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A visit to Caol Ila
Caol Ila distillery stands on the banks of the sound of Islay, overlooking neighbouring Jura, who’s famous Paps dominate the view on a clear day, looming across the waves from the opposite shore. Unfortunately, however, when I visited the distillery in October, it was not a clear day. Nor was it particularly warm. Or dry. Still, the icy rain and ferocious wind only hurried me inside all the quicker and I was soon admiring the array of different expressions on display in the shop.
Caol Ila is a strange distillery in many ways. Despite being the biggest on the island it is perhaps the site which caters least to tourists. This could all be about to change, however, with owners Diageo announcing significant investment in the site, including the creation of a bar and visitor centre that will connect to the new state of the art Johnnie Walker attraction in Edinburgh. Whilst this investment is undoubtedly a good thing, I do find myself worrying that a focus on Caol Ila as a mere component of the much bigger Johnnie Walker brand could overshadow the unique identity of this fascinating distillery but only time will tell.
*Alas, no photography was allowed inside the distillery itself.
At the time of my visit, extensive maintenance was ongoing. Even the gigantic Pot Stills were receiving a new coat of lacquer. This inevitably restricted the accessibility of the site and the famous still-house, resplendent with panoramic views across to Jura, could only be viewed from the eagle’s nest control room upstairs. Indeed, the entire ‘tour’ largely comprised of a short chat whilst stood beside the mashtun! Still, this was a timely reminder that distilleries are working industrial plants first and tourist attractions second. Nothing can be allowed to get in the way of completing any required work in as short a silent season as possible.
Caol Ila was originally built in 1846, though much of the site was demolished and rebuilt in the 1960s, following a blueprint almost identical to the one used at Clynelish in Brora. The production area utilises a practical function-over-style design with mashtun and washbacks situated in a single vast chamber adjoining the still-house.
Afterwards I was led, as part of a small tour group, to the onsite cooperage, now used for tastings. There, I enjoyed a number of drams, pulled direct from the cask, one of which I even drew myself. In a horribly familiar scene of whisky spillage reminiscent of the time I filled my own bottle at Bowmore a few years ago. This kind of warehouse tasting is the perfect way to round off any distillery tour and one or two of the drams on offer at Caol Ila were as good as anything I’ve tasted on the island to date.
Back at the shop I fought something of an internal battle over whether to purchase the very last bottle of the 15 year old ‘unpeated’ release from 2015, a dram I had long courted, or to opt instead for the similarly priced distillery exclusive. After a quick side-by-side comparison, however, I had made my decision.
The Caol Ila Distillery Exclusive is created by blending a selection of first-fill Kentucky Bourbon barrels with specially-charred Californian Red Wine Casks. Bottled at 57.4%, it is available at the distillery for £90 a bottle.
Smell: Barbecue Smoke and Coal Fires, burning Straw and Struck Matches… Brambles, Raspberry, Toffee, Honey and Creamy Vanilla.
Taste: Caramel and Toffee, Fiery Pepper and Chilli Spice, Juicy Berries, Vanilla, Coastal Peat Smoke and Sea Salt.
Thoughts: Certainly not cheap at £90 a bottle but as a one-off purchase when visiting the distillery, it is nice to know that the quality in the bottle can live up to the price being asked. It’s a really delicious offering from a distillery that can sometimes seem a little quantity focused. With the vast majority of spirit matured in American oak casks it is a little surprising to see the use of red wine here, though it has to be said it works a treat with that maritime Caol Ila smoke and helps to create a memorable dram with which to reminisce over one’s visit to the distillery.
In general, the Caol Ila range strikes me as a little sparse, particularly at the entry-level end where the 12 year old and Moch expressions offer variations on the same theme. Indeed, I would really love to see the introduction of a new expression, akin to the 8 year old Lagavulin, bottled at a slightly higher strength yet kept at an affordable price. As things stand, fans of Caol Ila who wish to experience a higher strength version must face paying close to £100 for the privilege.
Changes to the range are perhaps unlikely for the time being, though with such high levels of investment in the site forthcoming, who knows what could happen in the future. It is certainly going to be interesting to follow the distillery over the next couple of years and I am already looking forward to returning once all the work has been completed.