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Caol Ila Distillery – The Contributor of JW Blends

Caol Ila Distillery

Our visit to Caol Ila Distillery was the beginning of the end of our Islay trip. It was unfortunate that the distillery was undergoing renovations when we were there. It resulted in our tour getting cut, but the compensation we got was more of their gold nectar!

The Caol Ila Visitor Centre

Walking to the Visitor Centre

Due to the renovations, our vehicle was not allowed to go right up to the gate, so we parked far away and walked up to the distillery. The safety measures put up at the distillery were impressive, so we felt safe during our time there, even with all the construction works all around.

Curly the Pig reporting in

When we reached the visitor centre, the cask greeted us in a quiet corner. The cask served an important role though – it was the meeting point for all Caol Ila tours! Upon entering the little shop, we were quite shocked at the number of people squeezed into the tiny space. A group of Caol Ila fans turned up at the distillery without a prior tour booking, and they were unhappy that the team at the shop turned them away! There was a little commotion, but it was sorted out after one of the team checked the tour for the day after and managed to squeeze them in.

The Tour Proper

Our tour guide came to meet our group shortly after the commotion. She explained that as the renovation was on-going, we would not be able to visit the whole distillery but only the Still House, which was still untouched by the construction. We were quite disappointed, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it.

The Caol Ila Stills

Inside the Still House, our guide shared all the details of the production at Caol Ila Distillery with our group. We visited on a Sunday, and the stills were not running because the distillery only works Monday to Friday! It was surprising as most of the other distilleries work seven days a week, 365 days a year. Our group joked that it must be a good thing to be a production crew at Caol Ila! You get the weekend off!

The Caol Ila Way

Caol Ila smokes their barley to around 50ppm, and it should get a very smokey whisky like Ardbeg. However, their stills with the long lyne arms created a lot of reflux, and the result is a much softer smoke.

The wash still at Caol Ila has a capacity of 58 thousand litres, but they only charged 19 thousand litres of wash in each distillation cycle. The aim is to create high refluxes within the still and increase the purity of the distillate.

The distillery takes a cut of the heart between 75% to 65% abv of the distillate. Our guide shared that the process takes an average of 2.5 hours during a normal distillation cycle. The head is around 85%% abv while the tail is below 65% abv. The head and tail go back to the distillation cycle in the next charge, similar to most other distilleries.

The team then dilutes the new make to 63.5% abv (industry standards) before putting them into their respective casks for maturation. An interesting point to note is that Caol Ila does not mature their whisky on-site, but send them to mainland Scotland to mature in a separate warehouse.

Casks of Caol Ila

Noticing that some unfinished casks were sitting around the distillery, one of us asked our guide if those casks were no longer in use. She said that while those that we saw were indeed staves that they discarded, Caol Ila builds their own casks. How they do it is to import bourbon staves from the United States of America, and their talented team build the casks up on their own, complete with their specification. Most of the casks are hogshead.

Where does Caol Ila whisky go to?

Our article title already suggested that Caol Ila is the main contributor for Johnnie Walker blends. Still, you may be shocked to discover that up to 85% of all Caol Ila whisky goes to Johnnie Walker! Before the boom of Caol Ila single malts, up to 95% of the whisky goes to the blends. Diageo reduced it to 85% in 2011.

The Tasting Room

The Tasting Room

After the short but information session in the Still House, our group went to the Tasting Room, a large, upper room hidden by a wooden door! It overlooks the Sound of Islay and right opposite us, the Paps of Jura! Now you might remember that the Still Room in Ardnahoe overlooks the Paps as well, but we weren’t lucky during our trip to Ardnahoe to view them. However, we were lucky this time!

The magnificent Paps of Jura

Ta-da! This was the view right outside the window of the tasting room. Even though the clouds were still low, we could see the two peaks of the Paps, which were magnificent. Of course, our photograph couldn’t do justice to the beauty that we witnessed on Islay.

What was on offer?

Caol Ila 15 YO Unpeated, Caol Ila 10, Distillery Exclusive

Our guide invited us to take our places at a large table where our drams awaited. First, we gave us each a branded Glencairn glass; then she began introducing the whiskies. The distillery upgraded our tour basically, to include two drams direct from the cask as a form of apology for the renovations. You should hear the mumble of appreciation all around the table!

The list of whisky was as followed:

  1. 15 Years Old, Unpeated, Cask Strength
  2. 10 Years Old, Cask Strength, Feis Ile 2018
  3. NAS, Cask Strength, Distillery Exclusive
  4. 1996, 23 Years Old, 55.3% abv, Straight from the cask
  5. 2012, 7 Years Old, 60.7% abv, Straight from the cask

1996 Caol Ila Cask

2012 Caol Ila Cask,

It was a treat like no other! We enjoyed the large pours from our guide, chit-chat about whisky in general, and made new friends from the Netherlands! We also met the couple whom we saw at Ardnahoe, which was really a pleasant surprise! After all the drams, our guide also encouraged us to walk around the room, looking at some of the artefacts that the distillery collected over the years.

Used Barrels and a Colour Chart

We noticed some interesting old bottles of Caol Ila lying around too. Check them out!

Curly was really excited too!

Unfortunately, we needed to clear the room for the next tour before we could ask more about these bottles. Nevertheless, it was really enjoyable despite the disappointment of not being able to visit the mash tuns and the washbacks.

Return to reality

Exiting the Tasting Room carrying our drams, we went back to the shop just to meet yet another group of disappointed visitors who did not pre-book their tours. This group was unhappy when they saw us coming back, and some heated arguments started between the unhappy group and the team at the shop. Thankfully, our guide arrived in time, and she stopped the commotion.

As for us, we quickly side-stepped the incident by moving deeper into the shop to look at the bottles available.

Feis Ile 2019

Distillery Exclusive

It was disappointing that these were the best bottles on offer at the distillery, and the rest were the core range. As we had already tried the two expressions during the tour, we did not buy them home. All we did was to buy a super nice Caol Ila Down Jacket instead!

Saying Good-Bye to Islay

Our travels on Islay is over, folks! Caol Ila was the last distillery that we visited so we will be starting other articles from next week. Our team did visit Bruichladdich for a tour, but because we wrote a lot of articles on Bruichladdich previously, we decided to omit the tour unless our readers request for it!

We did not go on tours at Bowmore, Lagavulin and Bunnahabhain because we couldn’t make time for it. However, we visited their shops and bars to purchase bottles and drinks! This omission also meant that we have another excuse to go back to Islay in future!

WhiskyGeeks hopes that you had a lot of fun touring Islay with us! Stay with us, though! There will be more interesting articles coming up. 😀

 

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Whisky Review #53 – Kilchoman Machir Bay

Picture Credit: masterofmalt.com

We had a taste of Kilchoman Machir Bay at one of our local bars sometime before we tried the 8-year-old. We would say that this pales in comparison to the 8-years-old on many levels. Nonetheless, it is a dram that bears the typical Kilchoman signature.

Let’s dive straight into the tasting notes.

Tasting Notes:

Colour: Gold
ABV: 46%

Nose: Light peat and sea-salt air come first before hot chilli spice springs up unannounced. Once the spice envelops the nose, nothing else is prominent. Even airing the whisky for more than 10 minutes did not bring changes to the nose. (15/20)

Palate: The first taste is some sweet berries with some light peat. Some sea-salt lingers in the background. However, the chilli spice comes head-on shortly and envelops the whole mouth, blocking out the sweetness of the berries as well as the peat. We tried airing the whisky for more than 10 minutes to see if things change, but besides a more prominent sea-salt note in the background at the beginning, nothing much changes. (16/20)

Finish: The finish is long with sea-salt and some fruity sweetness that surfaces again after the liquid goes down the throat. The finish remains long after airing the whisky for more than 10 minutes. There is no significant change. (18/20)

Body: This is not the most well-balanced dram in our opinion. The whisky lacks complexity when compared to the 8-year-old. The overwhelming chilli spice is also a minus point in our opinion as it covers up all the other flavours of the whisky. (28/40)

Total Score: 77/100

Comments:

Geek Flora: “This is quite disappointing as we were expecting a little more complexity and punch from Kilchoman, especially when this whisky has won numerous awards. The overwhelming chilli spice is possibly the culprit. However, what is truly lacking is the complexity of the whisky.”

 

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Whisky Review #52 – Kilchoman 8 Years Old

Kilchoman distillery is the newest distillery on the island of Islay. It is also the first distillery to be built after 124 years of relative inactivity. Anthony Wills, the founder and managing director of Kilchoman distillery, founded the distillery in 2005 and the first distillate ran off the stills in the same year.

It is one of the smallest distilleries in Islay, producing only approximately 120,000 litres of alcohol annually. What makes Kilchoman stands out is the fact that they grow their barley on site and owns a traditional malting floor.

The bottle for review today is distilled in 2009 and matured for more than eight years. It is an 8-year-old because of strict Scottish laws on its labelling.

With such impressive backing, let’s dive into the whisky and see how it holds up!

Tasting Notes:

Colour: Pale Gold
ABV: 46%

Nose: The nose is full of smoked bacon and aromatic peat smoke at first. Floral notes and soft ripe fruits surface after a short while. After airing for about 10 minutes, the smoke went into the background. Lemon and citrus fruits notes come forcefully to the forefront while the aromatic peat stays in the background. (17/20)

Palate: Spicy chilli padi assaulted the palate straight on without warning. It almost feels like drinking chilli oil. The peaty smoke is still aromatic but stays in the background. Nothing more is tasted because of the strong chilli spice. After airing for 10 minutes, the spice receded, and ripe fruits notes begin to surface. The peat smoke also wafts into the forefront. The sweetness of the fruits now coats the palate pleasantly. We added one drop of water to the dram to test out how it reacts with water. The effect is great! The spice reduces to reveal sweet white fruits and floral notes immediately. (18/20)

Finish: The original finish is relatively short with peat smoke and the soft sweetness of citrus fruits. After airing for 10 minutes, the finish becomes more protracted and sweeter. The peat and spice are now very pleasant and lingers in the mouth and throat. After adding a drop of water, the finish extends longer, and the ripe fruits coat the mouth and throat. Gentle spice lingers in the throat for a while. (18/20)

Body: A well-balanced dram for an 8-year-old with enough complexity. The way the whisky evolves with air and water is fantastic. It is whisky that is worthy of the time spent on it. (35/40)

Total Score: 88/100

Comments:

Geek Flora: “This is one surprisingly good whisky. That initial chilli padi spice was not something I enjoyed, but the evolution of the whisky with air and water was good. I had another Kilchoman previously – the Machir Bay – and it wasn’t the most fantastic. So this young whisky certainly surprises me. Recommended to try!”

 

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Whisky Review #50 – AR1 – Elements of Islay

If you have not heard about Elements of Islay, do pay us a little more attention than usual. The Elements of Islay showcases whiskies produced by Islay distilleries. Founded in 2006, it was decided early on that each whisky bottle would not show the age or vintage as the whiskies are meant to be enjoyed by their flavours. It was said that the age statements would run from 5 years to 30 years if age statements are involved.

Each Element of Islay bottle is labelled by its “symbol” but anyone can visit their website to find out the distillery behind each symbol. This works like the periodic table – each element is labelled using a symbol.

We tried the AR1, which translates to Ardbeg. The number 1 simply means that it is the first bottle of Ardbeg bottled by the Elements of Islay. This expression is distilled during the 1990s or 2000s and matured in a hogshead. Let’s get into the review now.

Tasting Notes:

Colour: Gold
ABV: 58.7%

Nose: Fresh, sweet peppers fill the nose, with pleasant, almost floral peat and soft spices. With time, more sweetness emerges and the spice recedes into the background. (18/20)

Palate: Full spice mouth with sweet caramel and some elderflowers. A second sip reveals honey, malt and white pepper covered by an oaky mouthfeel. Hints of peats form as the liquid disappears down the throat. (18/20)

Finish: Long, peaty finish that resembles smoking a mild cigar. Spice is presented with honey to balance off that complex flavour profile of sweet peat and spice. (19/20)

Body: Well balanced whisky! Epic smoky whisky with a good complex profile. You can almost say that it is an Ardbeg body with a Laphroaig nose. (36/40)

Total Score: 91/100 

Comments:

Geek Choc: “This is one of my favourite whiskies to date! That complexity of peat, spice and sweetness just blew me away! If you can get your hands on a bottle, do it!”

 

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Whisky Review #46 – The Single Cask Bowmore 14 Years Old

Bowmore, oh Bowmore…it has such an interesting history that we could wax lyrical about its 1960s to 1980s bottles. Although things changed in the 1990s for no apparent reason, we are guessing that it was due to some teething issues when Suntory took over the distillery. The merry news is that Bowmore bounced back to its heydeys in the 2000s and is once again, producing great whisky.

This bottle of Bowmore 14 years old by The Single Cask (TSC) is distilled in 2001 and bottled in 2016. An interesting note about this bottle is the exclusivity. Only 90 bottles are realised from HALF of cask 31931 because the cask actually belonged to someone else (another independent bottler) and they refused to sell all of it to TSC. Well, TSC took whatever they can, and this is the result of their exceptional selection.

Let’s jump to the review!

Tasting Notes:

Colour: Amber
ABV: 50%

Nose: The first nose is that of heavenly smoked bacon. Oh, that smell literally sends you tingles of happiness! White peppers and hints of sweet citrus follow after. A few minutes wait reveals some sea salt that blends so well with the smoked bacon. (18/20)

Palate: The entry is made of smoky citrus – lemony, orangey taste. Slight hints of sea salt followed by white pepper. The smokiness brings along some form of savoury meat (think: smoked bacon) and the blend of salt, pepper and meat makes this a complex and flavourful drink. (18/20)

Finish: The finish is long and full of pleasant peat and smoke. The peat is not overwhelming but instead, stays on the palate pleasantly just like a warm fire in winter. The smokiness lingers very long before it disappears altogether. (18/20)

Body: This is an exceptional whisky with a good, complex body. The balance between the nose, palate and finish is exquisite and definitely not something that you will come across regularly. Compared to the official bottling (OB) of Bowmore, this is something that appears to outdo some of them. (37/40)

Total Score: 91/100

Comments:

Geek Flora: “This whisky blew me away. Not a fan of peat and smoke, I was at first doubtful about the Bowmore. I was sold after the first nose of smoked bacon, and when the complexity of the whisky revealed itself, I was convinced that this is one of the best Bowmore I have ever drunk. Interestingly, many people shared my interest and the whisky has flown off the shelves at TSC. Only 3 bottles are left, and they are not for sale. If you are keen to get your hands on it, the Master of Malt still has one left, as of 02 October 2017. Do remember that it is from cask 31931.” 

 

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