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Caol Ila was founded in 1847 by Hector Henderson, owner of Littlemill distillery. The remote location of his new venture, around a mile north of Port Askaig on the isle of Islay, forced Henderson to deliver all necessary supplies by sea and for this he used a small fleet of ships, carrying barley to the island then sailing off with a hold full of whisky.
This was a risky business however, as outlined in an article from the Elgin Courant of Friday 27th April 1847. The Salima, a brig belonging to Henderson, was sailing from Inverness to Islay with a cargo of barley. On the 8 April there was a terrible storm as the vessel rounded the northern tip of Scotland and got into difficulty near Dunnett Head. “It was observed that she was dragging her anchors, and the master proceeded to cut away one of the masts, but she immediately struck on the face of a rock and split fore and aft.” The mast fell onto a rock and a mate was able to climb along it to safety, finding a hole in the rock in which he could shelter. The cook managed to swim to the same rock but whilst the mate could hear him, he couldn’t see him and by morning, there was no sign, leaving the mate as the lone survivor of the six man crew.
By 1854, Henderson it seems had had enough of such trials and tribulations. He sold to Norman Buchanan, owner of the Jura distillery who in turn sold to Bulloch Lade and Co in 1863. By 1920 however, Bulloch were in liquidation and Caol Ila dormant. The distillery was revived by the Distiller’s Company Ltd, the organisation that would grow, through a series of mergers and takeovers, to become the giant Diageo, who remain custodians of Islay’s largest distillery today.
As part of a massive investment in Scotch Whisky tourism, Diageo are constructing a new visitor centre at Caol Ila. With planning permission granted in April 2019, the upgrade will see the distillery tie-in with the new Johnnie Walker visitor centre in Edinburgh, becoming the island home of the world-famous blend. Certainly Caol Ila has been in need of a little TLC for some time now and the exterior designs look great but I remain concerned that the story of this unique Islay distillery could be whitewashed by that of a Kilmarnock grocer. I shall reserve judgement until I see it however, though God only knows when that will be given the continuing coronavirus restrictions in Scotland.
In the meantime there’s been a bit of a rotation in personnel on Islay. After 13 years as distillery manager at Ardbeg, Mickey Heads has decided to retire and his place at the wheel has been taken by Lagavulin manager Colin Gordon. Filling the resultant vacancy at Lagavulin, is Caol Ila manager Pierrick Guillaume and his role has, in turn, been filled by Samuel Hale, formerly manager of Diageo’s Port Ellen maltings.
Despite changes in leadership and extensive modernising of the site however, it’s business as usual at Caol Ila, as it continues to produce some of the most consistent spirit you’ll find on Islay. Their 18 year old expression is bottled at 43% and retails for around £80.
Smell: Grassy malt. Vanilla cream. Honey. Beautiful smoke. Coal. Lemon. Shortbread. Dark chocolate. Liquorice.
Taste: Bourbony vanilla. Barley sugars and cola cubes. Chewy caramel. Damp driftwood and oily smoke. The way it opens with water is a joy to behold, bringing a wee touch of citrus to the party, with some acidic lime joining smoke and pepper at the finish.
Value for money: Some 18 year olds will cost you well into three figures, so it’s pleasing to find the Caol Ila for £80 and there’s no real complaints about the quality of the thing. A higher strength would be nice of course but it sports a fairly natural hue and there’s ample depth to the flavour profile, suggesting any filtration was done with a little bit of tact.
Age can diminish peat smoke and Caol Ila isn’t normally known as one of the more medicinal of the island’s whiskies. Nevertheless the famous Islay DNA is stamped throughout this dram. It may have gained a little maturity, even a touch of sophistication over the years, but at its heart it remains an Islay malt and carries all the depth of flavour, and all the complexity we’ve come to expect from the whisky of this magical wee island.
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