There have been two versions of this Caol Ila Distillery Exclusive bottling to date, the first 2017 release of 3,000 bottles, and a 2018 release of 6,000 bottles. Both are bottled at natural cask strength, and both are a little mysterious, with no age statement and precious little detail being made available. The former, which is the subject of this review, was bottled at 58.8% ABV, and was matured in both refill ex-bourbon casks and first-fill red wine casks. Which made this the first official bottling of Caol Ila to feature red wine cask-matured whisky, something that is still uncommon for most of the Islay stalwarts. But that was the extent of the official information on the bottle's contents, and you won't even find that last part listed anywhere on the bottle. The latter 2018 release was bottled at 57.4% ABV, and had a small piece of text added to it's front label: "A vatting of refill, first-fill Kentucky bourbon, and first-fill specially-charred Californian red wine casks". Having tasted both bottlings, the 2017 during my first visit to Islay, and the 2018 during the outstanding 'Cask Strength Experience' at the distillery on my second pilgrimage (see here), they are markedly different. The 2018 bottling is sweeter, brighter and a little more rounded, which I assume to be due to the addition of those first-fill bourbon casks, and possibly the different treatment used on the wine casks, although there could also be a higher proportion of wine casks in the vatting. Both were only sold from the distillery shop, at a reasonable price of 90 GBP. This sample of the 2017 release came from a swap with a generous fellow whisky geek. Let's get stuck in!
Matured in refill ex-bourbon and first-fill red wine casks. Natural cask strength, non-chill filtered, natural colour. 3,000 bottles.
Nose: Lovely. Lightly peaty, a muddy and slightly sweet peat, also quite salty and very coastal. Lightly medicinal too, like old bandages and a little iodine, and a nice bright tropical fruit sweetness behind. A little ripe banana, vanilla cake batter, some seaweed and a couple of dried strawberries. Slightly fatty & greasy too.
Texture: Medium weight, oily & rich with plenty of flavour. A little heat, but pleasant.
Taste: That lovely muddy peat again, and the sweet fruit, then it turns drier with white pepper, a dry earthy peat and grassy smoke. Medicinal again too, more old bandages. Pancake batter and more red berries in the background. A little fatty smoked bacon too.
Finish: Long length. More white pepper, more smoked bacon, a little sweet licorice and iodine. That muddy peat returns, with the old bandages and a light rubbery note as well. Grassy smoke, fatty bacon rind and some husky malt towards the finish.
Score: 4 out of 5.
Notes: Really tasty stuff! It's all too easy to forget just how great Caol Ila can be if you haven't tasted it at high strength for a while. It certainly belongs on the same level of reverence as the Islay stalwarts on the southern coast. There are plenty of coastal and medicinal notes, and plenty of peat and salt, but it's all well-balanced and relaxed. I can't say that I found a distinctly overt red wine character here, just a few subtle hints. Which is no bad thing, they've obviously added some depth and complexity, and haven't been allowed to dominate anything else, and it's all worked very well together. This 2017 release of the Distillery Exclusive is definitely different to the 2018 version, at least if memory serves. I think there's more Caol Ila distillery character on display in this one, while the 2018 had more sweetness, more fruit and more oak.
Another great release from Caol Ila here, and it's well worth hunting down. Distillery Exclusive bottlings like this are yet another reason that we all need to visit Islay more often. And all of the distilleries should be jumping on board!