Caol Ila vs. The Collective – A True David and Goliath Tale*

(*In honour of Maltmonster and his ongoing crusade against the Empire.)

Caol Ila

Everyone wants to knock down the big guy.

With this mentality, and armed with metaphorical slingshot and an overly curious palate, the B-Team (part of the Collective) drew together in an attempt to bring down the mighty Goliath (Diageo).  This was not because we necessarily believed we could do it (let’s face it…Caol Ila is a damn fine drink, and we were tackling a damn fine lineup of OBs*), but we had to take a shot at laying out the big beast with a few well chosen words of disparagement if we could.

At this point I’ll take creative license and once more borrow a turn of phrase from revolutionary extraordinaire, Commandante Guevara:  “Little Davids strike hard and deep”.  On this night we were little Davids.  We went toe-to-toe with Goliath.  We held strong under the enormous might of the malt.  And fell.

The best laid plans of mice and men and all that though.

I take small comfort in knowing that:

a) As far as Goliaths go, there are none bigger than Diageo.

b) I already knew and loved Caol Ila.  (This was like getting beaten by your hero.  No real shame.)


c) We had a bloody great night of mates and drinks.

Sadly though, for those keeping score…

Goliath one…little Davids…zip.


One final sad bit of irony (kind of like an exoneration after the execution):  To ice this evening’s delicious little peat cake, we finished with a dram of Port Ellen 6th Release.  Yep…the distillery that DCL (Diageo) closed in order to keep Caol Ila flowing for use in blending purposes.  Hands down the winner of the night.  Sigh.  RIP Port Ellen.  RIP.


*(Original Bottlings)



Caol Ila Unpeated 10 y.o.

65.8% abv

Nose:  Completely unlike a single malt.  All thought this could have been a grain whisky.  Heavy rye notes.  Creamy.  Coconut and chocolate.  Slightly floral.  Hint of eucalyptus.

Palate:  Hot and biting (what did you expect at nearly 66%?).  Shimmering grains and a little fruit to tease.  Oaky.  Surprisingly rich and pleasant.

Finish:  Long and blazing.  Grapey.

Thoughts:  Decent balance.  Seems older than its years.


Caol Ila 12 y.o.

43% abv

Nose:  Wow.  What the hell?!  I love this dram, but holy feints, Batman!  Malty and iodine heavy.  Band-aids.  Peat and wet smoke.  Citrus.  Rubbery.  Smoked oysters.

Palate:  Subdued.  Peaty and sweet.  Smoked wood chips.

Finish:  Billows of smoke and young peat.  Tingly green apple skin and anise.  Looooooooooooong.

Thoughts:  In ordinary circumstances an exceptional malt for daily doses of smoke and peat, but in this line-up…left in the dust.  (But don’t worry, baby…I still love you!)


Caol Ila 18 y.o.

43% abv

Nose:  Some pleasant ‘green’ notes (not sure…just clean and pleasant).  Honeydew melon.  Mild citrus.  Aloe.  Fruity.  Salty.  The smoke has faded immensely by this age and the feintiness of the 12 y.o. is gone.

Palate:  Green fruit delivery.  Hint of smoke that was not prevalent on the nose.

Finish:  Light, fresh…and sadly…fleeting.  Not a long one, but dynamic and sweet.

Thoughts:  Absolutely the most pleasant surprise of the night.  Great dram.  If I was told it was 25 years old, I’d believe it.



Caol Ila 1996 Distiller’s Edition

43% abv

Nose:  BBQ sauce!  Chocolate and dark roast coffee bean.  Lemon and toasted woods.  Sweet and kinda winey.

Palate:  Smoke and iodine. Char.  Wine notes at first, but soon obliterated by smoke and tar.

Finish:  Tangy and lively.  Smoke…apple skins…sweetness.

Thoughts:  Tasty….closer to recent Ardbegs than Caol Ilas (Think Alligator).  Seems a wee bit bigger than 43% too.


Caol Ila 25 y.o.

58.4% abv

Nose:  Smooth chocolate and vanilla.  Melon and cherry.  Mature oak.  Mild pepper.  Distant smoke.

Palate:  Tart and almost hoppy.  Smoky and weedy.  Strong dark chocolate in the background.  And the arrival…absolutely teeth-smashing!

Finish:  Heat and sharpness all the way through, and even at the back end, despite its 25 runs through the seasons.  A long, long eve with this one.

Thoughts:  Huge disconnect between nose and palate.  Makes for a ruddy unbalanced go.  Still a great drink however.  The nose though…wow.



Caol Ila Natural Cask Strength

61.6% abv

Nose:  Smooooooooooth.  Buttery.  Smoky as the fires of hell.  Farmy and iodone heavy.  Citric.  Chocolate.  Cola with lime.  Wet leaves.

Palate:  Cocoa.  Mesquite.

Finish:  From here to eternity.  Peat and smoke this massive don’t vacate the premises until the morning after.  Thankfully.

Thoughts:  F*cking brilliant, and exactly as young peat should be dished up:  strong and bold.  Not unlike a natural Octomore (though slightly less muscle-y).


Caol Ila (A.D. Rattray) 22 y.o.

Willow Park Exclusive

57.7% abv

Nose:  Oh, yes!  Wow what a nose.  Eucalyptus and fruit.  Smoky and chocolate-rich.  Some nice baking spices too.  Somehow still mellow and showing very restrained peat.

Palate:  Smooth.  Waxy.  Choco and fruity.  Oak at just the right age.  Delicious and spectacular.  The perfect linger.  A date that stays through all the good bits but doesn’t overstay the welcome.

Finish:  All good.  Drying.  Typical Islay green apple ebb on this one.

Thoughts:  Best nose of the night.  Islay with age is nearing heaven.


So….weighing in:  A tie between 22 and 18.  25 just behind.  An honourable mention to the 10 y.o. Unpeated.



Thanks to all for your contributions, be they malts, pics, laughs or insight.  This is why we do this.  One of the most enjoyable (and surprising) tastings I can remember.  Cheers to ya!



(Tasting Notes:  Curt…with a line or two from The Collective)

(Photos:  Pat at

25 thoughts on “Caol Ila vs. The Collective – A True David and Goliath Tale*

  1. Andrew Ferguson

    B Team or C Team? With no disrespect, I think the “Bed for Breakfast” group is the B Team… Making me the floating C-D member!

  2. mm

    Great line-up and great writing as always. Thanks. I haven’t had the 22yo but I recently had a 31yo CI (Caol Ila Dram Senior 31J-1981/2013) which I really found to be the best dram of that Distillery I ever had. in my opinion it really could rival some of the Port Ellens I had, but as I’m no so luck to have tasted nearly as much PE as you have, I might err here – as I often do.
    But it’s my firm believe that Caol Ila should really release some older and stronger expressions, as it might just be that they aren’t far from PEs excellence. But maybe that is by design, not to endanger the PE prices…

  3. David

    I recently opened my 200 cc bottle of Caol ila cask strength! Wow! The nose, the palate, the mouthfeel.

    I have to say it was probably the most memorable Islay Whisky I have tried, though the Octomore 4.1 was a long time ago.

    I wish this was a standard bottling. I have to say it again….Wow!

    1. David

      Found this beauty still available at the whisky exchange. My cousin offered to play the role of the mule. Amazing how in only a few keystrokes one can spend many a hard earned dollar on a liquid that is 58% ethanol and the rest mostly water…

      I bought multiple 200 cc bottles for 3 reasons:

      1. 4 small bottles were a total of 10 GBP cheaper than a single 700 cc bottle (and you get 100 cc more).

      2. They were the same batch as my now open bottle (if the ABV is a clue) and I really, really was blown away by this one.

      3. Given the price advantage, multiple bottles can be opened one at a time over years and stay fresh. Or they can be given as gifts…anyone want to be my friend?

  4. Skeptic

    Hmmm…I LIVE in Toronto. Do I need to raise my hand? I guess this is a true tale of David (of Toronto) and the Goliath of Islay.

  5. Clive

    Caol Ila 12 still good cask wise or maybe get Connoisseurs Choice 1st 43% fill bourbon? Only had Diageo Cask Strenght NAS and impressed. Smoky and Filling Meaty Cereal Barley. Oak not heavy and a Unique Oak Bitterness. Not Anise absinthe but like Herb Tree Bark. No Stale Tea Baggy Oak too.

    1. ATW Post author

      Yeah, that cask strength is a great malt. Haven’t bought a Caol Ila 12 in a couple years now. Last time it was still great though. Lemme know what you opt for and what you think.



  6. David

    I like the 12 year old, but find it a little tame. I’d pick the CS any time, if it were available. I know it’s (booo) NAS but the 58% version available in 200 cc bottles is a proven winner, regardless of age.

    1. Jeff

      No, not regardless of age, just regardless of you knowing the present age – big difference. If it was suddenly 5 years younger, you’d notice. If age really didn’t matter, it wouldn’t be such a secret.

  7. David

    The point is, that particular batch was great. It can’t suddently become younger. It’s fixed in time. So it doesn’t matter if it is 3 or 10, it tastes good. It’s proven. It’s quality. And I can decide if it is worth shelling out for.

    We’ve seen the effect of bad NAS whisky on sales. Once people realize, they stop buying it. A global boycott won’t be effective. I don’t think it’s logistically feasible.

    I think a better answer to NAS is a broadening of try before you buy. If it’s good, buy it. If it’s a new batch…try it. Then decide. The distilleries would be forced to keep the quality up.

    Another option would be a return policy. If you don’t like it, or it is not as good as before, the distillery will refund your money.

    1. Jeff

      The point is the age of the whisky, although unknown in this case, is not irrelevant to its quality; it’s bottle content, rather than label-branding that matters. If age really didn’t matter, the whisky could be five years younger on the NEXT batch and it wouldn’t make any difference. People might not know what goes into their favourite restaurant dish either, but does that mean it doesn’t matter who prepares it, how it’s prepared or from what ingredients so long as the meal’s name and the menu description remain the same? The only real defense for the idea that age information is irrelevant to the consumer lies in the case for age itself being irrelevant to whisky quality, and the industry disproves the latter with every cask it tracks and every age statement it markets. Age affects quality because that’s why whisky is casked in the first place.

      A boycott is the only way to get rid of NAS and reverse the trending of the reduction of relevant production information in favour of Gaelic fluff and legend, and it’s as easily feasible as people actually doing it instead of saying they would “like” to know more, rather than less, about what they’re drinking but doing nothing to bring it about. The “least feasible” part of the equation is that some people have a lot of difficulty wrapping their minds around the idea that it’s them, rather than somebody else, who has to take action – but the world sees a lot of this on a regular basis and naysayers and “can’t doers” haven’t, in and of themselves, stopped progress yet.

      Not everyone can try before they buy and distilleries which won’t even tell you what’s in the bottle certainly won’t just refund your money for one you don’t like unless it’s damaged or defective in some way. If anyone can wish such a policy into effect, please wish away NAS first. The industry isn’t in the dark as to how to make things better for consumers – a lot consumers are in the dark about the fact that they are going to have to provide the industry with clear economic motivation TO improve things instead of simply listening to the industry’s excuses for the status quo.

  8. David

    Funny thing….I was on another whisky site (I won’t apologize Curt, you occasionally port there too), and I decided to try something I occasionally do, argue the “other side”. I essentially took Jeff’s argument in replying to other posts.

    I find myself more and more agreeing with the gist of Jeff’s arguments. While I still feel like some producers come by their NAS offerings honestly (ie: pre-NAS hype), such as but not limited to Amrut, Compass Box, I see less and less justification for using the term.

    I still don’t think a boycott will be effective (logistically) and could hurt some “innocent” producers, but I would nopt shed a tear if the NAS label were banned, which I know is counter-intuitive, because you can’t ban something that isn’t done.

    Maybe a better way to say it is that while it doesn’t have to be an AGE STATEMENT on the front of the bottle, every bottle (greater than 50 cc as that might not be possible) should have a clear listing of the age of the malts in it.

    1. Jeff

      Arguing against NAS isn’t about arguing against actual whiskies, their quality or even how they are composed; it’s arguing against labeling which, paradoxically, says that age is important in one context, but not in another. As such, there really are no “innocent” users of NAS labelling, and the quality of the whiskies these labels are applied to is irrelevant, because none of the whiskies is made any better by concealing their age.

      Those that won’t give you a minimum age statement probably won’t give you full disclosure on proportional bottle content either, but I understand where the idea comes from: people DO want more information and believe that they are being bamboozled in its absence – and I think they’re right. Those looking to the industry to reform itself on this matter, however, need to look again and then look at their realistic options: if you want more product information, you won’t get it by settling for less at the check-out.

      The logistics of boycotting a marketing scheme that you don’t support, and wouldn’t miss if someone ELSE took it away, is as simple as not buying NAS. It won’t end NAS tomorrow, but those who aren’t doing what they can – and boycott, and arguing that this should be done, is the only real option – really can’t complain about how slowly things are moving.

      1. skeptic

        I think the point about logistics is valid. I would guess that a large majority of the people who buy NAS whiskies probably don’t voraciously read blogs and websites such as this one.

        To put it plainly, many people will not even know to boycott. They may notice their whisky name has changed, the colour has changed, the taste may have changed, the price has changed, but they may not even care about the age statement. Throw a couple of rocks in and it tastes fine…. Then they go about reading the globe and mail… (sorry Curt, I don’t know how many hits you have, I’m making assumptions more people read G&M)

        Meanwhile those who care about the matter:

        – Boycott NAS (even the ones we like)
        – Someone else buys them
        – we miss out on stuff we like
        – nothing changes

        That’s what I predict happens if a small group of dedicated drinkers commits to a boycott.

        In terms of the “innocent NAS producers”:

        If I were a small producer that had a “secret recipe” I used to ensure good products, craft presented, time after time, I would probably say the the small vocal group:

        “I make good stuff. As a producer I have as little obligation to provide this information as you have to purchase it. My product contents changes with each batch to keep the quality up. If you don’t want it, don’t buy it. Those who appreciate quality will buy it…”

        I’ve had Macallan 25. Granted, it was before my palate matured to the point it is now. But I would say the recent Amrut CS, Peated CS, virtually all the Amruts I’ve tasted now (8 or nine if you count the greedy angels sample) I’ve enjoyed better than the Mac 25. Even the (shudder) NAS Mac CS.

        Point is, age doesn’t guarantee quality. But we’re conditioned to think it does.

        I can see a producer of quality NAS stuff saying to himself “I’ll lose more sales by saying the youngest malt is 5 years than I will through this boycott” so I will forge ahead.

        Just saying….

        1. Jeff

          Sounds like a fine excuse not to do anything, and I have read a lot of them, and they all seem to me to be founded on the idea that, no matter what, “I shouldn’t have to change MY purchase patterns”. Again, naysayers and can’t doers but, if NAS did go down, they’d be crowing from the sidelines about how they never supported it (except by buying it) and how they always said it was a sham (except most didn’t). It is, in fact, the general lack criticism of the obvious flaws in the thinking behind NAS marketing which serves to discredit the commentary of most whisky bloggers today; why should I care about what someone thinks about a 32 bottled by Cadenhead when they’ll let Nick Morgan’s “we’re running out of numbers” pass without comment? Clockmakers who can’t tell time simply aren’t to be trusted.

          Asking for a minimum age statement clearly isn’t asking for “secret recipes”. Age doesn’t guarantee quality, but it clearly affects it with every given whisky; cut the present age of any whisky in half and tell me there won’t be a difference. People who hide minimum age do so with future intent to reduce it (as per Glenfaclas 105) – so much for dedication to the production of a quality product – but, hey, throw a couple of rocks in and it tastes fine (and I hope you have your ice handy). I can’t guarantee success, and I can’t “fix” people who don’t care about what they’re drinking but, then again, I’m having a hard enough time convincing those who DO know better and still give me the same “but there are ‘good’ NAS bottles out there” arguments.

          But time and cask chemistry are, however, quite frankly, on my side; the plethora of NAS labels IS out there TO get younger, and worse, over time and that’s what it’s going to do. People won’t like it, and won’t like to admit that it’s happening (especially the newbies who define quality by the Bruichladdich NAS they got last year for Christmas), but NAS will become an underclass of whisky which will only serve to “premiumize” the information on age-statement bottles which consumers always should have had, but perhaps took no action to maintain. Consumers will then have to pay a great deal more to get that same information – all just to know the “secret” that, yes, it’s a 12. So, come to the realization now that NAS is not in consumer interest, do it later, or don’t do it at all – it doesn’t change the truth. All marketing fluff aside, whisky IS aged TO improve it and, where age declines (particularly at anything under 10), so will general quality – particularly in an environment where higher demands for oak have already seen a decline in cask quality.

          Just saying…

          1. David

            I agree with the spirit (PUN intended) of your argument, but I also agree with Skeptic in that even if everyone who reads your posts boycotts NAS, it will not be enough for change to occur. You may miss out on good expressions that happen to be NAS, and we’ll still be stuck with paying a premium for age statements.

            I think Skeptic agrees with you in principle, but is just “skeptical” that there are enough interested people to do anything about it.

            Personally, I have noticed an increase in prices for stuff I consider good. From 10 cents for A’Bunadh to others with age statements. I’m also planning on ramping my purchasing down to zero very soon, not because of a boycott, but because I have too much.

            If I didn’t have enough to last me, I would have a hard time exercising self control over gems like Amrut Peated Cask Strength, or if I find it reasonably priced, the now-discontinued Macallan CS. Or A’Bunadh for that matter. Batch sensitive things that won’t be there after a boycott, successful or not.

            Just being honest…

  9. Jeff

    Given that Ralfy just declared war on NAS, I really don’t know what’s possible at this point, but I bet there’s a less-than-merry Christmas at many industry head offices this year with a lot of reviews not forthcoming in 2015. If more people would denounce, and act upon, that which is not in the consumer’s interest instead of talking about what’s impossible, maybe we could get something done .

    Happy Holidays!

    1. ATW Post author

      I’ve been debating for a while now whether or not to stop reviewing NAS malts. I’m torn between thinking the consumer still wants to know (and many stop here just to see if the whisky is ok), and wrestling my own demons in essentially supporting something I detest. Kinda feel like a cheap hooker every time I post one. 😉

      I absolutely laud Ralfy for his convictions (though I’ve yet to watch his vlog).

      1. David

        He is limiting his boycott to NAS Scottish single malts, according to what he said. So I think he understands that the NAS issue is different for hot weather matures like Amrut.

        Yes, Jeff, nothing stops them from stating the age, but I’ve had 8 of their expressions and none have been worse than extremely tasty.

        So I look forward to seeing how things develop, and I personally plan to decrease my purchasing, of all whisky, regardless of age.

        1. Andrew

          Whenever someone tries to explain away young, NAS whisky by saying that the spirit’s quality makes up for the lack of packaging information, all I can say is: Kilchoman. Since their first release in 2008, Kilchoman has never hid or even glossed over the fact that the majority of their whisky is less than five years old, and they haven’t suffered a single sale for it. They may not have a stonking great 3, 4, or 5 on the front of the bottle, but maybe that’s because they have several different bottlings and styles of whisky that are delineated by more than age, unlike a more conventional brand like Glenfiddich. They, like Amrut, are producing fantastic whisky at a very young age, but unlike Amrut, do not restrain themselves to avoid scaring away some imaginary “older is better” consumer base. No whisky company today has less of a reason to withold age statements, and Amrut’s customers deserve better.

          1. David

            Amrut has never stated the age of their products. They produce fantastic stuff, and they could reasonably argue that they ought not be compelled to change practice.

            I’d love to hear Ashok weigh in on this.

        2. Jeff

          Again, for maybe about the tenth time, it’s not about quality or how “tasty” something is. If the age statement were added to the best NAS ever made, it would still be the same whisky, just as if the age statement were removed from the best age-statement whisky ever made, it would still be the same whisky. The difference is age statements acknowledge the truth that age and bottle content are important, while NAS does not. NAS is not “ageless whisky”, it’s only a label type that allows content to change without notice. And it’s not that anything “keeps” Amrut from stating its product ages, it’s that nothing compels them to do so, which gives you some idea of what they think of your intelligence if they think they can convince you that age is “irrelevant” (but only in some contexts – it certainly was important that we knew Greedy Angels was an eight, so we could all marvel at its young quality and shed a tear for all the whisky they lost during that “long” maturation process – see more on worrying about distilleries’ problems, below). If age really doesn’t matter, why age the whisky at all? I’d love Ashok to weigh in on that.

  10. Jeff

    Ralfy’s move is to be respected on at least two levels. The first is one of intellectual honesty, in that it recognizes the paradoxical nonsense of the industry narrative for what it is: that producers can’t say that age is “irrelevant” (or that young whisky is so great if/when it can’t even be proven to be young whisky) WHILE still charging more for older age statements AND maintaining the age record of their own stock. The second level is that of practicality: that whether or not it CAN be corrected through consumer action (and there is no boycott more doomed to fail than that which is, in the finest tradition of self-fulfilling prophecy, never attempted in the first place), it is ONLY consumers, working in their own interests, who have any motivation or chance to get rid of NAS. Furthermore, the growing ability of consumers to separate their interests FROM those of the industry is a big development in and of itself. What? NAS and Mortlachification aren’t helping you, O trusting whisky enthusiast? That’s easily explained: they were never designed to help you. The industry’s interest in actually being your friend and doing tangible work to keep your goodwill is directly inverse to its ability to fool the fuzzy headed with Gaelic and to convince them that they should worry about the bottom line of a business that belongs to someone else as if it were their own. I don’t think that Diageo, for example, is in any danger of going under, but I don’t think that it would necessarily be the worst thing to happen to scotch consumers either, particularly if a lot of its clearly lucrative distilleries had more progressive, honest and far-sighted management as a result.

    It is hard to say what the future will hold, and Ralfy’s boycott applies only to NAS single-malt scotch – which, in some ways, is problematic in itself (why does NAS make any more sense for bourbon or blends than for single malt? tradition?), but a resurgence of better single-malt scotch product information might set a higher standard for whisky overall; it is, at least, a start. I think that Curt, however, did read the tea leaves very well some time ago (in A Few Words On The ‘No Age Statement’ Trend):

    “Let’s pause a moment and go back to discussing my personal favorite distillery for a moment. Ardbeg. Ardbeg could conceivably step up as pseudo heroes in this sort of market scenario. Can you imagine if the distillery did a right turn with their marketing approach and began throwing true low age statement numbers on their standard releases such as Uigeadail and Corryvreckan? If they came out with a stance such as ‘we haven’t bottled anything over 12 years in age since the mid 2000s, and look at the awards we’ve won with our young malts. Now we feel it’s time to share the information with our fans’. Grand…slam! Game over. Instant credibility on both sides of the fence. We consumers would love the honesty and clarity, while the industry would have a successful and well-laid precedent to fall back on.”

    What applies to distilleries will also apply to whisky commentators, both professional and amateur: those who abandon NAS to the greatest degrees will emerge with the highest levels of credibility. Many, such as Serge with his pokes at whisky marketing in general, are already far from fans of NAS, but those who want to appear “as neutral as possible” in the debate about whisky’s single biggest current marketing trend give the appearance of either being oblivious or the inexplicable supporters of a scheme which the industry ITSELF can’t manage to defend in a competent fashion. And, yeah, it can’t help but speak to credibility in the long run, and not just in my clearly-biased eyes; whether they are prepared to actually HELP in getting more product information or not, the average reader knows, at heart, that NAS is a bullshit industry come-on. Age matters here but not there, just because someone says it does (or doesn’t) or because someone changed a label? Suuurrre.


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