Caol Ila 20 Year (2002) Gordon & MacPhail “Connoisseur’s Choice”

First Fill Ex-Bourbon K&L Wines Selection

When this batch of Gordon & MacPhail bottles dropped at K&L, the stats were all that I initially saw. Great distilleries, high age statements, at cask strength, and attractive pricing. We’re checking off all the right boxes and something in the back of my mind is telling me that this just might be too good to be true.

Caol Ila will be my starting point for this set. It’s a distillery I’ve reviewed a fair amount before, so I understand the profile well. I know what to look for and the flavors I enjoy but what should I expect at this age? How does this 20 year old compare to the more spritely younger expressions? Have I given in to the DavidOG hype? Will we ever see this type of pricing again? Don your tin foil hat and jump aboard this hype train!

Distillery: Caol Ila.

Region: Port Askaig, Isle of Islay.

ABV: 53.9%.

Age: 20 Years.

Cask type: First Fill Bourbon Barrel No. 8378.

Price: $170.

Color: 1.1-1.3 Burnished – Russet. Natural Color. No chill filtration.

Tasting Notes

Tasted neat in a Glencairn with 15+ minutes of rest. Dilution was added for the second half of the tasting with an additional rest of upwards of an hour. This review encompasses my initial impression to the final glass.

Nose: The nose starts with a lovely, soft, campfire peat. While older Islay isn’t as punchy as their youthful counterparts, the acidic character of Caol Ila still comes through. A bit of heat with that classic acidity; like a toasted chili powder, garnished over a tangerine wheel. There are plenty of typical vanilla and tobacco notes but behind the expected, is a floral and herbal component. Grassy honeysuckle sweetness with a cola and amaro backbone. A salinity that I can best describe as “cedar plank grilled salmon”. With the addition of water, a bright summery sweetness emerges. Summer peaches, basil, and olive oil fried sage leaves. A phenol explosion with dilution gives a youthful peat aroma to the dram.

Palate: One tasting note immediately stands out for me: simply “paper”. Dusty old books in your grandparent’s study. Tobacco leaves from an unlit cigar. Homemade vanilla extract infused with a peated oak stave (side note: I’m curious now what chocolate chip cookies might taste like with smoked/peated chocolate!). Bright drying acidity with grapefruit pith and sweet white wine. Along with those citrus notes is a heavy whipping cream flavor that brings a classic orange cream soda vibe. Adding dilution brings out so much paper. It’s more of a paper ream, office supplies type of flavor profile, however. The sweetness of the dram turned sour so to speak. It tastes like adhesive and evnelope glue. There’s also a sharp and fruity pink peppercorn flavor that while enjoyable, doesn’t quite make up for highlighted flaws unfortunately.

Finish: For a 20 year old malt, I didn’t expect a loud finish. There’s a wonderful peated murmur that sits on your palate for a decent amount of time. Sea salt coated soft caramels and honey butter bring sweet and savory notes. Cigar ash and smoking charcoals. Plenty of cereals, particularly wheat oddly enough. Like a nice wheat beer. Maybe my mind is on beer as a sour cherry note reminds me distinctly of lambic beers on warm summer days. Dilution brings pleasant flavors to the finish. Bitter drinking chocolate. Herbaceous and floral black tea sweetened with honey. The malty cereals also remind me of layered honey cakes.


Hype stats bottle? Not to me.

The flavors here are wonderful and delicate while fully expressing the distillery’s profile. The teenage years of Islay malts are sometimes hit and miss for me but Caol Ila always seems to come out ahead. I think the high acid in their spirit is a flavor I rather enjoy so at 8 years or 20, that backbone profile always seems to be there.

Aside from the slight stumble on the palate, this bottle was worth buying a backup as yes, the price was too good to pass up. I will caution those who enjoy a loud and rude peat, that this may be too subtle for your preferences. I have a slight distaste with peated Bunnahabhain for example specifically in the teens. I enjoy Staoisha at much younger ages like 5-8 years. Caol Ila as well to a certain extent but this bottle? This bottle I can appreciate the mature and tempered peat.

Final Score: 90