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The story of Islay’s largest distillery
Caol Ila distillery was founded near Port Askaig on Islay in 1846, overlooking the sound which separates the island from its neighbour, Jura. The distilleries early years were beset with financial problems, but when blender Bulloch Lade acquired it in 1857, significant improvements to the site were implemented, including the addition of a dedicated pier which allowed small steam ships, known as ‘puffers’ to deliver supplies and transport whisky to the mainland.
The Puffers were small, coal-fired cargo ships which provided a crucial lifeline to Islay and other Scottish islands for many years. At one point, more than 20 builders were located on the Forth and Clyde canal between Kirkintilloch and Maryhill. Beyond servicing the islands, the Puffers also proved themselves invaluable during the First World War, servicing warships at Scapa Flow.
The service to the islands ran until around 1993, when the removal of government subsidies left the shipping companies unable to compete with improved road transport and commercial ferry services.
Today, the Puffers are remembered fondly by many and were immortalised in the short stories of Neil Munro, featuring the adventures of Para Handy and his trusty ship, The Vital Spark.
As for Caol Ila, it remains the largest distillery on the island, producing in one week the same as Kilchoman’s annual output. The spirit produced here is used extensively in blends like Johnnie Walker, but when bottled as a single malt, it offers an excellent alternative to fans of smokey drams.
The flagship 12 year old expression first appeared in 2002, bottled at 43%, it is available for around £35 in the UK.
Smell: There’s no mistaking the region on the nose… Islay leaps out of the glass with Smoke, Charcoal and Ash backed up by Salty Sea Air, Creamy Vanilla and Lemon.
Taste: Vanilla, Brine, White Pepper and Boiled Sweets, wrapped in a blanket of medicinal Peat Smoke.
Thoughts: Costs around £35 to £40. Typically characterful Islay malt full of brine and smoke. It isn’t one of the most famous Islay whiskies, or the most celebrated but Caol Ila is a remarkably consistent distillery. Their 12-year-old is a good entry point to the world of Islay whisky, it won’t be for everyone but it also isn’t as robust or oily as some of its neighbours. That may make it a little more accessible.
*If the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission on any purchases you make after following links from my page. The whisky is also available from several other excellent retailers.