Tag Archives: Peated

Caol Ila 30 Year Old

This is a review of the official bottling of a vintage 1983 Caol Ila, released by Diageo in 2014. Only 7,638 bottles of this 30yo bottling were produced.

Normally, I only review whiskies where I have a significant sample on hand for tasting (typically sampled at home, in a controlled environment). In this case, I got to enjoy a generous pour from a bottle at a flagship LCBO store, and had a chance to record my notes in a quiet corner.

At $750 CAD, this is the most expensive whisky I’ve reviewed yet.  It is also the oldest, at 30 years of barrel aging. This is thus an interesting opportunity to see what effect extended aging has on the so-called “lightly peated” flavour profile of Caol Ila (see my recent 12yo review for a discussion of the house style).

First, here are the Meta-critic scores for some other popular aged smokey/peaty single malt original bottlings:

Ardbeg 17yo: 9.05 ± 0.29 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Caol Ila 18yo: 8.66 ± 0.54 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
Caol Ila 30yo: 9.38 ± 0.28 on 7 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 18yo: 9.18 ± 0.27 on 20 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21yo :8.89 ± 0.41 on 14 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25yo: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 30yo: 9.06 ± 0.42 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 40yo: 9.07 ± 0.39 on 8 reviews ($$$$$+)
Lagavulin 16yo: 9.30 ± 0.25 on 23 reviews ($$$$)
Laphroaig 18yo: 9.09 ± 0.30 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Laphroaig 25yo: 9.21 ± 0.31 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Pulteney 21yo: 8.67 ± 0.62 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Talisker 18yo: 9.25 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Talisker 25yo: 8.95 ± 0.26 on 13 reviews ($$$$$+)

The 30yo Caol Ila certainly tops the Meta-Critic scores for this class. Note that it is rare to see original bottlings of this age, given the limited availability of stock (i.e., more commonly found as small batches with independent bottlers).

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Fragrant nose, with a lot going on. I don’t get the wet peat of the younger Caol Ilas, but lots of extinguished smoke and ash (more the latter). Some distinctive medicinal/briny notes, plus well-worn leather. A faint nutty aroma, with a creamy overall feel. There is a fair amount of sweet fruit as well, like honeydew melon, along with a touch of citrus. Complex, yet elegant – you will want to spend a lot of time exploring this nose.

Palate: The salty and medicinal iodine notes come through up front, but they aren’t overwhelming. Same for the smoke/ash notes – present, but not as intense as the younger Coal Ilas. Some moist, earthy peat showing up now. Still getting the melon and some sort of pulpy fruit (papaya?). There is a spiciness as well, like anise – balanced with just the right level of sweetness (i.e., low- to mid-sweet black licorice, as I’ve only found in specialty shops in the UK). Definite oaky elements coming through, with clear vanilla. It is nowhere near as hot as you would expect for a 55.1% ABV whisky – shockingly easy to drink at this level. It has an incredibly luxurious mouthfeel.

Caol.Ila30Finish: Very long, with lingering smoke and ash. That balance of spicy and sweet (e.g., black licorice) persists as well.

This is a stunner!  It’s hard to express in words just how well this whisky works. Note that despite the descriptions above, a lot of the classic peaty notes have been attenuated by the extended barrel aging. Think of this one as a nice meal over an extinguished campfire.

I made the mistake of sampling the Highland Park 21yo after this whisky, and it just couldn’t compare on any level (and that’s coming from a big HP 18yo fan). Certainly not fair to the HP – I will need to try it again before I can fairly review it.

The Meta-Critic score for the Caol Ila 30yo seems reasonable to me – it is certainly one of the best whiskies I’ve ever had. While I would not pay the going rate for a bottle, I do recommend you try it if given the chance. For detailed reviews by reviewers who share my enthusiasm, you can try Serge at Whisky Fun, Ruben of Whisky Notes and Tone of Whisky Saga. Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate is also fairly positive.

Te Bheag Blended Whisky

Té Bheag Nan Eiliean Gaelic Whisky is a distinctive blended whisky – and not just for its hard to pronounce name (“CHEY-vek”). Té Bheag uses a relatively high proportion of malt whisky (40%) – with some peated malt at that.

Produced by the Pràban na Linne company on the Isle of Skye, it is not going too much out on a limb to suspect that some Talisker peated malt may have found its way into this blend. 😉 In addition to explicit Island malt, there is supposedly malt from the classic Islay, Highland and Speyside regions. Also distinctive is the use of ex-sherry casks for some of these malts, thus imparting both winey and smokey flavours to the final blend. The age of the malt component is reportedly in the 8–11 year range.

Also impressive for a blend, Té Bheag is not chill-filtered – although it is bottled at the common 40% ABV. Combined with the above malt sources, you can expect an above-average range of flavours in this inexpensive blend.

Here is how Te Bheag compares to other scotch whisky blends in the Meta-Critic Database, for the same lower mid-range price category (in alphabetical order):

Bushmills Black Bush: 8.36 ± 0.44 on 19 reviews ($$)
Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend: 8.60 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews ($$)
Famous Grouse Gold Reserve: 8.61 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews ($$)
Jameson Select Reserve (Black Barrel): 8.33 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Black Label: 8.36 ± 0.51 on 19 reviews ($$)
Johnnie Walker Double Black: 8.51 ± 0.33 on 13 reviews ($$)
Té Bheag: 8.54 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$)

Te Bheag is actually one of the cheapest whiskies in the “$$” category, making it one of the best value buys. It is significantly cheaper than Johnnie Walker Black or Compass Box Great King St Artist’s Blend – two of the other top scoring mid-range blends. Famous Grouse Gold Reserve is the only blend that scores higher, for about the same price.

Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sharp aromas, with definite peaty/smokey notes and some sherry influence. A medicinal iodine effect is present, as well as a distinctive glue aroma (the latter is not particularly appealing, personally). The sherry influence is unmistakable, although relatively light with just a bit of raisin and chocolate. There is also a dusty and dry aspect – which, when combined with the glue, gives the impression of old book bindings.  Smells sort of like Johnny Walker Black finished in a sherry cask for a period of time. Distinctive aroma for a blend, you could easily mistake this for a Scottish Island malt whisky.

Palate: Very Highland Park-like in its initial approach, with a peaty/smokey note tamed by sherried sweetness (plus some salty caramel here). A little tongue tingle, with a bit of leather (in a good way) and some mixed nuts. This initial profile could almost be described as succulent, promising something juicy to come (which never really arrives, though). A bit of bitterness soon creeps in (similar to HP 12yo), and there is a dry astringency effect that builds over time.

Finish: Medium length. Fortunately, the bitterness disappears quickly, and there is a lingering sweetness that carries you through to the end. There is no real resurgence of any of the original flavours though, and the peat/smoke disappears fairly quickly (unlike most peated single malts, where they linger longer). There’s nothing offensive here, but ultimately, like most blends, this one does fizzle out a little bit for me.

Te.BheagTé Bheag is a great value for what it is – a decent Scotch blend at an excellent price. It has noticeable traces of peated barley and sherry cask finishing – an uncommon combination in an inexpensive blend. Despite the Isle of Skye origin, I could see this as the poor man’s Highland Park. 🙂  Indeed, while it is challenging to equate blend scores with single malts, I am also struck by how well Te Bheag matches the more-expensive entry level HPs, as shown below:

Té Bheag: 8.54 ± 0.32 on 12 reviews ($$)
Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.49 ± 0.52 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (2014 onward): 8.39 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo (all reviews): 8.68 ± 0.23 on 19 reviews ($$$)

Something to consider if you are a fan of the lightly peated and sherried style, but are on more of a budget.

At the end of the day, I think the overall Meta-Critic score here is reasonable. There is definitely more going on in this blended whisky than in the more expensive Johnnie Walker Black label. But there are also a few rougher edges here that some drinkers of simpler blends may not be used to.  I do think it is fair to say that Te Bheag is closer to an entry level single malt than a typical blend.

Nathan the Scotch Noob and Jason of In Search of Elegance both rank this whisky similarly (and match my own view). Dominic of the Whisky Advocate is even more positive, and Ralfy gives it probably the most enthusiastic review I’ve seen.

Caol Ila 12 Year Old

Caol Ila is a high-capacity malt distillery, from the Islay island of Scotland. As you would expect for the region, most of its production features the use of peated barley (although it does make some unpeated whisky as well).

Caol Ila (typically pronounced “Cool-EEL-ah” or “Coo-LEE-la”) has a long history, and is currently owned and operated by whisky conglomerate Diageo. Most of the distillery’s production is therefore directed toward the high-volume Diageo blends, where it serves as the “smokey” backbone of the flagship Johnnie Walker Black and various Bell’s blends. Fortunately for us, Diageo now also allows direct bottlings of Caol Ila single malts.

Interestingly, most enthusiasts seem to consider Caol Ila’s malts to be “lightly” peated.  Indeed, most of the Caol Ila single malts can be found in flavour cluster I – which are less intensely smokey/peaty than cluster J (where you will find most of the Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin expressions).  This is interesting, as Caol Ila actually uses a comparable level of peat to Lagavulin (i.e., typically 35ppm). Presumably, there are other aspects to whisky production at Caol Ila that attenuate the effect of peat on final whisky flavour. See my Source of Whisky’s Flavour for more background information.

Long story short, it may be more accurate to say that Caol Ila single malts are typically less extremely peaty/smokey flavoured than those of other distilleries on the island.

Here are the Meta-Critic scores for similar single malt expressions (i.e., mainly from flavour cluster I), at comparable price points:

Bowmore 12yo: 8.41 ± 0.25 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Bowmore Small Batch: 8.45 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Caol Ila 12yo: 8.74 ± 0.19 on 16 reviews ($$$$)
Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition: 8.74 ± 0.40 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12yo: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.50 ± 0.53 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Oban Little Bay: 8.51 ± 0.33 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Oban 14yo: 8.43 ± 0.45 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Old Pulteney 12yo: 8.44 ± 0.30 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Old Pulteney Navigator: 8.42 ± 0.31 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Talisker 10yo: 8.92 ± 0.22 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Talisker Dark Storm: 8.78 ± 0.13 on 8 reviews ($$$)

Caol Ila is definitely well received by reviewers for this class. My review sample of the Caol Ila 12yo comes from Reddit user wuhantang.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very peaty nose, in a moistened earth way (i.e., a peat bog). There is some smoke as well, but it seems restrained relative to the peat (although I can definitely detect the subtle smokey note of JW Black here). There is a Lagavulin-like quality to the peat that I quite like (i.e., it is “sweeter” and less iodine-rich than the typical Laphroaig/Ardbegs to me). That sweetness is hard to place (maybe baking bread?). There is definitely something salty here too, which helps produce a mouth-watering effect. Also slightly bitter (lemon zest?) with some grassiness rounding out the overall bouquet nicely. Quite complex and fragrant for flavour cluster I.

Palate: An oily texture, with a nicely balanced mix of peat, ash and smoke. Definitely not as overwhelming as the flavour cluster J malts (i.e., I can see where the “lightly smokey” moniker comes from).  Still sweet, but with the baking bread from the nose turning into moist vanilla cake in the mouth. There’s a bit of nuttiness now as well.  Not overly complex, but pleasant and easy going (even if you are not a big peat/smoke-fan). I am surprised to see that it is actually bottled 43% ABV, as it tastes as smooth to me as most 40% whiskies.

Caol.Ila.12Finish: Moderately long. Like many peated whiskies, the smoke is the longest-lasting characteristic, but it is balanced by a persistent sweetness. I wasn’t getting much in the way of fruits on the nose or palate, but there does seem to be a light fruit vibe on the way out (maybe pear?).

I am not typically a fan of heavily peat-flavoured whiskies – but I quite like the Caol Ila 12yo. The nose in particular is very pleasant, with a lot going on. It is nice on the palate and in the finish as well, but somewhat less interesting here. That said, there are no false notes.

I don’t know if I would recommend this as an introduction for newcomers to whisky, but it is certainly a good choice for those who like a little smoke, or want to dip a toe into the peaty/smokey realm.

Despite being an entry-level single malt, most reviewers rank this whisky as slightly above average overall (which I would agree with).  Representative reviews are the most recent sample by Serge of Whisky Fun, Dave Broom of Whisky Advocate, and the guys at Quebec Whisky.  Even the reviewers who score this whisky a little lower tend to be very positive in their comments – see for example Ruben of Whisky Notes or Ralfy. Ralfy also recommends this as a single malt for beginners to try.

Highland Park 12 Year Old

Highland Park 12 year old

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Highland Park. Located on the Orkney islands, Highland Park is one of the most northerly whisky distilleries in Scotland. But what truly makes it distinctive is its taste – Highland Park expressions all show an unusual combination of peated malt and sherry cask aging.

As a result, most Highland Park expressions end up in either the C or I flavour clusters. My Flavour Map page describes the cluster analysis and principal component analysis in detail – scroll down to see the full flavour map and cluster descriptions near the bottom of the page.

It is very uncommon to find whiskies in the relatively unpopulated area between C and I in the cluster analysis/PCA. Most rich-tasting whiskies fall firmly into one of the two camps – that is to say, they are either clearly smokey (I-J) or clearly winey (A-C).  This makes Highland Park an unusual exception, as their expressions typically mark the inner edges of the C/I clusters (i.e., where the overlap would be, if there more examples). This gives Highland Park a truly unique – and distinctive – flavour profile.

Let’s take a look at how some of the common Highland Park expressions do in my Whisky Database. Note that there are more HP expressions tracked there than are shown below, but these are among the most commonly available (all carried by the LCBO, for example). The “$” are relative indicators based on worldwide prices (as explained here).

Highland Park Dark Origins: 8.68 ± 0.52 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Highland Park 10 yo: 8.58 ± 0.32 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 12 yo: 8.70 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Highland Park 18 yo: 9.18 ± 0.28 on 17 reviews ($$$$$)
Highland Park 21 yo: 8.86 ± 0.46 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Highland Park 25 yo: 9.20 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)

Clearly, from a simple price/score perspective, the 10yo, 12yo and 18yo are the most compelling options to consider. For my inaugural commentary on Highland Park, I’ve chosen to start with the relatively common (and affordable) 12 yo expression. I hope to do a full commentary on the 18 yo at a later time (UPDATE: available here). The 12 yo was picked up at the LCBO for ~$80 CAD (bottled at 43% ABV).

There is wide range of opinions on the 12 yo, as shown by the standard deviation above. Some hold this whisky in high regard, a close second to the popular 18 yo. Indeed, one reviewer in my database significantly prefers it over the 18 yo. But most reviewers give it a middle-of-the-road score – and one gives it a very low score. Combined, this brings the overall average down (and results in an increased variance).

Nose: Personally, I find a lot of the core Highland Park characteristics present in the 12 yo – at least on first sniff/sip. Orkney peat is very distinctive, and is definitely present on the nose here. It is not overly smokey though – I would describe it instead as a more earthy aroma. It’s also quite fruity, with some definite prune, raisin and plum aromas. Some of the more citrus fruits as well. I personally don’t detect any of the classic sherry red berries on the nose. All in all, definitely a pleasing nose.

Palate: The smokey peat quickly asserts itself, although it is not as overwhelming as some in this flavour class (I).  I get more of the red fruits now, with vanilla and some definite honey/brown sugar sweetness as well. Unfortunately, there’s also a hint of almond-type bitterness that grows more strongly on subsequent sips.

Finish: The finish is surprisingly long lasting, with lightly lingering impressions of the initial earthy and fruity notes from the nose. Unfortunately, the bitter note from the palate remains consistent on the way out, and so eventually becomes the dominant characteristic in the end.  A rather unsatisfying finish for this reason (although I suppose that might just encourage you to drink more!). I suspect this bitterness is a symptom of the young age, as I don’t detect it on the 18 yo.

One thing that definitely helps here is a splash of water. I always encourage my guests to try a bit of water in their whisky (after first tasting it neat – see my hosting a whisky tasting page). While I drink most non-cask-strength whiskies neat, a few drops of water makes a huge difference here. There is an immediate increase in the sweetness on the nose and palate, bringing in some tropical fruit notes that I don’t detect neat (particularly banana). It also seems to help counteract the bitterness in the finish – although I suspect it does this more by masking the bitterness than diminishing it, but the end result is the same.

Highland Park 12 year oldNote that only a few drops of water are required for a standard ~1.5oz whisky pour. If you use a teaspoon, you are likely to flood the whisky (and thin out the body). Of course, that’s fine if that is your preference – but do try just a few drops first to see what you think. This is one case where I find it makes a surprising difference.

The Quebec Whisky guys are typically moderately positive for this whisky. Ralfy gives it a median score – although he also recommends it as one of three beginner malts to try.

UPDATE January, 2016: As pointed out in the discussion thread below, this whisky has been re-reviewed recently by the Rumhowler (original and 2015 re-review), WhiskyWon (original and 2015 re-review), and Jim Murray – and in all cases, the score has dropped significantly.  As a result, I now track reviews pre/post 2014 separately in my database, in addition to the overall average of all reviewers.

Highland Park 12yo (all reviews past 5 years): 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews pre-mid 2014): 8.83 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews
Highland Park 12yo (reviews post-mid 2014): 8.28 ± 0.39 on 8 reviews

UPDATE July, 2016: My Highland Park 18 yo review is now available.

 

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