The Islay Series – Distillery #1: Caol Ila

The first in my series of 8 Islay distilleries would be Caol Ila, which is a rather interesting one.

Caol Ila is located in the North-Eastern part of Islay, quite close to Port Askaig. The name ‘Caol Ila’ is derived from the Gaelic term Caol Ìle, which translates to ‘Sound of Islay’. In terms of proximity, the nearest neighbouring distillery would be Bunnahabhain, which is located approximately 4 miles away.

There is only one access road to Caol Ila and it branches off from the main road before travelling a distance to the distillery. The road itself is rather bumpy and winding and as the distillery is rather isolated, it would be wise for travellers to either hire a car or taxi to make the journey. But once the road runs out, you will be confronted with a spectacular view of the Sound of Islay and the Paps of Jura across the bay.

The Paps of Jura as seen from Caol Ila
The Paps of Jura as seen from Caol Ila
The best possible view of the Caol Ila Distillery sign on the warehouse that I could get, considering how close it is to the water.
The best possible view of the Caol Ila Distillery sign on the warehouse that I could get, considering how close it is to the water.

In terms of history, Caol Ila was established in 1846 by Hector Henderson and changed hands a few more times over the next 80 years before being acquired in 1927 by Distillers Company Limited (DCL) which is the predecessor of Diageo. The distillery was in production until 1972, with a 3 year break between 1942-1945 due to WWII. In 1972, the entire distillery was levelled and a larger version was built in its place to accommodate an increase in production.

Production commenced once again in 1974 and has continued into the present day. During the 1980s, a number of distilleries across Scotland were forced to close due to the unpopularity of whisky and the chronic oversupply within the industry. DCL had to make a decision as to which one of their three Islay distilleries, Caol Ila, Lagavulin or Port Ellen, were to be mothballed. Tragically, the decision was made to close Port Ellen and the distillery stillhouses and mashing rooms were demolished a few years after, consigning it to the pages of history.

Only the kiln house, administration buildings and warehouses remain of the old Port Ellen distillery, which also had a maltings facility built on site in 1971. The Port Ellen maltings facility now supplies malted barley to all the distilleries on the island, with the barley being peated according to each distillery’s exacting specifications. The warehouses are still used by Caol Ila and Lagavulin and even from time to time by Kilchoman.

The former Port Ellen distillery. Only the maltings facility, kiln house, administration buildings and warehouses remain of the old distillery.
The former Port Ellen distillery. Only the maltings facility, kiln house, administration buildings and warehouses remain of the old distillery.
Warehouses belong to Port Ellen, now used by Caol Ila, Lagavulin and even Kilchoman.
Warehouses belonging to Port Ellen, now used by Caol Ila, Lagavulin and even Kilchoman.
Diageo's Port Ellen maltings facility
Diageo’s Port Ellen maltings facility

The distillery is considered to be one of Diageo’s ‘workhorse’ distilleries and has the capacity to produce up to 7 million litres of alcohol every year. The whiskies itself are not considered to be peat monsters, but have a more light and restrained character with an abundance of herbal and spicy notes and just a touch of smoke.

Also, a note for visitors to the distillery: Please make a reservation via email beforehand to prevent disappointment (especially during winter) and also be aware that the distillery operates on a strict Diageo policy of allowing no photography within the actual distillery (although pictures of the distillery surroundings, visitor centre and so on are allowed).

The standard tour at Caol Ila costs £6 per person and the premium tour costs £23 per person. However, if you are a member of the Friends of the Classic Malts (www.malts.com), which is a programme run by Diageo, the standard tour is free and the premium tour is available for a reduced price of £20 per person. Signing up for Friends of the Classic Malts is free and you will receive a certificate via email stating that you are a member. It is imperative that you print out a copy of the certificate and bring it along with you as it will entitle you to receive a booklet and a stamp from the distillery shop manager.

All tours at Caol Ila come with a complimentary Glencairn glass with the Caol Ila logo on it and it is a nice souvenir to have to remind you of your time at the distillery. On my visit to Caol Ila, I went for the standard tour and was brought around the facility by the tour guide, Hazel, who also works at the Lagavulin distillery on certain days.

During my tour, Hazel mentioned that the distillery was closed for a period of 5 months in 2011 in order for some upgrades to be made. The distillery now sports a new 13.5 tonne mash tun as well as 2 new washbacks, which brings the total number of washbacks to 10 (8 wooden and 2 stainless steel). Caol Ila also has 3 pairs of stills and is capable of producing 6.5 million litres of alcohol per year, although it has been mentioned that Diageo is looking to increase that to 7 million litres for 2015.

Fermentation time for Caol Ila is dependent on whether the malt is peated or unpeated. The peated malt, which goes into the majority of the whiskies made by the distillery is left to ferment within the washbacks for a maximum of 60 hours, while the unpeated malt is left to ferment for a maximum of 80 hours. The unpeated malt is used to make a 15 Year Old special release version.

Caol Ila produces the following peated and unpeated expressions:

– Peated: 12 Years, 12 Years Cask Strength, 18 Years, 25 Years, 30 Years (Special Release), Distiller’s Edition (finished in Moscatel casks) and Moch (No Age Statement release).

– Unpeated: 15 Years (Special Release).

After the tour was over, Hazel provided tastings of the 12 Year Old, Moch and the unpeated 15 Year Old Special Release. The reviews for the tastings can be found at the following link: https://whiskymate.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/whisky-review-1-caol-ila/

In summary, the tour was fairly good. However, the “No Photography Allowed” rule did put a dampener on the overall experience. That being said, the whisky on offer was quite good so can’t complain about that!

The next part of the series will focus on another Diageo distillery (no prizes for guessing which one). Until then, thank you for reading and I hope that you have a wonderful weekend ahead!

Slainte!

Brendan

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