Caol Ila is a strange distillery. Although it is the largest on Islay it is overshadowed by most other distilleries in public perception, perhaps only with the exception of Bunnahabhain. Only since rather recently, Caol Ila single malt has come somewhat out of the closet and seems to be picking up momentum.
The distillery is located just north of Port Askaig and a few miles south of Bunnahabhain in a similarly secluded little bay. I walked the mile from the bus stop to the distillery and was soon received by the very pleasant smell of spirit and peat coming from the stillhouse smokestack. Although the stillhouse has the boring functional design of the early 1970s, the glazed front overlooking the Sound of Islay (Caol Ila in Gaelic) is quite a spectacular sight.
Because my requests for an appointment with distillery staff had been ignored (not to my surprise I might add), I contended myself with the regular tour which was actually quite interesting and insightful. But sadly, all Diageo distilleries don’t like their interior photographed by visitors. As if you could spread some secrets that way…
To reach the highest possible efficiency, all processes are automated to the extent that the number of people working in the distillery amounts to a whopping eight. Given the high output of 3.6 million l per year, it is amazing that Caol Ila has just the same size of mash tun as just about every other distillery. But the automation allows for a virtually continous operation resulting in a higher volume of wash and therefore spirit. When the tour arrived at the mash tun, a run just had been finished. When we left the room again after having seen the washbacks, the mash tun was already being filled again.
In spite of all efficiency optimizations, Caol Ila still relies on the tradtional wooden washbacks as they are convinced that they are better for the quality of fermentation than stainless steel ones, even though they are more difficult to clean. Interesting to note is also that they currently have two different fementation times. Because the distillery currently works only from Monday to Friday some of the mash is left to ferment over the weekend while mashes from the other weekdays ferment for the industry standard of 55 hours. Therefore extra care has to be taken then when selecting batches for bottling to secure consistency.
Soon the distillery will further expand their production by extending operation over the entire week, so this will not be a factor anymore in the future. Probably this will also result in an increase of the proportion of single malts that is produced. Currently only 5% of all Caol Ila is bottled as single malt, 95% go into blends, mainly of the Johnnie Walker range. This of course explains the low-key image of the distillery.
As all Caol Ila whisky is matured and casked on the mainland, the warehouse was not visited on the tour. It is used as spirit storage and also for maturing casks from Lagavulin distillery. Almost all output of Caol Ila is matured in refill bourbon casks drawn from the Diageo pool. First fill generally is done with grain whisky – very likely for three years most of the times – so the first refill still has something to chew on. Casks are refilled up to five times but I would expect that this is largely restricted to the whisky for blends because it stays in the casks for a shorter time than for single malt.
The tour ended in the tiny visitor centre with the obligatory free drams. You get a choice of two drams from the Caol Ila product range and a free Glencairn glass. There has been quite some movement in the range in recent years, and it seems to be going on. The unpeated expression is now bottled as a 10yo, while the 18yo will be discontinued according to the tour guide (an apprentice distiller by the way).
This rather active bottling policy is an indication that Diageo recognizes the growing demand for Caol Ila. But I am not really happy with it. The 18yo is a very fine dram, and many independent bottlings show that especially old Caol Ila can taste terrific. Caol Ila aged in a good cask does not have to fear any comparison with other peated Islay malts. Despite all automation the spirit is of a very high quality and absolutely on par with its competitors. But because of the sloppy cask management most distillery bottlings fall short in comparison.
It almost seems as if Diageo do not have very much trust in the quality of their distillery. But this company seems to regard many of their great distilleries more as flavouring agents for their blends than as entities in their own right. They don’t really seem to care which is a shame, frankly.