So how do you follow a fantastic Bruichladdich day?! Well, day three of the Feis belongs to Caol Ila, and it was with a increased sense of expectation that we headed down to Port Askaig. We were met by the friendly shuttle bus drivers taking the Feis folk down to the Caol Ila distillery itself. The day was bright and calm, another perfect Islay day!
We were booked on to the Maturation Tasting with some Lagavulin royalty; Georgie Crawford, Lagavulin manager and Iain McArthur, a warehouseman with 40 years of experience. We were taken into the old cooperage with stunning views over to the Paps of Jura. The room was atmospheric of times and workers past, with rusting equipment and dusty log books lying around.
The first dram of the morning was the Caol Ila new make spirit, with no colour at all it comes off the stills somewhere between 70 and 75% ABV. The nose is sweet and buttery, with wisps of smoke, pine resin, orchard fruits and some big peat notes. The palate fades instantly, but is strong, peaty and oily. Some of the Swedes in the group were happy to take it as it was, but we were to experience the effect the casks have on the spirit!
The first whisky on the menu was drawn from the cask right where we were seated by Iain. The whisky is 7 years old and has been happily maturing in a refill bourbon cask. At 61.5%, this is young and fresh with a classic Caol Ila profile. A pale amber hue, there was campfire smoke, lemon and some earthy peatiness on this chewy and moreish palate.
The next whisky was a very different monster… A rich and sherried 25 year old! This dram had been kept in the depths of the Royal Lochnagar warehouses since 1988 for the training of new Diageo ambassadors. Finally, and luckily for us, it has been given a new lease of life entertaining the masses at the Feis Ile! The nose was deeply sherried, full of dark chocolate, treacle and red grape. It had lost some of the smoky undertone with the intensity of the sherry but was still deeply satisfying. The palate was spicy with some rich fruit. The finish was long and dry with some red grape skins and gentle smoke raising its head at the last. It came out of the casks at 54.6%.
Then we were introduced to the Feis Ile 2013 bottling. Beginning it's life in 1998, this delightful Caol Ila has been triple matured in a combination of refill butts, hogsheads and barrels for 12 years. The vatted whisky was then allowed to mature in active hogshead casks for about two and a half years imparting spicy and oaky notes. The last six months of the maturation period was in European oak. It was personally selected by the distillery manager Billy Stitchell and was very impressive. This is another classic Caol Ila, smokey and complex with vanilla, chewy toffee and red wine. Deliciously balanced. In a word – wonderful. We're taking one of the 3000 bottles home with us!
We spent the rest of the day relaxing in the sunshine on the water front at Caol Ila. Apart from scallops fried in butter and Caol Ila 12 for Jon and a sausage sandwich for Mike, highlights included a cocktails class with Diageo whisky ambassadors Colin Dunn and David Sinclair, former bar manager of the Gleneagles Hotel. The cocktails were delicious and should be easy(ish) to replicate at home. We're already planning to start a bitters stash! David's Old Fashioned went down very well with our party.
The day ended with the news that Caol Ila distillery manager Billy Stitchell would be retiring this year and that the 2013 Feis Ile would be his last. There will certainly be some emotional goodbyes in the course of this year for Billy, but it was wonderful to be able to show some of appreciation for his dedication and hard work.
We had a great day at Caol Ila, relaxed our way through the afternoon and enjoyed some classic single malt. A perfect Feis experience.