Welcome back to Tim’s Dusty Corner!  This month I’m trying a recent purchase – a Caol Ila 1996 bottled in 2006 by the Italian independent bottlers Wilson & Morgan at 50%.  

Caol Ila needs no introduction, of course.  It’s so famous for being underrated that perhaps that tag shouldn’t really apply anymore.  It’s a historical workhorse distillery, with all of its output going to blends until very recently, while little if any of the spirit was ever matured in the kind of incredible sherry casks that added so much lustre to the legends of the more celebrated Islay distilleries.  

And yet… They didn’t close Port Ellen on a whim, you know.  Post-refurb Caol Ila was meant for this sort of whisky – fresh, medium-peated light spirit that doesn’t need too long in refill casks to acquire the sort of character that makes it perfect for top-dressing the world’s best-selling blended whisky.  Caol Ila did this job more consistently, more efficiently and on a greater scale (read: cheaper) than Port Ellen.

Caol Ila 1996 Bot. 2006 ‘Extra Strength’ Wilson & Morgan, 50%

Nose: As soon as the cork is out of the bottle the air is filled with the unmistakable Caol Ila reek of lemons, cereal, hay, soot and wet seashells.  I know this aroma so well and yet I still always feel a frisson of excitement when the smell of a fresh young Caol Ila hits my nosebuds. For some reason, I connect with the simple pleasures of this nose on a really visceral level.  If, like me, you’re in love with this distillery, then the smell of rubbed lemon peel and oysters that emanates from a glass of young, strong, refill Caol Ila will always be experienced in the gut. The candied almonds, the lemon sherberts, the icing sugar… these are mere addenda, bonuses.  How can one improve on perfection?

Palate: Very sweet for a few seconds – intense sherbert lemons – then the smoke and seashells kick in.  Wet sand, brine, raw clams, more lemons (cooked this time), soot, coalsmoke and wet burnt wood, all teetering on a magnificently austere acidity.

Finish: Long, warm, lemony, a little bonfire smoke.

Comment: We know that even the greatest Caol Ilas lack the spectacular, other-worldly greatness that the very best PE’s had.  But it’s just as true that everyday Caol Ila is great whisky, and this is a fantastic example. Let’s not forget, even today this is only a £50-60 bottle. Could I tell it apart from those young PEs that go for ten times that price? I wouldn’t back myself…

The thrill of discovering a whisky that’s better than you dared hope is rare, and at low prices it’s rarer still, but I’ve been very lucky recently with the Old Rarity, and now this.  The common denominator: Caol Ila. Young whiskies from this distillery are the closest you can get to a sure thing in the world of whisky, and the price tags, especially at auction, are still remarkable value.

Underrated? Maybe. Still underpriced? Most definitely.