ISLAY STRAIGHT BLENDED MALT SCOTCH WHISKY
“Sovereign” K&L Exclusive Single Sherry Butt Finish (2020)
MASH BILL – 100% malted barley
PROOF – 119.2
AGE – 10 years 1 month
DISTILLERY – Caol Ila (bottled by Hunter Laing & Co.)
PRICE – $76
BUY AGAIN? – No, only because life is short. But I’m so glad I have this bottle!
So the first thing you should notice is that the title of this blog post and the name of the whisky listed beneath it are not the same. This is indeed a bottle of Caol Ila single malt whisky, aged 10 years and bottled at cask strength. But the bottle’s label does not say that. This is because the barrel was “teaspooned.” Teaspooning is a process whereby a tiny amount of some other whisky is added to a barrel. Though this won’t have any discernible impact on the tasting experience, it technically renders the contents of the barrel a blended whisky rather than a single malt.
Teaspooning is quietly but commonly done to move barrels that the original distillery, for one reason or another, doesn’t have a use for. Such barrels can be poured anonymously into blends by other companies. Or they can be bottled as a single barrel offering by the likes of secondary bottlers like Hunter Laing. The latter option is a wonderful arrangement by which whisky fans are able to obtain excellent whiskies—often at ages far greater than 10 years—at much more affordable prices than had the original name brand bottled it themselves.
But while Hunter Laing is contractually obliged to not publish the source of such whiskies, the retailers who then sell them are not so bound. Thus K&L, the store I picked this single barrel bottling up from, was delighted to reveal on their website that this “Islay Straight Blended Malt Scotch Whisky” is actually good ol’ Caol Ila, the smokey darling of Scotland’s Islay region. They also revealed that the teaspoon of whisky used to render this a blend was from none other than Bunnahabhain, an Islay neighbor of Caol Ila’s and itself an exceptional distillery.
Having previously had a good experience with a sister cask to this one—also distilled in 2010, aged in a sherry cask, but bottled by Hunter Laing at the 7-year mark—I was keen to give this 10-year edition a go. And, it had been the standard Caol Ila 12 Year release that was first on a list of whiskies recommended to me by my favorite Scottish pubster and music fan, Hugh, whom I met at Sandy Bell’s in Edinburgh back in August 2016.
I’ve kept that list, scrawled in my notebook on that spirited afternoon at the back of Sandy Bell’s, near the fiddle and piano duo playing their music. It was Hugh’s list that formally set me on my whisk(e)y journey. Until then I was only a casual and occasional sipper. My pursuit of Hugh’s six recommendations was my first hunt. And so Caol Ila remains a special brand for me.
So let’s get to it. Here are some notes, taken on an appropriately foggy night, a week after uncorking and three pours in, tasted in a traditional Glencairn.
COLOR – warm amber with alternating hints of gold and orange
NOSE – sweet and rich peat, stewed summer stone fruits, salty caramel, milk chocolate, a bit of smoky campfire ash
TASTE – that rich peat and smoky ash, caramel sauce with sea salt, vanilla, warm baked tropical fruits like mango, guava and pineapple, a nice syrupy texture
FINISH – a fine prickly pepperiness, soft ash and strong peat, crusty baked bread, the vanilla and caramel
OVERALL – The more air it takes in the glass, the more the creamy caramel and vanilla come forward to join the fruit notes, with the sweet peat and pleasant campfire ash notes always holding sway
Gentler than the infamous Laphroaig, yet grittier than the courteous Lagavulin, Caol Ila strikes a wonderful balance of salty and sweet, rugged and refined, edgy and cozy. Drinking it is indeed very much like cozying up to a beach bonfire on a chilly night—the crisp salt air biting at your cheeks to keep you awake while the fire’s warmth soaks into your bones to keep you relaxed.
The last time I had the standard Caol Ila 12 Year release, I remember being a bit put off by the ashiness. The 7-year cousin of tonight’s bottle was excellent, but also left me wondering if ultimately Caol Ila’s particular peatiness is not for me. This 10-year cask strength outing, with its subtle but effective sherry cask fruit influence sweetening its savory, smoky peat aspects, and with that lovely caramel and vanilla binding them together… well it makes a good argument for my sticking with Caol Ila.
I absolutely understand why some people simply cannot stomach peat, in any iteration. It is indeed a very specific area of flavor—and counter-intuitive when it comes to notions of what is appetizing. But drinking this sweet, ashy Caol Ila tonight I’m ready for that chilly night around the fire on the beach I described above. I’m ready for seafood grilled on that fire—prawns and cod and salmon and clams. I’m ready for some rich salted caramel ice cream made with good UK dairy, not that chemical-laden American dairy drained of all its fat.
At 119.2 proof, it’s strong without overpowering itself. But for science I tried adding 7 drops of water. Immediately on the nose I got stronger caramel and vanilla notes than before. Still the peat and ash, but now more balanced with the candy sweets. The taste was then very similar as without water, with more salt to it and a discernible chocolate note, which I’d previously only picked up on the nose. The finish left me with the expected sweet peat and campfire ash, as well as saltiness and now the chocolate seemingly soaked into some pastry dough. Interesting.
These Hunter Laing bottlings are a godsend for whisky lovers. Without breaking the bank (by scotch standards) one has the opportunity to try decently aged, sometimes exceptionally well-aged, scotch. And almost always at cask strength. More than age, it’s the cask strength bit that is the opportunity. So much name brand scotch is watered down quite a lot, with often prohibitive premiums asked when not. I paid for this what I would have had to pay for the 86-proof standard 12-year release. Two more years on that release, but much more water in it dialing down the details of the flavor. I’ll take the higher proof over the extra couple years any day.
If you’re a peat fan, and if you come across a bottling of Caol Ila with specs akin to this bottle’s, I say go for it. You haven’t much to loose.