While I find it hard to call Caol Ila underrated, it is the most apt description I can come up with right now. The standard Caol Ila 12 Years Old for example, is an excellent entry level whisky. Probably one of the best in its price bracket.
But when it comes to whisky from Islay, almost all other distilleries on the little island receive more attention. Ardbeg and Laphroaig are much bigger names. As is Bowmore. Maybe even Kilchoman. And then there’s Lagavulin, the most revered of all Islay distilleries, and probably the biggest reason why Caol Ila doesn’t quite get the love I think it deserves.
Lagavulin has produced (and still produces) legendary whisky. The problem is that Lagavulin is owned by Diageo, the same company that also owns Caol Ila. Whereas they do a lot to promote Lagavulin, there’s almost no promotion for Caol Ila. And thus it stays out of the limelight.
Purely from a quality standpoint I believe Caol Ila can compete with any Islay distillery, save from the best of the best that comes from Lagavulin. Its consistency is unmatched (although sometimes a point of critique too), and when Caol Ila reaches 30 years of age, something magical happens. Old Caol Ila is simply great stuff.
The upside of course is that Caol Ila is still fairly reasonable priced. You can still buy early eighties Caol Ila without having to sell your kidney. With that being said, I probably should keep my mouth shut from now on. Let sleeping dogs lie and all that.
Caol Ila 12 Years Old (43%, OB, +/- 2015)
Nose: Plenty of brine with subtle peat and gentle bonfire smoke. Some vanilla custard. Soft fruit aromas wrestle their way past the peat and smoke. Pineapple, peach, banana. Well-balanced.
Taste: Coal and tar with softer notes of bonfire smoke and licorice. A gentle spicy edge, with some cracked black pepper. Lime too. Some sweet vanilla and balances the palate.
Finish: Pretty salty, lingering on wood smoke. Medium to long.
It’s never really considered a classic, because Caol Ila is not sexy enough. And maybe the 12 year old is just not quite good enough for that title. There’s no shame in that, because it really is a wonderful entry-level dram and a great introduction to what Caol Ila is all about.