and Clynelish 14. I wanted to get a Speyside and an Islay to round off my variety, and was going to go with Cragganmore for the Speyside. However, for the Islay, what do you recommend? Should I invest in Lagavulin as it is a classic and I may grow to like it? Should I get Laphroaig since I already know I liked it...Or should I go with something milder to ease myself into it as I am just venturing into Islays, such as Bowmore 12? I wish I could try the latter, but no bars or restaurants near me stock that malt so it would be a blind purchase - however I do find that reviews and tasting notes are favorable.

    Thanks for your time and response in advance, and thanks for a great and entertaining blog!

    1. Chau, your experience mirrors mine when I first encountered single malt Scotch whisky. In the beginning, I was a huge fan of Cragganmore, Glenfiddich 15, Dalwhinnie and other gentle, floral and honeyed malts. Here and there I would try well known Islays like Ardbeg and Laphroaig and frankly I was kinda repulsed. Actually, not kinda, I was definitely repulsed by the heavy smoke, brine and peat.

      Two reasons for that first reaction to Islays. First, I was probably taking far too big a sip of it. Islays,especially, you want to take tiny sips (ie. 1/4 of a teaspoon) because such malts pack so much flavor. The second reason I didn't like Islays was the taste of peat, smoke, seaweed and brine was totally alien to me. It really put me off the stuff (Islay malts) for a very long time.

      Over time, as I tasted and enjoyed more robust flavors from Speyside, the Highlands in particular and elsewhere, I decided again to put a tentative toe in the Islay spirit world. But, I started with affordable blends that introduce a person to Islay gently. Black Bottle, White Horse and yes Bowmore 12 years. Having mastered those flavor profiles, I moved on to the big dogs and could appreciate them.

      So, in conclusion, start with Black Bottle, White Horse, Islay Mist 8 years. If you like what you taste then you can move on to the bigger numbers.

      As for Lagavulin, I consider it to be magic in a bottle. Lovely tapestry of all the great flavors of Islay, in a delicious and approachable taste experience. Highly recommended. Others Like Ardbeg, I would hold off on for now.

      Talisker 10 is wonderful too, but I think you should drink some blends I mentioned above and then try Talisker. You will be able to really discern a lot more flavors that way.

      Welcome to the blog and look forward to more comments from you! I am sure the readers do too as the discussion answers other people's questions.

    2. I gave my bottle of Laphroaig and black bottle away to a friend and got Ardbeg corrvryecken. Ardbeg was my first Islay and my daily pour, still if you are tentative about Islay go for bowmore 12, Islay Mist, maybe black bottle, and bowmore legend.

  8. too high too high too pricey...come on...too high is your salary. lol

    1. That's the problem. My salary is not keeping up with the cost of living (which is the cost of Scotch for me!) heh, heh, heh

  9. and also, how do I forget, Talisker 10 as one of the contenders too!

  10. Hi Jason!, Another great post. I always get a kick out of what you have to say. What are your thoughts on Caol Ila 12 versus Bowmore 12 for a gentler Islay? I usually jump over the river to shop in NH, and there Caol Ila 12 is about $57, whereas Bowmore 12 is about $48. My big dog Islay favorites are Lagavulin 16 and Ardbeg Uigeadail (both of which I love), but for those days I want an Islay, but don't want to be that challenged, I usually go for the Bowmore. I was thinking about trying the C.I. 12, but now am thinking perhaps I should just stick with the Bowmore 12 and keep the extra 10 bucks.


    1. Caol Ila 12 has more kick than Bowmore 12 and for the $10 extra bucks it is worth it. Especially where you like Ardbeg Uigeadail.

      Go for it, and if you have chance tell me what you think.


    2. The spirit of adventure won the other day and I picked up a bottle of Caol Ila 12. As I expected, it solidly occupies the middle ground between Bowmore 12 and Laphroaig 10. Something about it reminded me of the tidal salt marshes I used to explore as a kid growing up in the mid-Atlantic - not quite at the ocean, but you can tell you're getting close. The question now is, for Islay malts, what to try next? Bowmore 12 is my "comfortable old shoe" (in a very good way), and Argbeg U., Laga 16 and Talisker 10 (ok from Skye, but close enough!) are my special occasion favorites. So...Laphroaig QC? Ardbeg 10? Bruichladdich 10?


    3. Bob, I know where you need to go next! Try Bunnahabhain 12 years Islay Single malt, natural color and unchillfiltered.

      Bunnahabhain is a very different Islay. Not as well known as the other Islays but worth seeking out.

      Smoked, but not in the typical Islay fashion. More lightly peated than the other Islays. Certainly not medicinal like Ardbeg and others. I taste sherry casks too. Lightly sherried I think with light peat notes make for a very intriguing dram that I find malty, graphite like (in a good way).

      But, before you pull the trigger, wait for my next review, as it will be Bunnahabhain. I had initially planned to review Glenmorangie Nectar D'or but at a recent whisk club meeting I got into Bunnhabhain and was quite impressed.

    4. Excellent! I've seen Bunnahabhain at the store and have wondered about it. I will wait for your review, then pick one up. By the way, another intriguing malt I have tried lately was anCnoc 12. I'm not really sure what to think of it yet. It's one that takes some getting used to - a study in contrasts, but I do find myself thinking about it, which I suppose is a good sign! Be curious to hear your take on it at some point.


    1. There really is no rhyme or reason to what I choose to review. Next, I am thinking of Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or. Really enjoyed it in the past and now I have a new bottle. So, it will be a change from Islay.

  12. Of all the malts that you have...what are your favorites? give me a top 3, 5 or 10.


  13. TITLE: Building The Perfect Scotch Whisky Cabinet

    SUBTITLES: Starting all over again

    QUESTION: What would be your tops scotches?


  14. Call me crazy but I really like Caol Ila. I have always preferred the more honeyed speyside type malts, and it gives me smoke, yet not all that in your face type smoke. Yes, maybe dull is the right word, but johnny cash really could not sing a lick and hound dog taylor could not play worth a crap. But it was the way they could not do it that made them so danged good. Kind of how I look at caol ila, smoke for those that don't like smoke. Plus it's not that much where I live....

    1. Ralph, hey buddy, you like it, that's all that matters.

      For me, it's the price that is killing me. And yeah it is a little boring, but it is pleasant and not offensive by any means. I understand its appeal. I guess I just don't understand some of the over the top praise it has received.

      If I got this bottle cheap, I think my review would have been more positive.

  15. I always enjoy your reviews, but I am concerned that the ethanol may have damaged at least one of your "synapses". By the same token, ethanol is also a preservative, so, "Cheers"!

  16. good job, but I get out of this blog.

  17. I've been drinking single malts for about 7 years now. Started with Speysides as most seem to do. Tasted some peaty ones at Cadenheads in 2007 and decidely was not a fan. Recently, my tastes have clearly changed because I bought a bottle of Bruichladdich which I really liked. I just received a bottle of Caol Ila 12 as a gift and checked for some reviews. Most are quite favorable. You seem to be in the minority. I'll let you know what I think.

  18. 80$? In Europe Coal Ila 12 usually sells for 29 - 32 €.

  19. Coal ila 12 is the best. If anyone disagree, drink beer. lol

  20. I'm so glad you finally reviewed Caol Ila 12. It's fascinating to me to hear another's opinion on a scotch.

    I'll state straight away that Caol Ila 12 is my favorite single malt!

    I think the main reason I love Caol Ila 12 is because it is the one and only malt I've tried that I can truly say is SMOKEY, which is way different than peaty in my opinion. It tastes like a camp fire smells and I adore that.

    Complexity isn't that big of a deal to me, but my taste buds would disagree with yours and say that Caol Ila 12 is much more complex than Talisker 10. But that is because Talisker is not much more to me than liquid black pepper!(I love black pepper btw, thus I usually keep a bottle of Talisker around.)

    About the price; you definitely got ripped off. I've been buying Caol Ila 12 for about 4 years here in Oklahoma and have never paid over $40 USD. About 4 years ago it was priced about $32. My last bottle ran #38.

    1. At $40 a bottle Caol Ila would rank definitely higher in my mind. But setting price points aside, I guess I am craving a little more complexity too. Still a good single malt from Islay.

      Nice to hear from you. It has been a while!

    2. absolutely agree about your taste. same to me! caol ila is much better than talisker

  21. Jason,

    Your blog is great. Thank-you for this review! I do see Caol Ila on-sale under $50US and I will not longer be tempted to buy it. (I prefer Talisker to even the top-of-the-line Islay malts.) But I have to ask you one question: is the expression "stink eye" legal in Canada?

    1. Canadian government (provincial) does regulate the sale of alcohol, but not the use of words.

      Talisker is better and by the way, technically from the Isle of Skye, not Islay, but the flavor profile is so similar to confuse with Islay, as I have done myself.

  22. Of all the malts that you have...what are your favorites? give me a top 3, 5 or 10.

    1. Not an easy question to answer. What I mean is I have say a top 3 blended Scotch whiskies, and at the same time I will have a top three Islays and a top three drawn from other parts of Scotland or internationally (ie. Japan).

      Anyway, here goes:

      Top 3 Blended Whiskies:

      1. Hibiki 17yrs
      2. Johnnie Walker Green Label
      3. Royal Salute

      Top 3 Single Malt Scotch Whiskies (outside of Islay)
      1. Highland Park 15 years
      2. Cragganmore 12 years
      3. Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or

  23. hi jason

    could you tell me what is a sherry bomb? What is the taste of sherry? is it really sweet or is it dry like an extra brut champagne?

    thank you very much

    1. I used the words "sherry bomb" as a means of referring to a single malt Scotch whisky that is overwhelmingly sherried in terms of flavor. Examples would be: The Macallan 18 and 12 years. GlenDronach 12, Glenfarclas 12 and Balvenie Doublewood 12 are other examples.

      There are many different types of sherry. So, naturally the taste will vary. However, for our purposes, as whisky fans, the type of sherry that aged in casks, then emptied out, and filled with distilled spirit, aged for years during which the sherry infused wood cask will also infuse the distilled spirit, the type of sherry most used is "Oloroso."

      Oloroso sherry can be very dry but sweetened versions are also produced. Distilled spirit aged in oloroso sherry casks can make some incredible Scotch whiskies like: Macallan and Highland Park.

      What does sherry taste like once it has influenced a spirit aged in a cask? Thing red berries, raspberries, plums, black cherry, black and crisp red grapes come to mind.

      It is amazing how cheap sherry will result in a cheap tasting sherried Scotch, and how amazing the converse is true also!

    2. Jason, I'm suffering some reader anxiety. I've rarely tasted sherry-influenced whisky which suggested to me much fresh fruit of any nature, let alone "... red berries, raspberries, plums, black cherry, black and crisp red grapes". To me, sherry cask influence produces effects closer to those fruits only if having gone through severe oxidation: the famous sherry aging process. I pick up dried prunes, raisins, dried cherry, dried currants, etc. Fresher fruit characteristics (of the red, blue, black fruits) result far more often from treatment with port and red wine cask influences. Here's link to some interesting reading from Johannes van den Heuvel, formerly one of the more prolific Malt Maniacs. http://www.maltmadness.com/malt-whisky/beginners-guide-05-maturation.html


    3. I find that a lot of sherried Scotch whiskies, like say Macallan 12 are becoming more fruit forward, much like California Cabernet versus French cabs, the latter being more dark and plum, prune and raisin. Maybe it is just my perception.

      Would be great if other readers would chime in also.

  24. hi jason

    I have some food for thought for you, hope you answer:

    Why everybody likes johnnie walker black and the same people that love this blend dont love in the same way cardhu 12 single malt, like you?

    cardhu 12 is equal to jwb with less smoke and no cheap alcohol burn like jwb.

    what do you think?

  25. i so disagree about caol ila... talisker is a just sprit with coleur, cannot ven compare it to ila, as well as ardbeg is too peaty.. caol ila is my favourite

  26. Ralfy re-reviewed this in 2014. He was less impressed with the new bottlings of this whisky and dropped his mark accordingly. Seems you're not crazy after all!

  27. Finally got the chance to try it...Yes it was on special ... but not to any great extent.
    Average price is $100 here in Aus. Salty (Brine). Peat. seaweed. Fruity sweetness. Not much else. Ardbeg 10 can be up to $20 cheaper and so much better.. Gee, even my fav blend 6 Isles (slightly less peat) has more going for it than this and around $60.
    Look... Happy I tried it.. was ok. Buy again?? Nope!
    AL(from OZ)

  28. Winter down here Jason.
    Been enjoying the Glengoyne 'cask strength'
    for the past few weeks. Lovely stuff. It's keeping me warm ha ha!!