Monday, March 31, 2014

Whisky Review: Gordon & MacPhail Caol Ila 1998/2009 Madeira Wood Finish

Caol Ila is one of the biggest distilleries on Islay, cranking out almost boundless amounts of peated whisky for Diageo's blends. This means that it's also the most common Islay whisky to make its way into the warehouses of Scotland's independent bottlers.

This one comes from Gordon & Macphail, one of the biggest and oldest independent bottlers in Scotland. The whisky was distilled in 1998 and bottled in 2009 at 45% from two casks.

Thanks to Joe Lorigo for the sample.

Gordon & MacPhail Caol Ila 1998/2009 Madeira Wood Finish

Nose: dry mossy peat with a farmy edge wrapped around a malty core, wine finish peaks around the edges (gaining ground and integrating more with time), plums, salty depths with a touch of bacon, lots of vanilla, a little wood ash. After adding a few drops of water, the wine gains some ground, pushing the peat towards the background,

Taste: wine is present throughout, malty sweetness undergirds everything, transitioning into smooth caramel, followed by a burst of dry oak and peat near the back. After dilution, the wine becomes much more prominent, though it remains relatively dry, there's an acidic pop alongside the oak at the back, and some vanilla comes out as well.

Finish: bubblegum, moderate wine, vanilla mossy peat, nutty

I think this is a good example of what Caol Ila's peat can be. It's less aggressive than many others on Islay, but still has a great richness. The madeira finish is a bit odd - it actually reads more like some of the red wine finishes I've tried before rather than other fortified wines like sherry or port. It works fairly well on the nose, but doesn't seem quite fitting for the palate. If the peat had come in earlier and more aggressively, it might have worked, but as it stands the oak was doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of keeping the wine in check. The combination of bubblegum and vanilla with peat in the finish is more than a little strange and might be what tips me towards not wanting a whole bottle. Water seems to bring out more of the wine to the exclusion of peat, so I would lean towards leaving it neat.

In a lot of ways I might have been happier if this had been released as an unfinished bourbon cask, especially if cranked up to 50% ABV. This isn't a bad finished whisky per se, I just don't find it particularly compelling.


  1. You wanted this in an unfinished bourbon cask? Wait, aren't you the big crusader for Caol Ila messing with their whisky? What happened?!

    1. a) I'm dubious about finishes in general - blends of bourbon casks and wine casks seem to do better than finishes and b) I think Caol Ila can be great in bourbon casks (see the 1983 DT I reviewed a while ago), it's just that the OBs tend to come from fairly inactive casks, so they don't have enough richness to provide a good counterpoint for the peat. In this case the underlying bourbon cask flavors seemed pretty good and the wine finish was an unnecessary addition. I suspect this was one of G&M's casks that they filled on their own and then decided to finish, rather than a bourbon cask purchased from the distillery.