Caol Ila single malt whisky

There are actually very few Single Malt Whiskies which I will refuse to drink. The short list is "awful" Bowmore, sickly sweet Glenmorangie and Talisker and Isle of Jura (which I find to be as tasteless and unrefined as Surgical Spirits).
On the other hand, I’m certainly not a snob when it comes to Single Malts rating the very cheap Glen Moray (pronounced Murray) very highly as one of the most enjoyable and balanced Speysides there are. I’d rate even the 8 year old higher than the 12 year old The Glenlivet even though many turn their noses up at Glen Moray as it is commonly found on special offer in supermarkets across the UK. Like wines, one should judge with one’s nose and taste buds and not by the price tag.
I’ve never actually admitted to having a particular favourite Single Malt before. I’ve always taken the position that there are times when the fruity Speysides are most appropriate and other times when the salty/peaty/smoky Islays are more suited to the occasion.  However, last Friday night it suddenly occurred to me that there was one whisky which I had consistently returned to and when I thought about it, realised that I’d gone through no less than 3 bottles of the stuff in the past year! I am talking about one Islay Malt by the name of Caol Ila.
Distilleries on the isle of Islay
To put this wonderful whisky into context I thought I’d give you a quick rundown of Islay malts. Be’zras Hashem, next year, money permitting I hope to take the family to Islay for a week’s holiday to repeat the Speyside tour we so much enjoyed back in 2010, after which I will of course give you a more in depth review of Islay malts.

We shall begin with Ardbeg Single Malt. This is without doubt the most extreme expression of Islay malts. Sticking one’s nose in a glass of their 10 year old is too much of a harsh experience for some, more used to the gentle Highland dram. Your nose is attacked with a blast of smoke, bonfire ash, iodine, brine and TCP antiseptic. My father described it as walking through the burnt out remains of a Chemist shop that caught fire and burnt down to the ground the night before. Adding water to this beast to dilute the explosion of taste is mandatory. Drinking any other malt after this one is a complete waste of time and money as your taste buds have all been shot to pieces. Many consider this the king of Islay malts. I am not embarrassed to say that for me, most of the time, it’s too much of a traumatic experience drunk on its own. However, I do actually enjoy it with some very mature herring and a fresh coriander salad, although it must be heavily watered down.

Less extreme but still powerful enough to get a rocket off the ground is Laphroaig (pronounced “Lafrog”). Although sharing that briny TCP taste of Ardbeg, Laphroaig is gentler on the palate. It still maintains an awesome dry smoke and peaty explosion of taste which will be too much for some. At the right time and with the right food, I have always thoroughly enjoyed Laphroaig, especially for Kiddush on a hot summer’s lunchtime. I sometimes drink it neat and at other times, add a teaspoon of water. Before experiencing Caol Ila, I considered Laphroaig my number one favourite of all Islay malts, having gone through some six bottles or more over the years.

Its standard 10 year old and Quarter Cask 10 year olds are excellent and good value for money. Unfortunately for us kosher “malties”, Laphroaig has now entered into a close relationship with a Spanish Sherry winery and most of its more expensive range contain actual yayin stam and therefore are forbidden to all but the most meikel of Orthodox Jews.

Lagavulin is heavier and more oily in character than Laphroaig but still very much within that Ardbeg and Laphroaig group. It is powerful but not overwhelming. You will taste the peat and smoke but this is mixed with sea water and sweet herring oil that lingers on the palate. Again, very enjoyable with smoked fish, challa and a fresh salad although it is a bit too heavy for my taste, especially in the heat of the Israeli summer.

Bruichladdich (pronounced “Bruach Laddie”) is going through a bit of a character transformation at the moment having been mothballed for many years. It is now producing again but the owners are experimenting with all kinds of varieties and I cannot pin this malt down to any specific taste or style. I had a bottle of Bruichladdich from 1964 (the oldest bottle I’ve ever owned) which was peaty, dry and woody in character. That was before the closure though.
Kosher Wine Edition

There is a "Kosher Finish Bruichladdich" on the market matured in Wine casks that previously contained wine from the Israeli Carmel Mizrachi winery.
** UPDATE **
It turns out that this whisky is no more kosher than any other Scottish Single Malt matured in non-kosher sherry casks.
See here for further details

Darach Ur

Another single malt by the name of Bunnahabhain (pronounced “Bunahavin”) is becoming increasingly popular. Each of their variaties have their own name. I’ve tasted one called Darach Ur. It is described on the bottle as a “Wonderful balance of sweet vanilla, oak dried fruits and creamy nut toffee, Smooth and creamy with citrus flavours and a hint of cinnamon”. I personally found it under matured, dry and watery with little character. There is no year stated on the bottle as this is a Malt blend of Bunnahabhain whiskies from different years but I would guess that the majority of it is made up of a very young whisky. No more than 8 years old and possibly even as young as 3 years?

An Enigma that they ever put this on sale to the public

For completeness only, I feel duty bound to mention the oldest single malt on the island, namely Bowmore distillery. I have been given various expressions of this single malt as presents throughout the years having never actually bought a bottle myself. The only variety which I found at least drinkable was one called Bowmore Dusk. This is very smoky with a hint of citrus fruit. Not bad but very overpriced. I certainly wouldn’t spend my money on it.

However, taking Bowmore “Enigma” as an example of their more popular whisky, it is simply awful. It has a very unpleasant chemical taste mixed with old rotten dried lemons. I simply cannot believe that they have the chutzpa to sell such a thing. I have been told that Bowmore used to produce some of Islay’s finest whiskies. They have unfortunately lost the plot in recent years. Avoid at all costs.
Now to the subject of this review. Caol Ila (pronounced “Kalilah”) Single Malt.

Originally built in 1846, the distillery was demolished and rebuilt in 1879 but eventually closed in 1930. The site was bought by Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd and reopened in 1937 where the distillery continued to produce in small quantities, lacking investment. In 1972, when the whisky market took off, the site was refurnished and its stills were increased from 2 to 6 in order to meet the growing demand for quality malts to go into blends.

Caol Ila made its debut as a single malt in its own right as late as 2006 with an 8 year old bottling. It was an immediate success and has gone from strength to strength ever since.

Despite Caol Ila being one of the lesser known Islay malts, it is actually the biggest producer on the island as the distillery’s main output goes into blends. However its malts are receiving the recognition they deserve and are becoming increasingly more available in duty frees around the world.
Although still maintaining a recognisable Islay Malt character, Caol Ila 12 year old is none the less very different to other malts on the island. My mouth is watering as I try to describe this whisky.
Just putting your nose inside a glass of Caol Ila and taking a long slow breath of its fumes is a true delight. You will be rewarded with a light and fresh blast of salty misty sea breeze followed by a subtle smoky iodine aroma and finally a surprising waft of subtle sweetness that creeps up on you. Next, add some water and swirl it around for a few seconds. Put your nose back inside the glass again and notice the huge difference. The whisky has opened up to reveal a much more pronounced floral sweetness mixed in with that salty sea breeze with woody notes.
Tasting Caol Ila, especially after the promise of greatness from smelling this whisky, will surely put a contented smile on your face. Its gentle sweet and briny taste excites and satisfies your taste buds with its long and memorable aftertaste. So long is it that you will remember this most pleasurable of tastes for days after.
It is for me, the best single malt of any region within Scotland by far.
Last Friday night I was invited to a Shalom Zachor of a new Cohen in this world. My good friend (the grandfather) offered me an 18 year old Caol Ila. It was markedly darker than the quite pale yellow of the 12 year old. Smelling though brought back that familiar Caol Ila aroma although there was more wood in the nose. The 18 year old, despite being only43% proof, needed more than a drop of water. Again, after doing so, the whisky opened up to reveal a far sweeter woody nose with the sea breeze still present but less prominent.

Tasting certainly did not disappoint. The flavour was simply more of the same Caol Ila magic, only with a heavier woody and sweeter nectar bias. Was it better than the 12 year old? The answer is no. It was just a different expression of the same whisky perfection.
Next time you are in the Duty Free, treat yourself to a 12 year old 1 Litre Caol Ila and if you have the money, go for the 18 year old or even dare I say, the 25 year old which I have as yet, not had the privilege to try. You will not be disappointed.


  1. I concur with your dislike of Bowmore (though I am ashamed that I hold a bottle of Surf presented by a well meaning friend). I disagree with your dissing of Talisker, which I regard as a good all rounder kiddush whisky. Jura 16 year old is not bad either. I love Caol Ila too (my first bottle of the 12-year old was about 5 years ago, when it was virtually unobtainable (the reason being that nearly all of the stock was produced for blending Bell's). As it's popularity has increased, regrettably the price has risen sharply. Dalmore 15 year old and Glen Garioch also are two of my current favourites.


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