Whilst wandering around my local supermarket on my weekly trip, I found myself down the tea aisle. The usual suspects were there, English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Assam etc, but one caught my eye, on the edge of the shelf, on the far side. Lapsang Souchong. I had never encountered such a name, but being that it was a black tea, I knew I would be safe in trying it. I didn’t even take the time to read the box.
I therefore was intrigue when I awoke the next morning and went downstairs for breakfast. My usual routine is to pop the kettle on straight away for a cup of tea and that morning was no exception. I went round to where the tea is stored and opened the box. Oh my.
The waft of smoke from the box took me back, it was quite shocking at 03:30am, when I was expecting the normal aroma of tea! This smoky, bonfire smell instantly reminded me of the couple of glasses of Islay whisky I had enjoyed only recently, a Lagavulin 16 and an Ardbeg 10, filling the kitchen as it brewed.
At first, like when I first experienced an Islay malt, I was quite wary. This strong, smoky, pine bonfire aroma was confusing the senses and being in conflict with everything I knew about tea, was it going to taste ok!?
It was with trepidation that I encountered my tea mug and dove in for the first sip. Wow. Much like single malts, this is a tea to be savored and enjoyed, with a complex nose full of pine and smoke and a smooth and flavoursome taste.
A quick Google and I naturally delved deeper into the history of Lapsang Souchong. Much like Islay malts, its pungent aromas and distinctive taste make it a Marmite product, people either love it or hate it. Again, like Islays, those in the know and ‘experts’ the World over eulogize about it. Lapsang Souchong has an interesting, maybe enigmatic history which some might be interested to read about.
This unique black tea is dried over pinewood, giving it a heavily smoky aroma and a deep, rich liquor. The tea leaves are first withered over pine root fires, then pan-fried, rolled and oxidized. The leaves are finally placed in bamboo baskets and hung on wooden racks over smoking pinewood fires to dry and absorb the smoke. This results in a powerfully smoky aroma coupled with a smooth taste.
Legend has it that the process for this smoked black tea came about during tribal times when a village burned all their possessions and inadvertently smoked the tea. Another story states that during the Qing Dynasty, an army unit passing through a village occupied a tea factory filled with fresh leaf awaiting manufacture. When workers could get back into the factory, they realized that for their tea to arrive at market in time, it was too late to dry the leaves the usual way and open fires of pinewood were lit to hasten the drying. When the tea reached the market, the smoke flavour created a sensation and a new product was born.
Naturally then, after having a Lapsang Souchong to start my day, what better way to finish it off with another hit of smoke and bonfire, one of the true greats of the Islay world, Caol Ila. This is the first sampling of a whisky which runs true the website name of this blog, a wonderful hit of peat and smoke.
As has been said above, I have sampled Islay malts previously, Laphroaig 10 years old, Lagavulin 16 year old and Ardbeg 10 year old, so I knew what to expect with the peat and smoke profile they represent. Nothing prepares you for your first tasting. My first was the Laphroaig on a New Years Eve. On first uncapping the bottle, I thoughts I had inadvertently reached into the medicine cupboard rather than the drinks cupboard. It instantly reminded me of TCP, the mild antiseptic whose active ingredient is a mixture of phenols. Phenols are also a measurable component of aroma and taste in Islay whiskies. Whilst the smell was initially distracting, the whisky flavour was much like others, with malt, sweetness and nuttiness but with the added intrigue of the peat.
Caol Ila is a Gaelic name, translated as Sound of Islay in reference to the distilleries location facing the body of water between Islay and Jura. Being owned by the drink magnate Diego, Caol Ila is a large component of the Johnnie Walker products, so many of those who have never drunk from the bottle of Caol Ila, may very well have tried it indirectly through Johnnie Walker, the World’s best selling whisky brand.
If you ever see a picture of Caol Ila, it is quintessentially idyllic, the bay waterfront, craggy rocks, gentle rolling hills all beautifully framing the purveyor of what we love best, Scottish single malt whisky.
So what makes Islay whiskies so distinctive? Peat, partially decayed vegetation covers the island. This can be harvested and dried and then used as a fuel, much the same as wood or coal. Many other distilleries used other methods to dry the malt, but on Islay, they used what they knew best, the natural fuel source to the island, peat. A friend of mine told me that when you visit Islay all you can smell in the air is the smell of burning peat, such is its importance as a fuel to the island. When burning the peat, the smoke formed imparts flavours of the vegetation that decomposed to make up the peat. In Orkney, peat used by the Highland Park distillery has strong heathery flavours due to the peat being dug from heathlands. The peat used in Caol Ila is dug from the coast of Islay and is made up of moss vegetation.
Now I have suitably introduced you to Caol Ila, lets move on to the sampling. The bottling in question was a 200ml bottle of the entry level 12 year old. As I mentioned in the Balvenie 12 year old DoubleWood sampling, 200ml bottles are an excellent way to try new whiskies. Diego in particular market a number of such bottle across their classic malts selection. Therefore everyone can easily sample a number of new single malt whiskies to broaden their horizons, easily without the burden of purchasing full size bottles and the associated cost. Another thing to mention is that this Caol Ila 12 year old is bottled at 43% which is a welcome change to the common 40% level which most entry level whiskies are bottled at.
So the light green bottle is removed from the outer box and the excitement levels increase. Time for a whisky, time for a new experience, time for an Islay. Pop the cork and take a sneaky sniff of the contents within. The first thing that will strike you is when you poor the whisky in the glass, after such an interesting and stimulating nose, the last thing you would expect as a novice to Caol Ila 12 year old, is the colour. Pale straw and unimposing. One may falsely think that this is a soft, bland malt.
The poured glass is lifted and the first thing that strikes you as you inhale is the interesting nose. There, at first, you have the most obvious component of many an Islay, the smoky aroma caused by the burning of the peat to dry the malt. In addition, citrus lemon essential oil and the scent of acidity, which conjures up thoughts of a crisp dry white wine. Faintly, the hint of soap (perhaps lemon soap) and unscented candle wax. Aside from the peat, the nose of the Caol Ila is as light as the colour suggests.
So now the first sampling of a whisky that represents ‘peat and smoke’. On the palate, the smoky nature of the Caol Ila can instantly be tasted, this develops into a strong peppery taste, reminiscent of Talisker whiskies. The light freshness of the lemon nose intertwines with the peppery smoke from the peat, with the acidity on the nose taking more of the limelight than the lemon. This is not a peat overload that Caol Ila’s neighbouring distilleries might produce. It is balanced, with acidity, fruitiness and smokiness making it somewhat lighter that what you would expect.
The finish to the whisky is long and peppery but not overpowering, it gives that satisfying tingle that a good quality single malt has just been enjoyed.
Caol Ila’s 12 year old is an excellent introduction to Islay whisky. It is not overpowering on the senses but is a gentle spirit that eases you into the world of Islay. Many of its characteristics share a resemblance to those found in expressions from Talisker, which is by no means a bad thing. They are however a little bit more subdued, the raw harshness is not present here as you find from those coming from the volcanic Isle of Skye, though the inclusion of peat adds a different dimension. I have thoroughly enjoyed the Caol Ila and look forward to revisiting the distillery and sampling other expressions, it certainly has a lot to offer!
As I said previous, Islay whiskies are a Marmite product, people either love or hate them….and I love them!