A Tale of Two Casks
A Comparison of Distillery 53
If you have followed our blog for a little while, you know that we’re big fans of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS). The Society bottles single malt and other spirits from casks from dozens of distilleries, offering a number of bottles for sale each month. Over the past two years we’ve purchased several bottles from a variety of distilleries. Those who are familiar with the SMWS know that there are a handful of distilleries that are featured quite frequently, even each month. One of those is SMWS distillery 53, hailing from the northern coast of Islay.
We’re big fans of distillery 53, or Caol Ila, as it is more commonly known. Among the Islay companies Caol Ila tends to fly under the radar. While the majority of the whisky produced at the distillery is used in blends, the company is the largest producer on Islay and markets several expressions of single malt. Well peated, Caol Ila has a quintessential Islay flavor that is still quite different than the more well known Islay brands.
The reason we chose to feature two SMWS bottlings side-by-side was because we have two from the same distillery, giving us the chance to demonstrate how much the character of a single malt depends on the cask. While the comparison between whisky aged in an ex-bourbon cask to one that was aged in ex-sherry oak may seem more obvious, both of our bottles came from casks that previously held bourbon and then single malt. In addition, the two bottlings are not the same age, so we wanted to see if we could test the adage that an older whisky is smoother, or more mellow.
This whisky was bottled as part of the SMWS 2018 Feis Ile (Islay Festival) lineup. The malt spent 11 years in a refill hogshead, which means oak that most likely aged bourbon first and then was used to age other single malts at least two more times. With a decent amount of ageing miles, we would speculate that the oak used here would have less influence on the flavor of the whiskey. 53.252 was bottled at a strength of 57.8%.
Eyes: Pale straw color, with a thin and light texture in the glass.
Nose: Aromas of fresh butter, earthy peat smoke, citrus rind and endive.
Taste: Plenty of sea salt and smoky honey flavors with a wave of heat and cinnamon spice mid palate.
Finish: The finish was more dry, with herbal tea and smoke notes dominating.
For 11 years old, 53.252 has plenty of spirit flavor and an oily texture much like a younger whisky. Earthy, herbal peat smoke dominates the dram.
We recently purchased this bottle at an SMWS tasting event. The whisky was aged for 7 years in a 2nd fill hogshead, indicating the cask was again most likely bourbon but this time used only once before to age single malt. This bottle clocks in at 60.1% ABV, so upon opening we decided to give the dram a few minutes to acclimate.
Eyes: Light gold color (a shade or two darker than 53.252), with a very light texture in the glass.
Nose: Almost candy sweet or fruitiness on the nose, no hint of smoke. The aroma of dried mangoes and toasted cereal grains.
Taste: Slow developing, with earthy smokiness matched with flavors of toasted wheat bread, roasted root vegetables, and honey.
Finish: A bit of heat builds at the finish, along with some notes of cloves and cinnamon sugar sweetness.
Although younger than 53.252 by 4 years and at a higher ABV, we thought this whisky was smoother and more balanced. The peat flavor in 53.270 was much more muted, resembling that of a Highland Park or Ardmore, while 53.252 was much more maritime influenced, more like an Ardbeg or Laphroaig.
Having tasted both bottles already, we were still quite surprised how different the two casks tasted. We suspect that because 53.252 was aged in a barrel with more ageing miles, the cask had much less influence on the whisky and thus created a sharper, more lively dram. This is another anecdote demonstrating that older whisky is not automatically smoother. We also gained an appreciation for the job of a master distiller. These individuals have to take different tasting casks like these and blend them in the right mix to create a consistent product from year to year.