In 1846 Hector Henderson built a small distillery on a bay next to Port Askaig, on the northeast coast of Islay. The name Caol Ila was given to the distillery which means ‘Sound of Islay’ in Gaelic. The ‘Sound of Islay’ is the stretch of water the distillery overlooks. A then small distillery has since become the largest of all eight distilleries on Islay.
In 1857 a blender called Bulloch Lade bought out Henderson and immediately set to work on improving the site. They buillt a large pier in order to improve import and export access to and from the isolated distillery. DCL, now Diageo, acquired the distillery in 1927 and production continued until 1972 with only a short closure during World War II. However, in 1972 the whole distillery was demolished and completely rebuilt in order to function at a much higher capacity. Six stills were instilled which was triple the production capacity of the previous distillery.
During the 1980’s, when the whisky market downturn took hold, the distillery moved from only producing peated malt for a wide range of blends to producing unpeated ‘Highland like’ malt. This additional run allowed for the distillery to stay open during the tough market conditions. The unpeated malt is still produced to this day.
2011 brought another refurbishment for the distillery as brand new washbacks and a mash tun were installed, taking the total capacity of Caol Ila to 6.5million litres a year. Diageo also announced in 2018 that the Caol Ila visitor centre will be vastly improved. It will be located in one of the warehouses with a unique footbridge and big views of the Sound of Islay.
Caol Ila is known to be one of the lighter Islay whiskies compared to its darker neighbours. Fresh pear, floral grassiness, peppery juniper and traditional Islay peat can all be experienced in Caol Ila’s releases. With thanks to the tall stills and a longer fermentation period, the heavy phenols are toned down considerably. The unpeated variety from Caol Ila also makes for a delicately fresh and floral dram.
Largely due to the blend markets’ demand for Caol Ila’s produce, it took until 2002 before they released an official bottling of their single malt, a 12-year-old. Caol Ila is a prominent ingredient in Black Bottle and Johnnie Walker and before their official release, malt lovers had to search for independent bottlings. However, there are now a range of official single malt bottlings available from the Caol Ila distillery such as an 18-year-old, a 25-year-old, no age Moch and various annual special edition releases.