Founded in 1846 by Glaswegian whisky entrepreneur Hector Henderson, Caol Ila is nestled into a bay on the Sound of Islay just north of Arisaig on the Isle of Islay, part of the Inner Hebrides Islands off the west coast of Scotland. The distillery is something of a production behemoth, producing own-label Islay single malts but also being a major contributor to the famous Johnnie Walker blend.
The distillery has changed hands more times than many care to remember. Between 1846 and 1930 it was owned by no less than 10 different operators, all of whom influenced the prosperity of the distillery and island.
Despite multiple owners, production has only ever stopped twice. Once between 1927 and 1937 and again during the Second World War due to restrictions on barley use as part of the national effort to feed the country. There was a brief interruption in the 1970’s for a renovation and addition of two new stills to six, but this didn’t much effect the brands success.
In 1986 Caol Ila became part of United Distillers (which later became part of Diageo) and at this time the Caol Ila name became internationally famous with limited and rare bottlings. This was later complimented in 1999 with a range of single cask and stronger cask Strength bottles.
Like many of the Islay whiskies, Caol Ila brand bottlings are clean and smooth with a smoky, warm finish. Local peat soil is used to give it the unique islay finish for own-brand labels, but most of their production is contributed to make the Johnnie Walker blend which is in fact unpeated.
Despite there being large bonded warehouses at the distillery, they are largely empty and all of the raw spirit is shipped off the island to age in other parts of Scotland.
Islay, known as the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’ boasts more than its fair share of distilleries but today Caol Ila is the Island’s biggest sprit maker, producing around a quarter of all Islay Whisky. A visit to Caol Ila and the other Islay distilleries is well worth the journey. An Islay whisky tour from Edinburgh is recommended over two or three days.