Caol Ila is the biggest producer of whisky on Islay since its redevelopment in the early 1970’s. Capable of producing 6.4 million litres annually the majority of this goes towards supporting various Diageo blends, it also enjoys an official single malt presence and widespread bottlings from the independent bottlers.
The distillery which occupies a stunning setting overlooking the Sound of Islay, was established in 1846 by Hector Henderson. Set near the village of Port Askaig, this location offered a water source and the bay allowed goods to be delivered and transported to the mainland with ease. Hector was also an owner of the lost Camlachie distillery that closed in 1920, and also a co-owner of the widely known Littlemill distillery. Times became difficult for Hector when parent company of Henderson Lamont & Company is forced to sell in the 1850’s to a Norman Buchanan, who runs into financial hardship himself in 1863. The new owners are Glasgow blenders Bulloch Lade & Company, who start a long association with Caol Ila. In 1879 the distillery is rebuilt and expanded and it remains in their hands until 1920 when it changes hands again before being mothballed in 1930 for 7 years due to the economic conditions of the time. It remains with Scottish Malt Distillers who would eventually become swallowed up by United Distillers, then the Guinness Group, before becoming part of Diageo today.
In 1972 the distillery is selected for modernisation that will transform it into the largest producer on Islay. This was a boom period in whisky, with blended Scotch enjoying widespread demand. Over the course of 2 years, Caol Ila is reduced to rubble before being revived with a new modern and more function design. The number of stills are increased from 2 to 6 and the whisky is licensed to a familiar name with Bulloch, Lade and Company Limited. The only remaining building that still stands as a remnant to the pre-1970’s revamp is the three-storey warehouse that stands near the shoreline.
For a snapshot of the lost Caol Ila, we must refer to Alfred Barnard’s epic distillery trek across Scotland in the 1880’s. From a distance he noted that the distillery looked like a stump of tree on a rock. In effect it was the tall distillery chimney that rose above the surrounding hills acting like a beacon for this famous whisky explorer. His account is also assisted by a couple of detailed drawings that show the bay setting of the distillery, including the warehouse along with cottages and buildings for whisky production. During his visit it was a modern facility thanks to the rebuilding of the 1870’s including huge floors for malting, home to only the finest barley apparently. The 2 kilns on site are of an impressive scale, with a square building housing the mill, mash-house and still-house. Also highlighted are the cooper worm tubs that are cooled by water from the mountain, with the 3 warehouses capable of storing almost 2000 casks. Even during his visit, demand for Caol Ila in the UK and international markets was noted to outstrip supply.
Today the distillery may not have the historical looks of others, but still retains its dramatic setting and a very memorable approach road down that tackles the sheer descent towards the shoreline. Tours are offered, but in Islay terms it’s a fairly straightforward experience that reflects the lack of visual history of the site. Many will make the journey just for the view and to check out what’s on sale in the small distillery shop/office. Caol Ila bottles an annual release as part of the Feis Ile festival and has featured in Diageo’s Special Release programme with a 30-year-old in 2014 being notable, but normally appears as a teenage whisky each year.
Out with these limited bottlings, your staple Caol Ila is bottled at 12, 18 and 25 years of age. There is also a distillers’ edition and an unpeated variant called Moch. A classic Caol Ila contains peat, coastal flavours with notes of vanilla, bacon and fresh fruits. The official range continues to grow in popularity and independent bottlings of the distillery remain sought after especially those matured for a prolonged period.