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Old & Rare

Rare Batch 66

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Caol Ila 50 Years Old, Bottled 2018, Private Collection (Gordon & MacPhail); Caol Ila 15 Years Old, Bottled 1984 (Gordon & MacPhail for Intertrade); Islay Single Malt 13 Years Old, Bottled 1989 (SSMC)

A trio of whiskies from Islay make up this week’s rare tasting, with two made at the original Caol Ila distillery before it was demolished and rebuilt in 1972-74.

First up is a 15-year-old Caol Ila bottled by Gordon & MacPhail for Italian importer Intertrade in 1984. It’s a ‘mind-meltingly silly and heartbreakingly brilliant’ whisky that Angus MacRaild says highlights the ‘incredible’ spirit made at Caol Ila during the 1960s.

Hard on its heels is a ‘remarkable’ whisky, the oldest Caol Ila ever bottled: a 1968 50-year-old single cask also bottled by Gordon & MacPhail for its Private Collection series. A relatively recent release – also reviewed by Dave Broom earlier this year, MacRaild finds it an otherworldly and almost unique experience. He has no doubt the bottling is destined to become a future classic.

To round things off is a bit of a mystery bottling: a 1976 Islay whisky bottled in 1989 for the Society of Scotch Malt Connoisseurs (SSMC), a little-known American club modelled on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. There’s no distillery stated on this one, but MacRaild hazards it may well be from the then newly reconstructed Caol Ila. Regardless, he says it’s another ‘cracking’ dram that rounds off an ‘immense’ tasting of three ‘world-class’ whiskies.

Scoring Explained

Overview

  • Caol Ila 15 Years Old, Bottled 1984 (Gordon & MacPhail)

    Score

    96

    Caol Ila 15 Years Old, Bottled 1984 (Gordon & MacPhail)
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    60.4%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Islay
    Flavour camp
    Smoky & Peaty
    Nose

    If there is a missing link between petrol and whisky, I would say it’s hiding in this Caol Ila. Take some sardines in a mix of olive oil and brine, add some sandalwood ash, some red diesel, graphite oil, mineral salts and a whole farm shed full of tractors, and you might get something approaching this. A sinewy, handsome, bastard child of 1972 Brora and 1970 Laphroaig.

    There’s salted game meats, leather, wood ash, tarragon, pure lemon juice drizzled over oily sheep wool, hessian and grilled shellfish. A perfect intersection of medicinal, seashore, farmyard and peat fire elements. The power, precision, purity and beauty are just immense. Add some water and we’re off into the stratosphere. Everything just knits together perfectly, with a few more flowers and fruits to tie it all together.

    Palate

    Unreal delivery. Just breathtaking. An immensely textural, fat, glycerol and oily mouthfeel. Palpable and chewable stuff. An avalanche of medicines, ash, herbs, wood char, raw peat smoke, hessian, camphor, tar and embrocations. Mind-meltingly silly and heartbreakingly brilliant whisky. Not much point in going on really.

    The thing about these old Caol Ilas when you add water is that they become more powerful and complex, but also more integrated and complete as well. It’s a development that’s almost unique to this distillery from this era. It puts them among the best whiskies ever made, in my humble opinion.

    Finish

    Endless and justifiably censored.

    Conclusion

    What’s wonderful is that you can really feel the shared DNA between this and the 1968 50-year-old expression. I think this one is slightly better by a single point on a technical scale, for its sheer potency and brilliant preciseness. However, in terms of pleasure and unabashed thrill, there isn’t much between them. They both serve to highlight what historically incredible whisky Caol Ila was making in the late 1960s. A legendary bottle, and rightly so.

    Right place, right time

    A nightcap in the restaurant at the end of the universe.

    (Image courtesy whiskybase.com)

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    Caol Ila 50 Years Old, Bottled 2018, Private Collection (Gordon & MacPhail)

    Score

    95

    Caol Ila 50 Years Old, Bottled 2018, Private Collection (Gordon & MacPhail)
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    52.5%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Islay
    Flavour camp
    Smoky & Peaty
    Nose

    It’s incredible that this kind of cask still exists. This is very much in the same ballpark as the old bottlings of late ‘60s Caol Ila, but with more subtlety. It’s wet rocks, whelks, seawater and lemon juice, but also some very grassy olive oil, pine nuts, wool, hessian, gun metal, anchovy paste and green tea. Wax, petrol, brine, preserved lemons, a gentle sootiness... the levels of integration, elegance and concentration are just superb.

    Give it time to open up and there’s a profoundly complex medicinal depth, along with multiple roots and herbs. Gentian root, yellow flowers, dried seaweed, mineral oils and also a kind of peat and saline profile, which is almost unique to this whisky. A single drop of water makes it leaner, more precise, lightly ashy, mechanical and somehow more powerful and direct. Things like grilled fish on wood char, bonfire smoke and rock pools.

    Palate

    Stunning delivery. Layer and layer of oils, peat smoke, brine, herbal extracts, sea salt, pickling juices, green pepper, herbal teas, citrus rinds, Lapsang Souchong, mineral salts and earthy mushroom notes. Spices, old rope, hessian, tar, lime jelly and ointments. Just mesmerising complexity. This kind of whisky is hard to properly do justice to in a measly tasting note. A little water and it’s just perfection. Immense complexity, concentration, texture, length and power. A pure, perfect whole, if you see what I mean.

    Finish

    Long, long, long (to quote The Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison). It is never less than precise and has this sense of deliberateness, like it knows where it’s going and what it wants to do. All you can do is follow. Immense whisky.

    Conclusion

    In my humble experience, I’d say this was a whisky quite unlike any other I’d tasted in terms of its character and flavour profile. It is the kind of dram that controls you; submit, and let it lead the way. I know it’s an expensive bottle, but if you can find a way to taste it I would recommend doing so. Sheer poetic brilliance and the kind of whisky that is liquid history in your glass. I fell in love with this one.

    Right place, right time

    A celebratory toast after a cudgel duel at dawn.

    Islay Single Malt 13 Years Old, Bottled 1989 (SSMC)

    Score

    92

    Islay Single Malt 13 Years Old, Bottled 1989 (SSMC)
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    59%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Islay
    Flavour camp
    Smoky & Peaty
    Nose

    Powerfully ashy, lemony, citric, briny and with this kind of raw mixture of different smoky notes – boiler fug, kiln smoke and bonfire smoke. However, there’s also something faintly tropical nesting quietly in the background. A slice of banana, a wee thread of kiwi and a suggestion of pineapple. There’s also a pretty rough and ready, gravel-accented mineral element about the whole thing. Pretty powerful, old-school Islay malt whisky. Water brings out pure seashore notes: wet rocks, vinegar, chalk, limestone, crushed sea shells, scallops, seaweed broth.

    Palate

    Big, crystalline, pure, lemony and peaty. Seawater, peppered mackerel, some glazed citrus fruits, iodine, tar, and anchovy paste. Lots of stuff sloshing about in the depths and still with this big, oily, sooty, smoky pervasiveness. Notes of Dettol-drenched sheep’s wool, kippers and antiseptic mixed with brine. Ballsy and rather grin-inducing stuff. With water it went to the seashore on the nose, but on the palate things get farm-like and funky. Some earthy, muddy notes, diesel, straw, tar, more antiseptic and umami paste. Also, hummus, salted pitta breads, black olive tapenade, hot grist... There’s plenty going on in this one.

    Finish

    Long, sooty, lemony, lightly ashy, very smoky and pristinely salty and peaty. Unequivocal stuff.

    Conclusion

    It’s extremely good. Is it Caol Ila? I think so... some other ‘76 Caol Ilas had this kind of gutsy farmyard/seashore mixture that sort of nodded in a familiar way towards Brora. But who knows, could it also be a rogue Lagavulin? I doubt it, but unless someone from the elusive Society of Scotch Malt Connoisseurs gets in touch I’m not sure we’ll ever know for sure. 

    Right place, right time

    Something for the hipflask while canyoning in the Julian Alps.

    (Image courtesy whiskyauctioneer.com)

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