Despite being the largest distillery on Islay, Caol Ila (pronounced “cull eela”) was, for a long time, the island’s lesser known malt, in the shadows of its more famous neighbours, such as
Lagavulin and Laphroaig.
The reason for this state of affairs is in no way attributable to the quality of the whisky produced here. Caol Ila is considered lighter and sweeter than the other Islay malts, yet it still retains that distinctive Islay peatiness, smokiness, and a hint of that glorious medicinal quality that whiskies from them thar parts possess. The whisky is, thankfully, available as a single malt, and is also gaining in popularity as more people make its acquaintance, an introduction to the social scene facilitated by its inclusion in Diageo’s Classic Malts collection.
No, the reason why this distillery’s single malt has largely remained a semi-secret is two-fold.
For one, the whisky produced at this distillery is mostly destined for the blending market, used in brands such as Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle. It was, in fact, this high demand from the blending industry that prompted the demolition and complete rebuilding of the distillery between 1972 and 1974, and resulted in Caol Ila becoming the largest distillery on the island. Only the warehouses were left standing once the dust had cleared, and these are still in use today as storage of the distillery’s single malt casks. Those casks destined for blending are taken to the mainland and stored there.
For two, the distillery is sited in a spectacular, yet fairly isolated, spot on Islay, overlooking the Sound Of Islay to the Paps Of Jura. It should come as no surprise then to learn that the distillery’s name is Gaelic for “Sound Of Islay”! The distillery has taken advantage of these stunning views, and the stillroom possesses tall windows which display the scenery and its attendant wildlife (like seals) in all their glory.
So, pretty sea views notwithstanding, why on earth did Hector Henderson, a Glasgow businessman, pick this particular spot in 1846 when looking for a distillery location? The answer is found in the abundant water supply to the area from Loch Nam Ban. This particular site was originally used for washing lead ore, such was the plentiful nature of the water supply.
As with other distilleries located in more isolated spots, the construction of Caol Ila led to a community springing up around it, made up of distillery employees and their families. Along with the distillery buildings themselves, houses were very kindly supplied to the workers, and many of these still stand and are in use today. Many of the people who live in these houses are third generation distillery employees!
The distillery’s seaside location has not been without its challenges, however, as supplies to the distillery, and transportation of whisky from the distillery, had to be conducted by boat. The specific boats used were small coal-fired steam-engined coasters, affectionately referred to as “puffers”. Landing, loading and unloading was for many years dependent on tide times as the sea level rose and fell 12 feet between low and high tide. Eventually, in 1879, a pier was constructed to allow the puffers to dock regardless of the tide.
General Tasting Notes
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Distillery Contact Information
Address: Port Askaig, Isle of Islay, PA46 7RL
Tel: +44 (0)1496 30 2760
Fax: +44 (0) 1496 30 2763
Tours: The distillery is only open for tours between March and October. During these months, tours are available from Monday to Thursday and cost GBP4 per person. Tours are by appointment only – phone the distillery to book.
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