Reader, here’s how the conversation went:
Me – “I’m looking to treat myself to a nice bottle for my birthday. Not too pricey. Any recommendations?”
Whisky Shop Keeper – “Try something from the ‘Discovery’ series. The Ledaig is very good.”
Me – (about to buy the Ledaig) “Fair enough, thanks for the suggestion.”
Whisky Shop Keeper – “…of course, the best in that range is the Caol Ila. It’s the best by far, actually. We sell out as soon as we get it in.”
Me – (putting the Ledaig back on the shelf) “You know what, I’ll have a think and come back later.”
Reader, to my shame, I didn’t come back later. I bought the Caol Ila from Jeff Bezos dot com.
In my defence, I’ve always been a big Caol Ila fan. Huge, in fact. Buying a litre bottle of their flagship 12-year-old at duty-free has become as much a staple of my holidays as my pasty Caledonian skin getting burnt despite being doused in three layers of factor fifty. But I digress…
The Discovery series comes from Gordon and MacPhail, not so much a distiller as a company that prides itself on marrying up pre-existing drams with the perfect cask to bring out new dimensions in the flavour. Each bottle in the Discovery range has been given a sub-category of either “Sherry”, “Bourbon”, or the mysteriously non-specific “Smoky”. There are few points for originality in picking Caol Ila to join “Team Smoky”, but, frankly, why change a winning formula?
A few days after my encounter with the high street whisky merchant (whom I’ve sworn to patronise properly one day very soon), I sat down with a generous measure of the Caol Ila 13-year-old Discovery and tasted it the only way a diligent and sensible reviewer would…with an equally generous measure of the classic 12 alongside (every scientific endeavour needs a reliable control group after all).
The differences are evident before you even take a sniff or sip. The Discovery is significantly lighter in colour. Get the Dulux colour chart out and think “Buttercup Cloud” as opposed to the richer “Honey Mustard” of the classic 12. A quick swirl and inspection of the legs will make it clear that the Discovery is lighter in texture also, running down the glass with noticeably less viscosity than its original brother.
And so, to the taste…
Gordon & Macphail Discovery Caol Ila 13-Year-Old
ABV – 43%
Price – £47 (Master of Malt)
Nose – Thick and sweet whipped cream mixed with vanilla custard. Smaller notes of leather, with just a bit of banana and raisin. All mixed in with that classic Islay peat smoke, which is deliciously sweet and not at all overpowering.
Palate – My favourite tastes of the classic biscuity/vanilla shortbread of the classic Caol Ila 12 are still there in spades. The family resemblance is obvious. This one is certainly more subtle than the original and slightly sweeter too, with touches of peach cordial and zingy citrus peel.
Finish – Smooth, smoky and sweet. Like a barbecued frappuccino.
I like this one. I like it quite a lot, actually. I’ve got no doubt that the bottle won’t make it to Easter, and I can see why my local distributor sells out regularly. It’s an unmistakably Islay whisky that will probably even appeal to those who aren’t quite sure of Islay whiskies – not as bold in taste or smell, much fruitier throughout, and a lovely, sweet smoke—nothing ‘penicillin-y’ about this one.
This reviewer made up his mind about Islay whiskies long ago and doesn’t mind being smacked around the head with strong flavours and punchy layers.
The most obvious question of any special edition is, “is it as good as the original?” The answer in Caol Ila Discovery’s case is a reluctant “No”. It’s an easier drinker for sure, it invites a second dram more than its brother, but that’s because it’s fundamentally weaker and less complex. I already feel is too harsh even as I write it, but at the end of the day, to compare Caol Ila Discovery with Caol Ila 12 is to compare Good to Great.
(Caol Ila 12 – 8.5/10)