Caol Ila Distillery: The Unmistakable Gem of Islay Whisky
Nestled on the picturesque northeastern coast of Islay, the Caol Ila Distillery has been enchanting whisky lovers for nearly two centuries. Overlooking the Sound of Islay and with the Paps of Jura dominating the horizon, this gem of a distillery has a rich history and is renowned for producing exceptional single malt Scotch whisky. In this article, we'll delve into the history of Caol Ila, its unique production process, and the distinct flavours that define its range of exquisite whiskies.
History of Caol Ila Distillery
Caol Ila, one of Islay's most celebrated distilleries, has a rich and storied past that intertwines with the history of Scotch whisky itself. From a small, remote distillery to the renowned producer it is today, here's a brief walk through the centuries.
The Founding of Caol Ila Distillery (1846)
Caol Ila's story began in 1846 when Hector Henderson, a Glasgow businessman, established the distillery near Port Askaig, a bustling harbour on Islay. The distillery's location offered convenient access to supplies and shipping routes, enabling its products to reach the mainland with ease. Water sourced from Loch Nam Ban, just a mile away, provided the distillery with a reliable supply of pure, fresh water essential for whisky production.
Early Challenges and Ownership Changes
Like many distilleries of its time, Caol Ila faced its fair share of challenges. Economic turbulence, coupled with Henderson's lack of experience in the whisky industry, led to financial difficulties in the early years. Henderson eventually sold the distillery to Norman Buchanan in 1852. Buchanan's tenure as owner was short-lived, and in 1863, the distillery was acquired by Bulloch, Lade & Co., a Glasgow-based blending company.
Under Bulloch, Lade & Co.'s ownership, Caol Ila underwent significant expansion and modernization. By the 1870s, the distillery's production had increased substantially, and its whiskies had gained a reputation for their exceptional quality. Caol Ila's smoky, peaty character became a crucial component in several of Bulloch, Lade & Co.'s blended whiskies, including the popular blend "Black Bottle."
Reconstruction and Continued Success (20th Century)
In 1920, Bulloch, Lade & Co. faced financial difficulties and was liquidated. The ownership of Caol Ila Distillery was transferred to a new company, Caol Ila Distillery Co. Ltd., which was later acquired by the Distillers Company Ltd. (DCL) in 1927.
In 1972, DCL decided to reconstruct Caol Ila Distillery, increasing its production capacity and modernizing its facilities. The original buildings were demolished, and a new, larger distillery was built on the same site, retaining only the original warehouses. The reconstruction was completed in 1974, and the distillery's production capacity increased significantly with the addition of two more stills, bringing the total to six.
Caol Ila Distillery Today
Today, Caol Ila is owned by Diageo, a global spirits company that acquired the distillery as part of its merger with DCL's successor, United Distillers. Caol Ila has maintained its distinctive character and remains a vital component in several blended whiskies, including Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle.
Caol Ila's Unique Production Process
Caol Ila’s approach to whisky making has been honed and perfected over the years, resulting in a range of whiskies that are very popular. Here’s a summary on the process of whisky making at Caol Ila.
Sourcing the Ingredients: Water and Barley
Caol Ila's whisky-making journey begins with the selection of two key ingredients: water and barley. The distillery sources its water from Loch Nam Ban, a pristine freshwater loch located approximately a mile from the distillery. This water, rich in minerals and filtered through the island's peat, imparts a distinctive character to Caol Ila's whiskies.
The barley used at Caol Ila is primarily sourced from the Scottish mainland and is malted off-site at the Port Ellen Maltings. This malted barley is peated to Caol Ila's specifications, which typically results in a phenol content of around 35 parts per million (ppm), contributing to the smoky, peaty flavour that defines Caol Ila whiskies.
Mashing and Fermentation
The first stage of the whisky-making process at Caol Ila involves mashing the malted barley with hot water in a large, stainless steel mash tun. This process extracts fermentable sugars from the barley, creating a sweet, sugary liquid called wort. The wort is then transferred to large wooden or stainless steel washbacks, where it is combined with yeast to begin fermentation.
Fermentation at Caol Ila Distillery typically takes around 55 hours, longer than many other distilleries. This extended fermentation time allows for the development of fruity and estery flavours in the wash, which ultimately contributes to the complexity of Caol Ila's whiskies.
Distillation: Copper Stills and Unique Spirit Cuts
Caol Ila Distillery employs a total of six copper stills for its distillation process – three wash stills and three spirit stills. These stills, which were designed to replicate the shape and size of the original stills, are known for their tall, slender necks and wide, bulbous bases.
The distillation process at Caol Ila involves two stages. First, the wash is heated in the wash stills, where the alcohol vaporises and rises through the swan necks before being condensed back into a liquid called low wines. These low wines are then transferred to the spirit stills, where they are distilled a second time to produce the final spirit.
Caol Ila is known for its unique spirit cut, which is the point during distillation where the master distiller selects the desired spirit for maturation. The distillery employs a higher-than-average cut point, which results in a lighter, more delicate spirit that showcases Caol Ila's fruity and floral characteristics alongside its trademark peatiness.
Maturation and Bottling
Once the spirit has been collected, it is filled into oak casks for maturation. Caol Ila primarily uses American oak ex-bourbon barrels, which impart vanilla and caramel notes to the whisky. However, the distillery occasionally employs sherry casks or other wine casks for special releases or its Distiller's Edition.
Caol Ila whiskies are matured in a combination of traditional dunnage warehouses and more modern racked warehouses. The cool, damp climate of Islay plays a crucial role in the maturation process, as the whiskies are exposed to the island's salty, maritime air. This interaction between the spirit, oak, and the surrounding environment adds depth and complexity to Caol Ila's whiskies.
The maturation period for Caol Ila's core range varies, with the Caol Ila 12 Year Old serving as the entry-level expression, while other releases, such as the Caol Ila 18 Year Old and the Distiller's Edition, undergo longer periods of ageing. Each expression showcases the distillery's distinctive character, balancing peatiness with fruit and floral notes.
After the desired maturation period, the casks are selected by the master distiller and combined to create the final whisky. Caol Ila's whiskies are typically bottled at 43% ABV, although some limited editions and cask strength releases may have higher alcohol levels.
Caol Ila Distillery has taken steps to minimise its environmental impact and contribute to the sustainability of Islay's natural resources. The distillery uses a biomass boiler that runs on sustainable fuel, significantly reducing its carbon footprint. Caol Ila is also committed to reducing water waste and improving energy efficiency throughout its production processes.
Caol Ila Whiskies: Core Bottlings and Flavours
Caol Ila's range of single malt whiskies is characterised by a delicate balance of peat smoke, maritime notes, and fruity undertones. The core lineup includes:
- Caol Ila 12 Year Old: A classic expression and the distillery's flagship whisky. This bottling offers a harmonious blend of peat smoke, sea spray, and citrus flavors, with a gentle sweetness on the finish.
- Caol Ila 18 Year Old: With additional years of maturation, the 18 Year Old showcases a more refined and complex profile, featuring hints of dried fruit, rich toffee, and a wisp of smoke.
- Caol Ila Distillers Edition: This special release is double-matured, with a secondary maturation in Moscatel casks. The result is a rich and fruity whisky, complemented by Caol Ila's signature smokiness and a touch of saltiness.
- Caol Ila Cask Strength: Bottled at a higher proof, the Cask Strength expression delivers a more intense and robust flavour profile. Expect a powerful burst of peat smoke, accompanied by notes of dark chocolate, dried fruits, and a lingering, warming finish.
- Caol Ila Unpeated: A limited edition release that showcases the distillery's versatility. By using unpeated malt, this expression reveals the more subtle and fruity side of Caol Ila, with notes of green apple, honey, and a hint of maritime influence.
In addition to these core expressions, Caol Ila also offers a variety of special releases and limited editions. It's also a popular choice for independent bottlings. These provide whisky enthusiasts with the opportunity to explore the distillery's diverse range and enjoy unique flavour profiles that showcase the versatility of Caol Ila's spirit.
Caol Ila and Independent Bottlers: A Rich Collaboration
Caol Ila, with its rich heritage and diverse flavour profiles, has become a popular choice for independent bottlers, who seek to capture the essence of this iconic Islay distillery while adding their own creative flair.
Caol Ila's distinctive flavour profile – with its signature peat smoke, maritime notes, and fruity undertones – provides a solid foundation for independent bottlers to build upon. Renowned bottlers such as Douglas Laing, Signatory Vintage, and Gordon & MacPhail have all released exceptional Caol Ila expressions, each with their own unique twist.
These collaborations often result in whiskies that push the boundaries of traditional Caol Ila flavours, exploring the nuances and complexities of the spirit. For instance, an independent bottling might feature a Caol Ila expression matured in an unconventional cask type, such as a rum or wine barrel, introducing new layers of flavour and complexity. Alternatively, an independent bottler might release a particularly old or rare Caol Ila whisky, offering a glimpse into the distillery's past and showcasing how the spirit evolves over time.
Make sure you try Caol Ila whiskies
Caol Ila is one of my favourite distilleries. Its whiskies are consistently high quality. Bottled from bourbon casks, it's a pure expression of Islay. And, the spirit takes on cask finishes really well. I'd definitely recommend checking out some of the independently bottled whiskies.
If you're on Islay, and get the opportunity to visit, make sure you make the most of the opportunity!