In this review, I’ll compare Caol Ila vs Laphroaig – two popular Scotch whisky brands and distilleries from the Scottish West coast on the isle of Islay.
They have a lot of similarities, but also some distinct differences. In this article, we will compare and contrast these two whiskies to help you decide which one is right for you.
An Islay love affair
The Isle of Islay is a spectacular island located on the well-known “Whisky-coast”. If you’re unfamiliar with this whisky making region, it’s world renowned for its smoky, peaty whiskies. This is due to the prolific use of peat during the kilning of the malted barley to make many of the island’s whiskies.
The island is home to nine working distilleries, each of which has its own unique character and produces one or more of the distinct ‘Islay malts’. From the oldest, Bowmore, established in 1779, to the youngest, Kilchoman, founded in 2005, each distillery has its own unique story to tell.
These distilleries boast centuries of tradition and craftsmanship, blending together carefully chosen ingredients and time-honoured techniques to produce whisky of the highest quality. From the sweet and fruity Bowmore to the smoky and intense Lagavulin, each distillery has something to offer whisky enthusiasts of all kinds.
Home of the peat monsters
Islay whisky’s most defining feature has to be the use of peat to achieve its distinctive smoky flavour. If you don’t like a peaty smoky whisky, you’re in the wrong place for this comparison of Caol Ila vs Laphroaig.
Peat is an integral part of the process of producing Scotch whisky. Peat is essentially decayed vegetation, which is dried and burned to produce a very distinct smoky flavour in whisky. This flavour has become synonymous with Islay whisky, and Caol Ila and Laphroaig are two of the most popular Scotch whiskies from this region.
The importance of peat for these whiskies
When peat is burned, it produces a unique type of smoke that contains certain compounds that give whisky its much-loved smokiness. This smoke slowly passes through the malted barley used in whisky production, where it imparts its distinctive flavour and aroma. The longer the smoke lingers, the more intense and complex the flavour will be. Caol Ila and Laphroaig are two examples of Islay whiskies that use heavily smoked malts to create their iconic smokey flavours.
Caol Ila use peat in the malting process, using it as a fuel-source to heat and dry their malted barley after germination. This results in a subtly smoky yet sweet dram. Caol Ila has a gentle complexity with notes of apples, pears and citrus fruits balanced with subtle hints of earthiness from the peated malt. With Caol Ila being lighter on the palate than many other Islay malts such as Laphroaig or Ardbeg, it’s often considered an excellent introduction for those who are just beginning their journey into Scotches from Islay or who might have a lower tolerance for heavily peated whiskies.
Laphroaig also use peat during the malting process for both smoking and then drying their barley. This two-stage process creates their pungent signature smokiness which can sometimes be overwhelming for some drinkers. The intense smokiness also creates strong aromas reminiscent of seaside air which gives this drink its distinctive character that many whisky lovers find irresistible. Along with this signature smoky character, there are also subtle notes of sweetness like caramel and honey that help to round out this full-bodied dram.
Overall Caol Ila and Laphroaig offer two distinct takes on Islay whisky that caters to different palates; Caol Ila offers a more moderate take on Islay’s signature smokiness while still maintaining complexity while Laphroaig offers an intense experience perfect for those looking for an extreme version of what Islay has to offer!
In this review of Caol Ila vs Laphroaig, I’ll compare these world-famous whiskies and their range of core-expressions. By the end you will gain an understanding of the distinctions between the two distilleries, and what makes them unique.
Caol Ila Distillery
Hector Henderson established Caol Ila, one of Scotland’s first whisky distilleries, on the Isle of Islay in 1846. It was originally named Kilnaughton, but was later changed to Caol Ila, which is Gaelic for “Sound of Islay.”
It was purchased by Distillers Company Limited in 1927, and then by Diageo in 1997. It is currently one of the most popular single malt Scotch whiskies on the market.
In 2011, the brewery underwent a major overhaul with the installation of a new mash tun and additional washbacks, allowing for a production capacity of 6.5 million liters per year.
Distillation of Caol Ila
What makes Caol Ila special is its flavour and distillation process. It’s distilled using traditional methods, including slow-dried barley, hand-cut peat, and robust copper stills.
Caol Ila whisky uses a double distilling process, with an exacting level of control over the production of the spirit. It’s aged in American oak barrels that have previously been used to age bourbon. This is where the alcohol is separated from the other elements of the wort.
The whisky is then transferred to a combination of ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks where controlling the temperature and the speed of the distillation creates the exact flavour they are looking for. These barrels have been re-charred and re-toasted to impart a rich and complex flavour profile with notes of smoke, honey, dried fruit, and a hint of sea salt.
It’s then aged for a minimum of 8 years before being bottled.
Caol Ila whiskies
Caol Ila 12 Tasting Notes
Nose: Fresh, herbal. Rubbed peppermint leaves, stemmy, damp grass, smoky. Oily, cigar leaves, smoked ham, hickory. Lemon peels at the harbour.
Palate: Good body, oily, tar, elegant smoke. Hints of boiled sweets.
Finish: Long, peppery, spicy warmth, smoke.
Price: £47 / $58
Caol Ila 12 Review
Caol Ila 12 is an expression of this distillery’s commitment to quality and traditional methods, as it has been aged in American oak barrels that have previously held bourbon whisky as well as ex-Sherry casks before being bottled.
Caol Ila 12 is gold in color with a nose that offers notes of heather, honey and subtle smoke with a hint of apple blossom. Its taste is full-bodied, with hints of sweet caramel, vanilla and gentle peat smoke balanced out with a slight tangy edge.
The smokiness increases towards the finish which boasts notes of charcoal and sea salt.
It has become quite popular among whisky connoisseurs who appreciate a more intense flavour experience. This whisky also contains higher levels of phenols due to extended aging, giving Caol Ila 12 more body and flavour than its younger counterparts without overpowering those delicate flavours produced during distillation.
For those who want an Islay single malt but don’t want their whisky too heavily peated, Caol Ila 12 is an excellent choice. With its balance between sweetness and smokiness combined with intense yet complex flavours all throughout, Caol Ila 12 offers a unique drinking experience that allows both novices and seasoned dram aficionados alike to enjoy the best of what Islay whisky has to offer.
Caol Ila 18 Tasting Notes
Nose: Aromatic, darkness. Herbal, vegetal. Grassy, creamy malt.
Palate: Big, refined sweetness, leafy. Well integrated oak, smoke, oily, peat. Barley.
Finish: Long, herbal notes, gentle smoke, soft peat. Oily wood.
Price: £93 / $114
Caol Ila 18 Review
Caol Ila 18 is an exquisite expression of the Caol Ila distillery’s commitment to quality and traditional methods, as it has been aged in both ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks. The result is a whisky that is full-bodied, yet still light on the palate. It has an aromatic nose, with notes of heather, honey and subtle smoke, coupled with a hint of apple blossom.
The palate of Caol Ila 18 is rich and complex. Dark, herbal notes blend into creamy malt aromas while touches of leafy grasses give way to integrated oak wood flavours. Smoke and peat are present but not overwhelming, allowing delicate caramel and vanilla aromas to linger on the tongue. As for its finish, Caol Ila 18 offers up a pleasant warmth that can only come from extended aging in quality barrels. An oily woodiness mingles with trace amounts of smoke and gentle peatiness to provide a balanced yet memorable endnote.
In short, Caol Ila 18 offers an unparalleled combination of complexity and subtlety. Its unique flavour profile makes it an ideal whisky for those looking for something special without sacrificing smoothness or complexity. As such, Caol Ila 18 is the perfect choice for experienced whisky fans who want to explore Islay’s heritage without being overwhelmed by peaty intensity.
Caol Ila 25 Tasting Notes
The 25-Year-Old is the most expensive and rarest.
Nose: Sticking plasters, TCP, hints of lemon zest and bonfire toffee. Oily smoke and calves leather.
Palate: Sweet palate entry with lemon juice ad oak. Leather, notes of black pepper, spicy ginger and Refresher sweets. Intense.
Finish: Long, oily, peaty finish.
Price: £250 / $305
Caol Ila 25 Review
The Caol Ila 25-year-old is an exquisite expression of the Caol Ila distillery’s commitment to quality and traditional methods. This whisky has been aged in ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks for a minimum of 25 years before being bottled. The result is a unique flavour profile with intense complexity and subtlety, perfect for experienced whisky fans who don’t want to be overwhelmed by peaty intensity.
On the nose, Caol Ila 25 offers up an array of aromas including sticking plasters, TCP, hints of lemon zest, bonfire toffee and oily smoke. On the palate, sweet flavours of lemon juice combined with oak wood create a leathery texture which gives way to notes of black pepper, spicy ginger and Refresher sweets. Finally, on the finish Caol Ila 25 leaves behind an oily peatiness that lingers long after you take your last sip.
Overall Caol Ila 25 is a truly remarkable whisky offering both complexity in flavour as well as intensity in its aroma. It’s most certainly one of Islay’s finest single malts, providing an experience unlike any other – from its unique nose to its lingering finish – Caol Ila 25 is sure to delight both beginners and seasoned dram-aficionados alike.
The distillery was founded in 1815 by brothers Alexander and Donald Johnston. In 1836, the Johnston brothers passed the lease to Donald and Alexander Johnston, who established the distillery that we now know as Laphroaig. The name is derived from the Gaelic “lag-froig” which means “beautiful hollow by the broad bay”.
The distillery has been producing whisky continuously since its founding, making it one of the oldest in Scotland.
In 1914, it won the first-ever Gold Medal for Whisky at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London.
Laphroaig really is the marmite among whisky lovers, you really do love it or hate it. I personally love it, being a lover of bold peaty, smokey flavours I can’t get enough smoke in my dram.
Distillation of Laphroaig
Laphroaig Single Malt Whisky is produced using traditional methods, including malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, maturation, and bottling.
The distillation process at Laphroaig begins with the malting of barley. The barley is soaked in warm water for two days and then spread on the malting floor for three days to allow it to germinate and develop its enzymes.
The germinated barley is then dried in a kiln, creating the malt which is used in the distillation procedure. This process extracts the sugars from the malt, forming a sugary liquid known as wort. It’s mashed with hot water and yeast is added to begin the fermentation process. The mixture is fermented for approximately two days to create a wash with 7-8% alcohol content.
It is then distilled in Laphroaig’s copper pot stills. The first distillation, known as the ‘low wines’, produces an alcohol content of 20-25% and is used as the base for the creation of whisky.
The low wines are then redistilled in the second still, known as the ‘spirit still’. This second distillation increases the alcohol content to around 70%.
The alcohol content of the spirit is then reduced to around 63.5% by adding water. This spirit is then sent to the warehouse where it is matured in oak barrels for a minimum of 10 years. After maturation, the whisky is ready for bottling.
Laphroaig 10 Tasting Notes
Most popular bottle.
Nose: This opens on big, smoky muscular peat notes. There are spices, and liquorice, as well as a big dose of salt. This whisky has become slightly sweeter in recent years, and it appears beautifully on the nose, amidst the classic iodine/sticking plasters and cool wood smoke we love.
Palate: Seaweed-led, with a hint of vanilla ice cream and more than a whiff of notes from the first aid box (TCP, plasters etc). The oak is big, and muscles its way into the fore as you hold this whisky over your tongue. An upsurge of spices develop – cardamom/black pepper/chilli.
Finish: Big and drying, as the savoury, tarry notes build up with an iodine complexity.
Price: £35 / $43
Laphroaig 10 Review
Laphroaig 10 year old whisky is a renowned single malt Islay Scotch whisky that has been matured in oak casks for at least 10 years. Commonly weighed up in another debate: Caol Ila 12 vs laphroaig 10. It has a deep golden color, and packs a powerful punch of smoky peatiness with notes of salty seaweed, sweet vanilla, and medical antiseptic-like aromas.
On the nose, this whisky reveals a strong smokiness with thick peat fumes rising up. Underneath the smoke are hints of liquorice and spices, followed by a light sweetness from the barley used for its production. As time passes, notes of iodine, sticking plasters and cool woodsmoke develop further adding to the complexity.
The palate is bold and full-bodied with an intense combination of seaweed, spicy cardamom, black pepper and chilli – giving it an interesting kick. The oak provides a strong backbone to this dram before giving way to subtle touches of sweetness from the initial mashing process.
To finish, one will experience lingering waves of tarry nuances alongside the distinctive iodine character that defines Laphroaig whiskies. This 10 year old is bold yet masterfully balanced; making it perfect for those who love more intense and smoky flavours in their single malt whiskies – as well as being great value for money at £34.99/$42.67 per bottle.
Laphroaig 16 Tasting Notes
A limited edition bottle released in mid-2021.
Nose: Roasted nuts and burning peat, with a slow build of maple syrup on pancakes and vanilla pod.
Palate: Still rich in peat with a touch of iodine, following by a subtle floral whisper, fresh citrus, and honeyed barley.
Finish: Coastal salinity and the last embers of a bonfire.
Price: £90 / $110
Laphroaig 16 Review
Laphroaig 16 year old is a limited edition bottle released by the famous Islay whisky distillery in mid-2021. This single malt Scotch whisky has been matured in oak barrels for at least sixteen years and this extended period of maturation gives it its unique characteristics. It has a deep golden colour and complex aromas that are sure to tantalize your palate.
On the nose, you will detect smoky peat fumes with hints of roasted nuts and burning peat. These initial aromas quickly give way to subtle notes of maple syrup, vanilla pod and sweet pancakes which add an inviting sweetness to the aroma profile. With time, these sweet notes start to recede and give way to more savoury elements such as iodine, floral whispers, fresh citrus and honeyed barley.
The flavour of Laphroaig 16 year old is just as balanced as the nose suggests. You will experience a powerful presence of peat smoke on the palate with a light undertone of iodine that adds complexity without overpowering it. The sweet flavours from the nose linger on the palate as well with notes of maple syrup, vanilla pod, fresh citrus, honeyed barley and floral whispers all playing their part in making this whisky truly unique. And finally, lingering waves of coastal salinity alongside the distinct embers of a bonfire provide an incredibly smooth finish that will leave you wanting more.
Overall, Laphroaig 16 year old is an incredibly well-crafted whisky that provides an unforgettable drinking experience thanks to its complexity and balance between savoury and sweet flavours. Its price tag – $109.64/£89.90 – is reasonable given its outstanding quality which makes it worth every penny!
Laphroaig 25 Tasting Notes
Cask Strength. 2019 release
Nose: Sweet vanilla and wood spice, smoke and TCP, though restrained, some smoked bacon, with underlying dried fruit added to the mix.
Finish: Very long and layered, waves of rich smoke and a peppery conclusion.
Palate: Very creamy and rich, with a full texture, peppery, spicy, iodine, saline and smokiness. There’s also a little green apple fruit.
Price: £450 / $549
Laphroaig 25 Review
The Laphroaig 25 year old whisky is an exquisite single malt Scotch whisky from the renowned Islay distillery. This exquisite cask-strength spirit was released in 2019 and has been aged in oak casks for at least twenty five years, giving it its unique characteristics that make it a must-have dram.
On the nose, this whisky offers sweet aromas of vanilla and wood spice with subtle hints of smoke and TCP. There’s also some smoked bacon notes underlying the dried fruit making it even more inviting than before. The palate of this whisky is incredibly smooth and creamy with a full texture. The flavours range from peppery spice and iodine to salty notes along with smokiness that’s balanced with a touch of green apple fruitiness.
To finish, the waves of rich smoke linger on your palate as you experience a long-lasting pepperiness that ties everything together perfectly. This 25 year old Laphroaig is perfect for those looking for an intense yet well balanced single malt Scotch whisky experience. At $548.63/£450 a bottle though it may only be reserved for those extra special occasions.
Laphroaig 25 year old stands out from other whiskies due to its complex nuances, masterful balancing act between smoky and sweet notes, as well as its extremely long finish. Its deep golden colour, inviting aroma profile and rich flavour makes this whisky the perfect addition to any connoisseur’s collection – adding an unforgettable touch of luxury to any drinking occasion!
The main difference between Laphroaig and Caol Ila lies in their flavour profiles.
Caol Ila has a sweeter smell, the aroma is often described as having a maritime character while Laphroaig has medicinal aroma.
Laphroaig is a peaty, smoky whisky with a strong iodine flavour. Caol Ila, on the other hand, is light and fruity with subtle peat and smoke. The two offer very different flavour experiences, so it’s definitely worth trying both to decide which one you the like best.
Summary: Caol Ila vs Laphroaig
Weighing up Caol Ila vs Laphroaig battle they are two single malt Scotch whiskies that differ in a variety of ways. Caol Ila is a light and fruity whisky with subtle peat and smoke flavours, while Laphroaig is fuller-bodied with a powerful presence of peat smoke on the palate. Caol Ila has an inviting aroma profile of maritime notes, such as sweet vanilla, wood spice, and dried fruits, while Laphroaig has a medicinal aroma of TCP, smoked bacon, and iodine.
On the palate, Caol Ila has notes of maple syrup, fresh citrus, honeyed barley and floral whispers that provide a sweet undertone to its smoky flavour. Laphroaig also has sweet flavours but is dominated by its smokiness. The finish for Caol Ila is smooth with salty notes lingering on the tongue while the finish for Laphroaig is long and layered with rich smoke and peppery conclusion.
The age of the whisky can also make a difference in taste. Caol Ila’s 12 year old expression offers up more sweetness than its 16 year old counterpart which provides extra smoky complexity to its flavour profile. Similarly, Laphroaig’s 16 year old expression has more balance between savoury and sweet flavours than its 25 year old expression which adds layers of richness to its taste.
Both Caol Ila and Laphroaig offer unique flavour profiles that any connoisseur can appreciate—making either an excellent addition to any collection or tasting party! Caol Ila offers up fruity sweetness balanced out by subtle smokiness while Laphroaig takes you on a journey of powerful peat smoke accompanied by iodine undertones that lead into a long lasting peppery finish—both whiskies provide an unforgettable drinking experience guaranteed to leave your taste buds wanting more!
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