January 19, 2013

Caol Ila Distiller's Edition - Samurai Duel at Sunrise

'The Water of Life' and 'The Sound of Islay'
(*spoiler alert, skip this review and go buy this bottle immediately)

We're always intrigued by romantic sounding phrases like "The Water of Life" and "The Sound of Islay".  And when we get to use them to talk about whisky, all the better!

Whisky, in the original Gaelic, was called "Usigebaugh" which translates literally to "The Water of Life".  This speaks volumes to the seriousness which which Scots take their whisky.  It's not difficult to imagine a shipwrecked crew of hardcore Scotsmen with only enough room on the life boat for one barrel.  "What shall it be lads, fresh water or whisky?"  And just a chorus of "Ars" and "Grrra's" and the water getting tossed into the sea.

"The Sound of Islay" is the straight of water that separates The Isle of Islay (aka the secret fortress of SmokyBeasts) from it's neighbor The Isle of Jura.  "Sound of Islay" in Gaelic is "Caoil Ile".

The Sound of Islay

So what "Water of Life" is named for "The Sound of Islay"?  You guessed it: Caol Ila.  Since Islay is the mecca for righteous smoky beasts (due to it's abundance of peat bogs), and the Scots obviously take their Water of Life quite seriously, this bodes well for this week's beast of choice - the Caol Ila Distiller's Edition.

The standard bottling from Caol Ila is a 12-Year.  It's available from Astor for $57.99.  Our thoughts on the standard Caol Ila is that it is a very respectable beast.  It has some of the best smoky peaty goodness of any scotch on the market.  It's rich and it's spicy and it leaves a powerful finish that stays on your tongue for a few minutes after your first sip.  It's definitely worth trying, and it's a go-to bottle for some of our closest whisky confidants.  However, in our meek and humble opinion, at around $60 bucks it just doesn't have the smoothness that we're looking for.  We'll always spend the extra $10 for a bottle of Lagavulin.  Alas Caol Ila, so close to a trusted friend, has taken a back seat from our shopping list.  Still there was a soft spot in our hearts for this forgotten beast.

We were totally floored by the Lagavulin Distiller's Edition, and also by the Talisker Distiller's Edition.  Could the Caol Ila compete?  We had very high expectations of this "Double Matured" version that's been aged an extra two years in moscatel barrels (distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2012 for a 14-year vintage).  Moscatel is a Portugese version of port wine, which should add a nice balance and mellowness to the malt.  So how did the Distiller's Edition measure up?

Tasting Notes
Appearance: The color is a deep amber gold.  Very intriguing and lovely.  Yes, the bottle is tinted, but thankfully the scotch retains the gorgeous brunette hue once in the glass.  Your first sip will be filled with anticipation and the feeling that something wonderful is about to happen.

Nose: The first thing we noticed was that the smell is amazingly mellow and warm.  Putting your nose deep into the glass, it smells like the beads of water on the surface of a green apple after you wash it.  There is very little fire, and almost none of the sharp heat and ammonia that creeps up your nose when you smell an average whisky.

Body: The taste stays true to form.  This may be the smoothest scotch we've ever tasted.  It retains the rich peat smoke from the 12-Year, but it's pushed way back to the very base of your tongue.  The flavors are a very mild honey and little individual bursts of toffee, citrus, and coffee.  The texture is very clean, not oily like the peated Bunnahabhain.

Finish: It dances across your palate and vanishes with only a deep aroma of smoke and fruit.  The green grapes from the Portugese port are evident only in the finish, and wonderfully balance out the tiny (and we mean tiny, barely noticeable) hint of fire at the very end.  It's a heat like the very last miniscule pop of a candle that's been left to go out by itself at the end of the night.  It's just enough to remind you that you are in fact drinking whisky.  Think about the finish of a white wine, with just a hint of rich spirit behind it.  It's breathtaking.

The Review
We're starting to see that scotch, like people, starts to find its adult form around 13-14 years.  The difference between this bottle and the standard 12-Year is staggering.  This is reinforced by our recent experience with Lagavulin 12-Year, which in our opinion lacked the maturity and hence the smoothness we love in the 16-Year.  It seems that every year from 10 to 16 is critical and something magical happens right around 14-16 years where the barrel and the spirit combine forces to deliver perfection.  

At $77.99 from AstorWines.com, this bottle absolutely slaughters it.  We'd be shocked if there was a single bottle left on the shelves after a week or two.  We're seriously thinking of buying a case and locking it away for future generations to enjoy.  The Caol Ila Distiller's gets a big fat "A" .  No questions asked, no doubt.  We've had so many more expensive bottles (we won't name them) that don't even come close to being this good, it's really just not fair.  

The Ultimate Shootout
With ample stock of the Lagavulin Distiller's Edition on hand from our feature a couple of weeks ago, we decided that an ultimate shootout was in order.  Two glasses.  Neat.  Mano a mano.  Lagavulin Distiller's versus Caol Ila Distiller's.  Picture two master samurai drawing swords on a cliff-top at sunrise.  

Preparing for Battle

Lift, Draw, Smell

Nose:  The two whiskies are sisters.  Warm, sweet.  The Lagavulin showing more caramel and honey, the Caol Ila more crispness with granny apple and a hint of lemon rind.  Both are so elegant and warm.  Just for fun, we took a whiff of a blended whisky we had sitting on hand (it shall remain nameless, but it's got a White Label...).  The contrast is striking, the cheaper blend was fresh turpentine and uncapped magic marker compared to these mature and graceful ladies.  

Appearance:  The Lag is two shades darker.  The center of a Skor Bar rather than the chamomile tea shade of the Coal.

Body:  The Caol is a full smoke, but somehow light on the tongue.  The tiny spark at the back of the mouth returns, taking shape this time as a tiny squeeze of lemon across the highest part of the tongue between the back molars.  The Lag is full smoke and yet deeper.  The heat isn't at the highest point of the tongue, but on both sides close towards the bottom.  A hint more savory.  

Finish:  Both whiskys finish with the deep glow of an old friend.  You can taste the same ocean breeze blowing over them.  After all they are neighbors, drawn from the same fresh springs by the Sound of Islay and aged on the same salt water coast.  The Lagavulin stays deep, revealing layer after layer of the coffee, caramel, chocolate-covered cherry richness balancing the warmth with thick honey.  The Caol Ila rides higher on the smoke, delivering an earlier and fresher finish towards the roof of the mouth.  Staying in the orchard with peaches, apricots, and a hint of fresh sage. 

The victor?  It's really a matter of taste.  And by that I mean we argued smilingly through another three inches of each bottle and went to sleep happily undecided.  If I was eating fruit, I'd go with the Caol.  Chocolate, I'd go with the Lag.  Both are spectacular.  For the money (Caol is $80, Lag is $100) the Caol wins.  However you can read our head-to-head on the Lag 16-Year vs the Distiller's Edition, and for $60 the Lag 16-Year is still tough to beat.  Still for the money, the Caol Ila Distiller's is some of the finest scotch you can buy.  Just since it's new and novel, we are proclaiming it the victor.  If we'd published this in December instead of January, we'd have been tempted to name it our Scotch of the Year.  

But don't take our advice.  You owe it to yourself to come to your own conclusion before both of these beautiful smoky beasts are gone.  Skip the bars tonight, snuggle up with loved one, and treat yourself to a bottle of the Caol Ila Distiller's Edition.  It's called living and until you have, you haven't.  /smokybeast