September 08, 2014

Caol Ila - tranquil, with a touch of TCP! Feis Ile 2014

The still house at Caol Ila offers one of the nicest views on Islay, overlooking the Paps of Jura across the Sound of Islay. The distillery, despite being the biggest producer on the island, has a tranquil feel to it and, even on Caol Ila Day, with large crowds streaming in to the grounds, it still managed to project a laid back feeling. The car park is not very big, so visitors parked in a big field near the village of Keills, and mini-buses shuttled back and forth all day long - a great idea.
The day offered up various whisky tasting experiences - straight up, blind, with food, on the sea, with music, in cocktails, in the warehouse, with the operators. Something for everyone!
We opted for a morning tasting with new Distillery Manager, David Wood. I had met David on my previous trip to Islay, when I had a great visit at Lagavulin, where he was Brand Manager. The tasting was in the old cooperage, which was packed with people keen to taste the collection. Not surprisingly, we bumped into our Swedish friends, unmistakeable in their custom made Hawaiian shirts.
Two of them had been coming to the Feis for five years, each time in an annual custom designed shirt. Peter Sjögren, is Marketing Manager and Partner of Svenska Eldvatten, an independent bottler in Sweden, and a good person to follow on Instagram if you like to drool over photos of rare whiskies.
David started his tasting by passing round some new make spirit, and inviting us to rub it on our hand. The unmistakeable aroma of smoke and that unique Caol Ila medicinal nose was very evident, even from this spirit straight out of the still, and not yet whisky. (Scotch whisky has to mature in oak casks for at least three years before it can be called whisky).
The Caol Ila character comes, in part, from concerto barley, malted, then dried with a peat level of around 39ppm; and a  distillation process involving lots of copper interaction. Maturation is mainly in refill hogsheads, with more emphasis on the spirit than the barrel. Of the 7 million litres produced annually, about 20% goes to malt whisky, the rest to blends. To put these volumes further into perspective, Port Ellen Malting works, also owned by Diageo, produces about 550 tonnes of malt a week, and 350 tonnes of that goes to Caol Ila.
loading the malt into trucks for the distilleries
On to the whiskies. We tasted five,
Caol Ila 12 year old. Possibly one of the most distinctive Single Malt Scotches for my nose. Aromas of TCP (an antiseptic introduced in 1918 and popular in the UK), lemon, lime, smoke, tarry seaspray; smoky and medicinal on the palate, with a long, spicy finish. As David explained, the aim is for un-influential casks to let the whisky character shine through. And it does.
Distillers Edition. Caol Ila finished in Moscatel (fortified Spanish wine) casks, which adds a fruity and mild toffee character, with the smoke kicking in afterwards. A nice combination.
Caol Ila 25 year old. Elegant with age, golden raisins, subdued but evident Caol Ila character, beautifully balanced. I'll take this medicine any day!
Stitchell Reserve. A tribute to Billy Stitchell, who retired after a very long career. (Read about my great tasting day with Billy on a previous visit). 59% ABV, about 15 years old, perfumed nose, beeswax, apple crumble and custard, spice on the palate and a long finish. Slàinte Billy!
David Wood - Caol Ila Distillery Manager
Feis Ile 2014. A 55.5% ABV 12 year old Caol Ila. 1500 bottles produced from four hogsheads. A powerful dram, perfume, peat, slight saltiness and Caol Ila on the nose; big, spicy and balanced. For lovers of strong, straight-up Caol Ila, unadulterated by special casks.
And what's required after all that Caol Ila tasting? Scallops in Caol Ila.
Typically, in my culinary neck of the woods, we eat just the white scallop body, but at the seafood stand set up for the day, they were served with the coral - the orange "tail" - attached to the body. It's not quite as flavoursome, and I didn't love the texture, but "when in Rome"......
The queue, as always during Feis Ile, afforded the opportunity to meet and chat with new folk. Bobby had been an operator for four years and I asked him how he liked the job. "Oh, it's fine" he said, "but it can be lonely work, especially on the night shift". The distillery has a number of sophisticated, computer-controlled automatic processes. Even although Caol Ila is a big producer, it doesn't need a big team to operate all the production equipment. Lonely it might be, but I'm certain that Bobby looks out, now and then, on that great view from the Still house across the Sound and considers himself a lucky fellow.
After lunch, we did some blind tasting to benefit a local charity, then went off to the cocktail bar, where our new acquaintances, Diageo Whisky Ambassadors, Colin Dunn and David Sinclair, were concocting delightful cocktails, using Caol Ila of course.
Some tranquil time by the water, with dram in hand, ended our day, then it was back to the car park/field, where we rescued some stranded tasters, who had missed their ride, and drove them back to Bowmore.
In my next post, I'll be writing about Gartbreck - soon to be Islay's next distillery. If you enjoy these stories, consider signing up for email updates. You'll only receive one when a new story is posted. Just fill in your email address in the box at the top of the blog in the right hand column.

GrapeScot Islay Tour 2015

We'll be visiting Caol Ila for one of our great experiences during the whisky tour to Islay (and Jura) in late August 2015. This will be a small group tour with terrific events at each of the distilleries, an opportunity to meet some wonderful whisky people, great accommodations, transportation, food, cultural activities and some very fine whisky. Hope you can join us!