Sound of Islay: The Caol Ila Story

The scenic island of Islay off the western coast of Scotland is home to several well-known distilleries. The largest among them is the Caol Ila, located near Port Askaig on the north eastern coast, a relatively pristine region that overlooks the narrow strait between Islay and the Jura island. The romantic locale has a direct bearing on the name of the distillery, which is derived from the Gaelic Caol Ìle, meaning ‘Sound of Islay’.  

Built in 1846 by Hector Henderson, a distiller from Glasgow the distillery has had a colorful history. Within six years of its inception, the establishment changed hands and was taken over by Norman Buchanan, the owner of the Isle of Jura Distillery. Buchanan’s run at the till lasted a little over a decade. In 1863 Caol Ila was taken over by Bulloch, Lade & Co., a reputed Glasgow-based blending company.    

From the late Victorian Era to the 20th Century

Among the early managers employed by Bulloch, Lade & Co. to manage the distillery was one Duncan Johnston, cousin to the illustrious Johnstons of Laphroaig. Duncan and other managers pulled out all stops  and by the dawn of the 1880’s, Caol Ila was producing in excess of 147,000 gallons of whisky.

While the company continued to grow in strength, the prevailing morality of the era was not much behind in their reckoning. Driven by strong religious beliefs, they made it a point to add spirituality to the blend of spirits that was being produced. The result was a quaint little chapel right beside the distillery building, where every Sunday a Divinity student from Glasgow would arrive to preach the gospel to the workers and their families. Attendance at such congregations was compulsory.

Caol Ila continued to grow in scale through the late 1800s, with a growing number of casks being transported to Bulloch, Lade’s Glasgow headquarters for blending and distribution. It seemed that the distillery had finally found its footing and that the forward march was unstoppable.

World Wars, Depression and Rebirth

By the end of First World War in 1918, Caol Ila’s fortunes had started to decline and the company had to go in for voluntary liquidation in 1920. A group of firms, including Distillers Company Limited ((DCL, which later evolved into the current owners Diageo), came together to form the Caol Ila Distillery Company Limited and revitalized the operations. By 1927, things started looking up again. DCL had acquired a majority stake in the new company.

The combined effect of the worldwide whisky slump due to the Prohibition in the United States and the Great Depression again saw Caol Ila close its doors. The facilities were mothballed in 1930 and production only started in 1937. Any hopes of a sustained recovery were dashed with the outbreak of World War 2 on September 03, 1939 when wartime constraints severely restricted barley supplies for distilling purposes.

The Post War era saw a resumption in production and the distillery grew from strength to strength till the early 1970’s. In 1972, the owners decided to overhaul the entire setup and the distillery buildings were demolished to make way for a new and larger facility. The distinct three-storeyed warehouses, a prominent feature of the original layout was retained as a memory of the past. The rebuilt distillery started operating in 1974. Connoisseurs consider this a benchmark year, making a clear distinction between the ‘old’ and ‘heavier’ Caol Ila, produced till 1972 and the cleaner, lighter spirit which was distilled post the rebirth in 1974.  

Road Ahead

While the image of Caol Ila as a distinct single malt whisky has been enhanced in the recent years, the main function of the distillery continue to be the production of malt whiskies for the renowned Johnnie Walker blends like Johnnie Walker Red Label & Johnnie Walker Black Label. Among the legions single malt whisky lovers, while Caol Ila is known as a relatively clean peated whisky — but the spirit is used for blends is actually unpeated.

This practice can be dated from the trial runs in the 1980s, when the distillery tried its hands at unpeated whisky. For nearly twenty years, the unpeated whisky was utilized almost exclusively in blends, and it was only in 2006 that it was introduced as an eight years old single malt. In 2009, a 10-year-old Cask Strength variety was included the offering.

Like its near neighbor, the Bunnhabain, the Caol Ila Distillery enjoys breathtaking views from its coastal locale. And its whisky only commends the experience.