Whisky Review #99: Caol Ila 1981 28 Years Old (Cask #3537)

The fourth and last review in the series of four which brings us to the milestone that is the 100th review takes us back to a distillery that we’re very familiar with: Caol Ila!

In all honesty, I have been putting this review off for far too long now, primarily due to its significance and the place it occupies on my list of all time favourite whiskies. This expression was very much in contention to be the 100th review, but was pipped at the death by another expression which was slightly more worthy of the accolade.

As such, it now occupies the exalted position of being the 99th review on this blog and the last of the double digit reviews before the big one.

As Caol Ila is a distillery that I have covered in depth previously, first in what became the very first in-depth distillery review as well as in subsequent posts, I will not revisit history and instead focus on the expression at hand.

This expression of Caol Ila is rather unusual primarily due to its flavour profile. While we are all familiar with Caol Ila being light to medium peated and possessing a rather apparent sea salt and herbal note with hints of smoked bacon, the independent varieties tend to showcase more aromas and flavours that one would not generally associate with the distillery house style.

This holds true for this particular expression of Caol Ila primarily due to it being sourced from a single refill bourbon hogshead. These single cask expressions tend to showcase more variety of flavours rather than the standard distillery releases and are therefore more highly prized and sought after.

But what makes this one particularly special is that the flavour profile seems to have been influenced by the spirit which was previously matured within the cask. And I’m not talking about bourbon, sherry, port or another other type of spirit. I’m talking about the whisky which was previously matured in the cask and how it has influenced the character of this particular Caol Ila. More on that later.

This particular expression was distilled in 1981 (which puts it well within the ownership of DCL and also at the cusp of The Great Rationalisation), matured for 28 long years in a single refill bourbon hogshead (#3537) before being bottled in 2010 at a cask strength abv of 49.1% for The Single Cask.

So, let’s jump right into the review!

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Caol Ila 1981 28 Years Old (Cask #3537)

Caol Ila 1981 28 Years Old Cask #3537 (Bottled for The Single Cask, 49.1% abv)

Colour: Deep gold

Nose: Initial entry presents some alcohol and coastal briny hints, followed by iodine and seaweed. With time, some peat emerges, but is is dignified and restrained. Wood varnish, citrus hints such as lemon and lime, cinnamon powder, pine sape and some white pepper emerge and are chased by green ferns and creosote.

Given enough time in the glass, this expression does mellow beautifully and more of the citrus fruits emerge. A very untypical Caol Ila! (23/25)

Palate: Initial entry presents a nice dollop of sea salt and heat, followed by an intense citrus hint, green chili, white pepper and green ferns. The heat becomes more of a warmth at the back of the throat over time and the palate mellows over time to reveal more wood spices, pine sap, citrus fruits and oak. (25/25)

Finish: Long and lingering on the finish, with the wood spices, green chili, green ferns, citrus fruits and pine sap all jostling for position. The oak becomes more apparent at the very end and it adds a tingling sensation to the proceedings. Very complex. (23/25)

Balance: An incredibly well-balanced expression which initially displays hints of the typical Caol Ila distillery style, but then shatters all pre-conceived notions by providing an amazing nosing and tasting experience which showcases depth, complexity and elegance. (24/25)

Rating: 95/100

I was rather intrigued as to the origins of the spirit which previously inhabited this cask and after much digging and some elimination of flavour profiles, I arrived at one potential candidate.

It is my belief that since DCL had a very intricate network of casks which were being used and then distributed throughout their network of distilleries, this cask would have originated from another distillery within that same network.

Sometime in 1981, a cask from a particular distillery became available for re-use and a DCL executive then made the decision to send the cask to Islay in order to be used to mature spirit at Caol Ila.

On the basis of the flavour profile of this particular expression, I am of the belief that the cask originated from Linkwood distillery in Speyside, which was another DCL workhorse which produced whisky for the various blends within the company’s portfolio.

The other candidate was Coleburn, but it seemed increasingly unlikely as the flavour profile had more in common with the Linkwoods of old and new than any other distillery. I may be wrong about this, but this does seem to be the most logical choice at this point in time.

This expression occupies 5th spot in my list of all-time favourites and definitely warrants its position on the list on the basis of its unique character and age. It is one of those outliers which seems rather far removed from the typical distillery style.

If you get the chance to sample this, please do! It just might change your life.

Until the next review, have a wonderful week ahead.

Slainte!

Brendan

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