June 3, 2016

Continuing our vicarious trip to Islay - Caol Ila Feis Ile 2015!!!

We've been sobbing ourselves to sleep thinking about how we're missing ANOTHER Feis Ile - the annual spring festival in Islay, Scotland where all our favorite distilleries celebrate another year with music, food, and malt malt malt.  One day we'll get there!!

Oh well, we are consoling ourselves by popping open some gems that have been patiently waiting on the shelf at SmokyBeast headquarters.  Last week we corked the mighty Lagavulin Feis Ile 2015, a truly magnificent 24-year old beauty that set the bar just impossibly high for what a subtle old smoky beast can deliver.  Today we're sampling the sister bottle, Caol Ila's 2015 Feis Ile release.

Caol Ila's offering, hand picked by distillery manager David Wood, is younger than Lagavulin's release. It's a seventeen year expression distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2015. It's cask strength, bottled at a whopping 57.3 ABV. It's triple matured, barreled in American oak, Moscatel (Spanish sherry) casks, and finally in "old oak puncheons". We're not sure what that last one means except that they're old and a puncheon is a very large barrel. They're about 150 gallons or three times the size of a standard whisky barrel.  Are the "American Oak" ex-bourbon barrels? Is it possible that they took these bourbon casks and some sherry casks and dumped them together into the large puncheons for additional aging?  Unclear, but that would make sense... In any case, we love Caol Ila 18, with the only gripe being that it's proofed down to 43%. So if this is similar juice at cask strength then let's get this party started.

Tasting Notes

Nose:  Wow again this nose is extremely delicate. First we get salted cashew nuts. Then cologne. Then sea air. Meyer lemons start to emerge with some tangy citrus notes. Then it wraps up sweet like that gooey honeyed crust on a lemon cake. The smoke is like a dark canvas on which all these flavors sit, definitely not in your face, but ever present.

Palate: Very subtle palate.  Are you kidding me, this is 114.6 proof????  That has to be a typo. But no, the flavor is there. Still, damn, it's just so smooth. We've maybe never tasted an Islay malt this smooth at this high a proof. You'd be crazy to add water. The palate pulls you right in with some lovely wood and leather notes, more of that gooey lemon cake, and a delightful mouth feel that's just a perfect thickness.

Finish: It's not a barn-burner. The finish just has great balance with the smoke fading slowly into some honeyed cough drops, pears, and lemons. There's absolutely no bite, just none, even upon freshly opening the bottle, the first sip is incredibly smooth out of the gate.

Couldn't help going back for another splash on this one. The smoke and power actually come out as the bottle opens up. This is surprising, usually cask strength whiskies can be harsh at first and then open up smooth. This one almost reverses it with a very smooth entry and then more fire and smoke coming out while it opens up in the glass. This is not a bad thing. The power and flavor increase as well and the whole experience is very welcome. The finish particularly gets longer and more satisfying with a big wad of peat smoke rolling around your mouth many minutes after the last sip is gone.


Caol Ila is quickly becoming one of our favorite malts. It's got all the beautiful beastly smoke of the big boys like Ardbeg and Laphroaig, but while those brands can sometimes be overly phenolic and have some of that "ashtray" quality, Caol Ila has kind of signature warmth and smoothness. It's probably the most like Lagavulin in that respect, which is still our all time favorite.

We were so ready to be let down by this bottle. Last week's review of the Lagavulin 24 year was absolutely mind blowing. This one is not nearly as old, coming in at a paltry seventeen years old. And, well, it's not Lagavulin. But it's really just damn good. It's got everything we look for in an Islay malt. Balance, warmth, smoothness, big smoke (after another dram it's definitely smokier than the Lag), a hefty sense of a seaside campfire with salty ocean spray mixing with rich smoke, and delicious sweetness mixing in. A superb treat. We've had thirty year old cask strength Caol Ila's before, and they're awesome, but this may well be the best expression we've tasted yet from this fantastic distillery.

Another dream dram here which makes us both happy and doubly sad we still haven't made the mecca to Islay.  Next year my friend, in the Hebrides!

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