Although the quietest day of the festival, Caol Ila’s relative serenity was welcome following a hectic start to Fèis Ìle. Becky Paskin was there to get geeky with maturation, and taste this year’s limited edition festival bottling.
Perhaps it’s the remote location, the fact the majority of its whisky is earmarked for blending, or that some are nursing hangovers after Bruichladdich’s party, but Caol Ila’s open day is certainly the quietest of the Islay Festival. It’s a shame, because Caol Ila has a charm unique to distilleries on Islay’s north-east coast.
Its imposing, grey, 1970s stillhouse may not have the whitewashed 19th-century charisma of one of the more traditional distilleries on the island, but its location on the shores of the Sound of Islay delivers spectacular views of the Paps of Jura, and – on a good day – all the way up to the Isle of Mull.
By the third day of the Islay Festival, the same familiar faces and food vendors had become a regular staple – at times it appears that only the location and the whiskies change day-to-day. To make the most of each distillery’s open day, then, is to get involved in the bespoke masterclasses that take place around the site.
Distillery operator Lynzie McCuig – one of only two female operators in the island – hosted a distillery tour that culminated in a few drams on the office balcony, while new distillery manager Pierrick Guillaume, who joined Caol Ila last summer from Glen Elgin in Speyside, prepared a tasting of the core range alongside matching canapés, as well as oysters and scallops.
The Islay Festival attracts a diverse crowd, from families enjoying a day out to whisky enthusiasts on an Islay pilgrimage, but it was the latter that occupied master blender Keith Law’s maturation and blending masterclass in Caol Ila’s only on-site warehouse.
As expected with such a crowd, the conversation turned suitably geeky very quickly: ‘What’s your reflux ratio at Caol Ila?’ asked one inquisitive visitor from Iceland. Law’s area of expertise, though, is in maturation, and the impact the cask has on distillery character over time, which led to a fascinating discussion on the importance of wood in the whisky-making process.
Cask demonstration: Master blender Keith Law explains the effect charring has on the flavour of whisky
As cask samples were drawn from refill hogsheads and Sherry butts, Law explained the effect that maturation has on phenol levels in the spirit, that guaiacol in the oak subdues the spirit’s phenols over time, creating a ‘thick soup of chemicals’ that reduces the impact of smoky flavours in older whiskies. ‘If you buy a 30-year-old Caol Ila, you want to be hit in the face by a big pile of smoke, but you won’t be,’ he explained. ‘That’s the nature of maturation.’
Refill casks, however, have a lower subtractive effect on the spirit, retaining the level of peatiness for longer. Guests sat in awe of Law’s knowledge. ‘I thought it was all evaporation, so that’s really interesting,’ said the Icelandic chap, pleased that he’d learned something new.
Law, who retires later this summer, has been responsible for creating the last seven Caol Ila Fèis Ìle bottlings. This year’s is one of the most interesting yet – a 10-year-old matured in refill American oak hogsheads and rejuvenated European oak butts, bottled at a cask strength of 58.2% abv. A limited run of 2,496 bottles, the festival edition, which has a surprising level of complexity and sweetness, was selling fast from the distillery shop despite the high price tag of £100.
Out in the courtyard, Caol Ila’s grass verges and short pier were overrun by visitors soaking up the Islay sunshine with cocktails (the Minted Rhubarb Highball with Caol Ila 12 Year Old was a particular favourite), and overflowing plates of giant shrimp and chips. It was a vastly different scene to last year’s washout, when torrential rain formed a river through the courtyard and sent visitors running for cover inside Caol Ila’s warehouse.
In between the bands’ sets, the chilled calm was interrupted only by the occasional beat of the cooper’s hammer, or the roar of a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) engine as it sped up the Sound of Islay and back down toward Port Askaig. On reflection, a relaxed distillery open day at this point in the festival was very welcome.
We caught up with Law for a taste of the new Caol Ila 2018 Fèis Ìle bottling.