Caol Ila was founded in 1846 by Hector Henderson near Port Askaig. The name is Gaelic for ‘Sound of Islay’, the body of water between Islay and Jura which the distillery overlooks. The early years were tough but Caol Ila was eventually acquired by blending company Bulloch Lade in 1857. Significant improvements were made to the facilities, including the addition of it’s own pier, allowing steam ships and puffers to load and unload onsite.
The Puffer ships proved a vital lifeline to Islay and many other hebridean islands. These were small, coal-fired cargo ships that ran from the clyde in Glasgow. At one point there were more than 20 builders, most of which were on the Forth and Clyde canal at Kirkintilloch and Maryhill. As well as providing a service to the islands, these little ships proved themselves invaluable in the First World War, servicing warships at Scapa Flow.
The Puffer service to the islands continued right up until 1993, when the government removed subsidies, at which point the shipping companies could no longer compete with road transport and new ferry services. Today the Puffers are remembered fondly and immortalised in the short stories of Neil Munro featuring the adventures of Para Handy and his trusty Puffer, The Vital Spark.
As for Caol Ila, it is now owned by Diageo and is the largest whisky producer on Islay, by quite some margin. In fact, Kilchoman Distillery produces in one year what Caol Ila can churn out in a week. The spirit produced here has mostly been used for blends, especially Diageo’s Johnnie Walker range. The house style is smokey and coastal but once a year they produce an unpeated malt, in a traditional highland style. Again, this is mostly for the benefit of blends but is occasionally available as a single malt as well.
The flagship expression is 12 years old and first appeared in 2002. Prior to this, single malt drinkers could only find Caol Ila amongst the releases of independent bottlers. Today, however, it is readily available and reasonably priced.
There’s no mistaking the provenance when you nose it… Islay leaps out of the glass at you with Smoke, Charcoal and Ash backed up by some Salty Sea Air and Creamy Vanilla and Lemon. On the palate there are notes of Vanilla, Brine, White Pepper and Werther’s Originals Boiled Sweets, all wrapped in a blanket of medicinal Peat Smoke.
The Scores: About the Scores…
Smell: 17 / 20. I’m a sucker for an Islay on the nose and will always be seduced by that smokey, seaside character.
Taste: 16 / 20. Perhaps not quite as strong on the palate as on the nose but still a big, smokey mouthfull with a great oily texture.
Value for Money: 8 / 10. Should be somewhere around £35 – £40 which is reasonable, in the days of no age statement malts, for a 12 year old whisky from Islay.
Overall: 41 / 50. Maybe it’s not one of the most fashionable drams from Islay but Caol Ila produces a very accomplished whisky in it’s own right and fans of peat smoke should ensure they get to know it.