The Caol Ila distillery on Islay is located near Port Askaig, on the northeast corner of the island.
It's quite isolated, it's closest neighbor being the Bunnahabhain distillery.
And the chaos didn’t end there. DCL took control in 1927 and transferred Caol Ila to SMD
in 1930 - who then shut it down again. The Caol Ila distillery was silent until 1937 and after
some activity it had to close down during part of the second World War as well.
Caol Ila was built in 1846 by Hector Henderson who also owned the old Camlachie distillery
in Glasgow. Consecutive owners included Henderson, Lamont & Co (1852-1854), Norman
Buchanan (1863-1879) and Bulloch, Lade & Co (proprietors of Camlachie) who rebuilt and
expanded the distillery. Caol Ila was liquidated and sold to J. P. O'Brien Ltd in 1920, who in
turn sold it to Caol Ila Distillery Co Ltd. the same year.
After World War II, things proceeded relatively uneventful at Caol Ila for a few decades
before it was rebuilt and extended from two to six stills between 1972 and 1974.
The distillery was completely rebuilt at this point in order to meet increased demand from the blenders.
Only the warehouses (filled with maturing whisky) were spared. After 1974 Caol Ila started to buy their malted
barley from the Port Ellen maltings. Some people make a clear distinction between the heavier 'old' Caol Ila that
was produced before 1972 and the lighter, cleaner spirit that was distilled after the expansion in 1974.
The Caol Ila distillery became part of the United
Distillers conglomerate in 1986. In 1989, the first
'semi-official' bottling was released in the
'Flora & Fauna' range. This would be the only
official bottling for quite some time (not counting
releases in the 'Rare Malts' series).
These days official bottlings are widely available.
In 2002 Caol Ila introduced a complete 'core range'.
Apart from the fairly standard 12yo, 18yo and Cask
Strength bottlings, Diageo also releases occasional
single cask bottlings as well.
Independent bottlings have become easier to find
as well. When casks of Lagavulin and Laphroaig
became harder to acquire after the year 2000,
independent bottlers started to release more
private and 'bastard' bottlings too.
Although the profile of Caol Ila as a single malt has
been enhanced in recent years, the main function
of the distillery is still the production of malt whiskies
for the Johnnie Walker blends. Among single malt
whisky lovers, Caol Ila is known as a relatively clean
peated whisky - but the whisky that is used for blends
is actually UNPEATED. Yeah, that surprised me too...
Unbeknownst to many, the Caol Ila distillery actually started with trial runs with unpeated whisky in the 1980's.
These tests were deemed successful, so this 'Highland' Caol Ila became part of the regular production process.
For circa two decades this unpeated whisky was used almost exclusively for blends, but in 2006 it was introduced
as an 8 years old single malt. Three years later a 10yo Cask Strength variety was added.
The name Caol Ila (easily misspelled as Coal Ila) is Gaelic for
'Sound of Islay' - and it was inspired by the location of the
distillery along the stretch of water between Islay and Jura.
Caol Ila is the largest distillery on Islay by far, producing roughly
a quarter of all the malt whisky that is distilled on the isle of Islay.
As such, Caol Ila's capacity dwarfs better known malt whisky
brands like Longmorn, Glenfarclas and Laphroaig and Lagavulin.
Caol Ila is widely open to visitors between April and October - and slightly less so in November and December.
The location of the distillery is relatively remote, but the nearby historic site at Loch Finlaggan provides another
reason to make the trip. From a small island in the lake, the ‘Lords of the Isles’ ruled Scotland for centuries.
1) The name “Caol Ila” is pronounced as ‘Cul-EE-lah’.
2) Although there is a three storey warehouse on the distillery grounds,
these days the entire production is sent to the mainland via tanker trucks.
So, the young Caol Ila spirit is not filled and matured on Islay.
3) These days, Caol Ila is the largest distillery on Islay by far. With an annual
production capacity of 6.5 million litres of pure alcohol per year it was one
of the top 10 distilleries in Scotland in 2015.
7) By 2013 roughly a third of Caol Ila’s production consusted of unpeated whisky.
5) Caol Ila has 10 washbacks - 8 made out of wood; 2 from stainless steel.
6) After the distillery was remodeled and expanded in 1974 to better suit the
needs of blenders Caol Ila introduced a novel new whisky for blenders in the
mid 1980's: unpeated malt whisky known as 'Caol Ila Highland'. This product
was intended for blending and most (if not all) casks would thus have gone to
blenders for, erm... blending. However, in 1999 Caol Ila resumed production of
unpeated whisky for the 'single malt' market. These bottlings became available
in 2006 or 2007 when Diageo released the first bottling of the Caol Ila 8 Years
Old 'Unpeated'. Since most blenders were not in the habit of storing their casks
for very long (with the exception of Douglas Laing, perhaps) there probably are
not that many casks of the unpeated Caol Ila Highland around - if any at all...
4) Caol Ila was the first distillery on Islay that switched from direct firing of the
stills to indirect heating via steam. They were also the first to trade in their
traditional worm tubs for shell and tube condensers.
2002 - Caol Ila has been one of Diageo's 'volume' distilleries
for quite some time. The only (semi-) official releases were a
'Flora & Fauna' bottling and a few 'UD Rare Malts' expressions. However, at the start of the new millennium Diageo wanted to
strengthen the Caol Ila brand. They introduced a range of
official bottlings; the "standard" 12 years old whisky, an 18yo
and a cask strength version without an age statement.
2006 - The Caol Ila "Unpeated" (formerly known as ‘Caol Ila Highland’ to blenders) is released as a 8yo OB.
2014 - As it turns out, Diageo had their eye on the future when they released the unpeated variety to the
general public in 2006. They kept enough maturing casks in stock to keep releasing older expressions regularly.
A 15yo bottling of unpeated Caol Ila was released in 2014 - as well as a 30yo bottling of the peated stuff.
2009 - A ten years old version of the unpeated variety is released at an higher ‘cask’ strength than the 8yo.
2005 - Caol Ila is added to the 'Classic Malts' range of Diageo. This range used to contain only six different single
malts (Cragganmore, Dalwinnie, Glenkinchie, Lagavulin, Oban & Talisker) when it was introduced in the late 1980's,
but in 2005 a bunch of other single malts suddenly became classic - including Cardhu, Clynelish and Glen Elgin.
2011 - Diageo keeps expanding Caol Ila’s portfolio, this time with a 12yo version of the unpeated variety and
a new version without an age statement called “Moch”.
Caol Ila 12yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Light and clean start; peaty with a honey sweet undercurrent. Some clay and industrial oils.
Taste: Smooth on the surface, but it suggests a raw undercurrent. Salty episodes. Some smoke and rubber.
Score: 80 points - the dry, bitter finish keeps this 12 year old whisky at the bottom of the 'recommendable' bracket.
Caol Ila 25yo 1984/2010 (55.7%, Wilson & Morgan Barrel Selection, C#5399, Rossi Import)
Nose: Starts out fairly clean, but it picks up sweeter notes and some organic "dirty" traits soon.
Taste: Surprisingly tarry. Smoke, but some sweetness as well. A hint of menthol in the finish perhaps?
Score: 87 points - very pleasant indeed, but I'm not sure if a price tag of more than 150 Euro's is warranted.
Caol Ila 29yo 1981/2010 (47.4%, Duncan Taylor Rare Auld, C#2927, 322 Bts.)
Nose: Ah! Organic and peaty. A Kildalton malt? Sweaty & meaty after some breathing. Then more industrial oil.
Even more organics emerged after five minutes. Gunpowder? I didn't dare to add water to this one though.
Taste: Smooth, sweet and peaty - but not as powerful as the nose would suggest. It improves with time.
Score: 88 points - it started out in the mid-80's, but the nose kept evolving and showing new perspectives.
Caol Ila 29yo 1981/2010 (57.2%, Berry Brothers for John Milroy Selection, Refill Hogshead, C#8167)
Nose: Faint oily notes before more sherried elements emerge. Opens up with some more austere notes.
Taste: Sweet and peaty; fruity and a little medicinal. Very pleasant. Smoke and tannins in the finish.
Score: 89 points - very nice to find a 'dirty' expression from a distillery that usually produces a clean malt.
Caol Ila 10yo 'Unpeated' (65.8%, OB, Bottled 2009)
Nose: Wow! Sharp and tarry and quite unusual. A few smoky seconds before the fruit emerges.
A malty profile. Quite alcoholic, sweetening out after a minute. Some spices too; nutmeg and parsley.
After adding a little water more, citrussy notes emerged before the malty notes and sweetness came forward.
Taste: Solid, fruity start and centre. Quite hot, but the mouth feel is just excellent. A tad gritty in the finish.
It's surprisingly drinkable at cask strength. With a dash of water the mouth feel became much smoother.
Score: 83 points - I prefer this over the 8yo, but I'm not sure if it's because of the proof or the extra two years.
Caol Ila 12yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2008)
Nose: Light and crisp. A touch of distant peat, but not much else. Not expressive enough to put it above average.
Maybe some faint fishy notes and organics after a few minutes - and more and more chloride. Growing complexity.
Taste: Sharp, peaty attack. Bitter finish. Sweetens out after some breathing, pushing it above average.
However, this one needs time. A touch of liquorice during a second try.
Score: 78 points - IMHO, this 12 year old whisky dropped off quite a bit since it was launched in 2004.
Caol Ila 1996/2008 Distillers Edition (43%, OB, ref 4/468)
Nose: Starts fragrant on the oily side with some fruits in the background. More smoky than peaty.
Unfortunately, this whisky is not quite as complex as the nose suggests at first - little development.
Taste: Liquorice, aniseed and dust. Feels just a tad watery at first before powering up.
Gritty, chalky finish with a hint of aspirin. Too bad; is that the effect of the first maturation casks?
Score: 81 points - which puts it in 'recommendable' territory.
Caol Ila 8yo 'Unpeated Style' (64.9%, OB, Bottled 2007)
Nose: Light and fruity - melon sweetness. A little more complexity that this type of light whiskies usually shows.
However, it doesn't really evolve much beyond that. No wait - now I get some cardboard and organics...
Taste: Floral sweetness. Growing drier into the centre. Hey wait, is that the finish already? I guess it was...
Quite harsh. This one is hard to rate. It's very solid, but perhaps a smidgen indecisive. Beer?
The dry finish keeps it on the southern border of bronze for me. Burn of the high proof replaces the peat?
Score: 80 points - perhaps the ABV is too high to easily score this one.
Caol Ila 22yo 1984/2007 (55.9%, The Whisky Fair, Sherry, 287 Bts.)
Nose: Very rich, with interesting old fruity notes. Becomes extremely rich and complex after a while.
Definitely not a 'clean' Caol Ila according to the house style, but all the more to my liking for it.
Shows a gentler side after some more breathing - some faint fruity and candy notes. Menthol?
Taste: Tobacco. Rich fruits. Leather. Some salt at the bottom. Then the smoke is released. Beautiful.
Score: 90 points - a beautiful marriage of smoke and sherry; of the spirit and the cask.
In a blind tasting I could have misinterpreted this as a Kildalton whisky...
Caol Ila 25yo 1970/2005 (58,4%, OB)
Nose: Very hard to classify. Restrained & pretty austere in the nose but friendlier and fruitier on the palate.
Opens up after some time and water - but it demands attention. Clean peat, but this is not a peat monster.
Taste: Beer? Hey, and then I thought I found a pinch of peat. Dry finish. It livened up after I added water.
Score: 84 points - with enough time and water that is...
Caol Ila 12yo 1992/2005 (46%, Whisky Galore)
Nose: Peculiar. Faint organics with something grainy in the background. Opens up with light fruits.
Is that a hint of peat? Yes it is, and it grows more prominent with time. Some meaty notes as well.
A little too bashful for my tastes at first, but over time this 12 year old whisky develops a wonderful complexity.
Taste: Sweet and softly peated. Peanut fleece. Smokier towards the centre. Lovely - a gentle peat monster...
Score: 90 points - this malt needs a little time to reach its prime, but when it does you're in for a treat.
Ah yeah, I LOVE it. Not overly complex, but it fits my nose and palate like a glove! 90 points it is!
Caol Ila NAS 'Cask Strength' (55%, OB, Bottled +/- 2004)
Nose: Grainy, then paint thinner. Harsh and quite odd. Later more organics emerge. Something coastal.
Is that peat? Yeah, it seems to be. More peat, organics and complexity in the nose with time.
Taste: The obvious high proof gives it substance. Wonderfully sweet and peaty on the palate.
Score: 86 points - it's far from perfect, but there's a lot of fun to be had here.
My surprised response: Haha; another Caol Ila OB that seems on the way up.
Caol Ila 12yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2004)
Nose: Hey, this is a peaty one again. Lovely! Light and transparent with organics. Leather.
Brine. There's a fruity sweetness as well. Now I get some more spices - really quite lovely.
Great development and complexity. The nose just needs some time. Opens up quite nicely.
Taste: Oy, not quite as powerful as I'd expected. Watery start, then sweet and peaty.
It becomes more powerful after a few seconds; big peaty burn - but just a little too 'flat'.
Score: 84 points - Plenty of fun to be had here, although it's not very 'deep'.
Caol Ila 18yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2004)
Nose: Much lighter than the previous blinds. Sweet grains. Then hints of oil, opening up.
Spices. Yes, I think I finally get some peat - not a lot, though. Another malt that needs time.
Taste: Very weak start, then drier with the faintest hint of liquorice. Gritty. Then sweeter.
Score: 82 points - a little too dry; not the good sherry drought, but the bourbon kind.
Caol Ila 25yo 1979/2004 (61.2%, Blackadder for Sun Favourite Taiwan, Hogshead #5334, 44 bottles)
Nose: Aaaah. Lovely sweet peat in the start, developing into an unusual direction. Shoe polish. Quite unique.
Gasoline. Rubber. Something medicinal. Laphroaig or an old Ardbeg? Faint horse stable aroma's. Magnificent!
Taste: Sweet peat as well. Magnificent explosion of peat and smoke after a few seconds. Salted liquorice.
Score: 90 points - maybe not a 'perfect' malt, but it fits my nose like a glove. Not for everyone, though.
Some nice meaty notes now as well. Oh boy, this really is a 'rusty nail' malt. Liquid paint stripper...
Caol Ila 24yo 1975 (54.3%, Wilson & Morgan)
Nose had organics, a little oil and plenty of peat. Very 'farmy'. Cow stable. Leather. Quite unique.
The style is very much that of a 'Kildalton' malt whisky - just like the 2004 W&M 'House Malt'.
Taste: There was a subdued peatiness on the palate, growing stronger. No sweetness at all.
I usually like my malts quite sweet, but in this case it works for me. The last few drops were the best.
Score: 89 points - almost 'legendary' 90's material, but I prefer the 'dirtier' Islays myself.
Caol Ila 21yo 1975/1997 (61.3%, UD Rare Malts, Bottles #0519 and #1437)
Nose: Peaty, flowery, smoky, oily, salty. Changed quite a bit when adding water.
The sweetness became more obvious and more like molasses - both in nose and in taste.
Taste: Quite drinkable after two splashes of water (to maybe 45 Vol% alc.), but still numbing.
Score: 90 points - Great stuff... Oh, man. This malt has got it all...
Caol Ila 15yo 1969 (40%, Connoisseurs Choice, Old Map Label) - distilled before distillery refit (!)
The nose was very rich with lots of organics. Peat, of course, but that's just the 'foundation'.
I probably would have mistaken it for an Ardbeg in a blind test. This is a highly enjoyable dram.
Taste: It performed excellent on the palate as well; much more character and depth than other CC's.
Very powerful with just that hint of bitterness in the finish that makes you long for one more dram.
Score: 89 points - this came very close to becoming my favourite ever Caol Ila. A blast from the past.
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Caol Ila malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Caol Ila I've tried over the years, but the notes should
convey how I felt about those whiskies. However, these tasting notes only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of whisky bottlings, including Caol Ila.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.