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.
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. On the palate there are notes of Vanilla, Brine, White Pepper and Boiled Sweets, wrapped in a blanket of medicinal Peat Smoke.
Smell: I’m a sucker for the smell of an Islay dram and am completely seduced by this smokey, seaside character.
Taste: Perhaps not as strong on the palate as on the nose but still a big, smokey mouthful with a pleasant oily texture.
Value for Money: Should be somewhere around £35 – £40. Reasonable price for what is a quality dram.
Score: 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 make the effort to get to know it.