I decided to conduct a little head-to-head tonight: Lagavulin 16 year old versus Connoisseurs Choice Caol Ila 1997 (12 years). I took some notes as I compared the two whiskies. Some quick background: this is my first bottle of both whiskies. I had never tried Caol Ila before. I had tried Lagavulin 16 at bars and had purchased the 12 year old cask strength previously. Here are my notes.
Poured a measure of each into separate glasses. Caol Ila is distinctly lighter in colour; since it is aged entirely in sherry casks and contains no added colour, I have to assume that Lagavulin has added colour.
Caol Ila has a dry, ashen smokiness as well as deep peat in the aroma. Sweetness is evident, almost like cherry candies.
Lagavulin, surprisingly, offers more citrus. And a distinct aroma of sour apple. Of the two, Caol Ila smells peatier and more medicinal. Also it is a bit sharper to the nose.
Mmm. Caol Ila gives you an ashy flavour overtop earthen peat. The sweetness is subtle and sort of slides underneath all the smoky peat flavours. I don't get a strong sherry impression from this, which is interesting because the bottle states first-fill and refill sherry casks for aging. It finishes with smoke and little else.
Lagavulin: wow, still can't get over the sour apples on the nose. The flavour seems more complete; definitely less smoke than Caol Ila, still a good dose of peat but the sweet and sour apple is right alongside it and carries through to the finish.
A second nosing reveals some slightly tarry aromas in Caol Ila. It matches the existing fireplace smells. The sweetness has a powdered feel on the nose, like icing sugar.
In Lagavulin, the apple notes have faded. An oilier peat smell now. A big explosion of peat on the palate. Funny, though, how Lagavulin almost seems subtle compared to Caol Ila.
So which one do I like better? Hard to say. I lean toward Lagavulin as it seems to possess better balance, more of a long, chewy, lip-smacking flavour. Also it has more going on in the finish.
But Caol Ila gives more attack, also with a good balancing sweetness. This is a tough call. Suffice to say that both are excellent whiskies, and neither is particularly cheap, at $90 and $110 respectively.
Another tasting: Caol Ila really masks the smoke in Lagavulin. In any case, an interesting combination. Perhaps it would be accurate to say that Lagavulin has more maritime flavours whereas Caol Ila is smokier.