Caol Ila: Johnnie Walker's home by the sea

Caol Ila: Johnnie Walker's home by the sea

Caol Ila’s renovation as ‘the Islay Home of Johnnie Walker’ emphasises its place at the heart of the island’s whisky tradition and its connection to the sea

Distillery Focus | 13 Jan 2023 | Issue 188 | By Gavin Smith

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The best way to understand why Caol Ila was built in a comparatively impenetrable location, between a steep cliff and the Sound of Islay, is to view the distillery from the sea. That way, its remote location on the far north-eastern shores of Islay makes most sense.

Like most of Islay’s distilleries, Caol Ila was designed to be served directly from the sea, and the site was close to an extremely good water supply, rising through limestone in Loch nam Ban and entering the sea at Caol Ila.

The distillery, near the ferry port of Port Askaig, has its origins in the first half of the 19th century, but was recently unveiled as the final ‘corner’ in Diageo’s Four Corners of Scotland quartet of distilleries that make major contributions to the Johnnie Walker family of blends.

Caol Ila’s reimagining as ‘the Islay Home of Johnnie Walker’ follows projects at Glenkinchie, Cardhu and Clynelish distilleries, while the high-profile Johnnie Walker Princes Street attraction in Edinburgh has also been established, and significant upgrades have been undertaken at Glen Ord and Talisker. In all, total investment at these brand homes has come to around £185 million.

Inside the revamped Caol Ila Distillery visitor experience. Credit: Diageo

To allow work to progress, Caol Ila was closed to the public between 2019 and August 2022, and today’s visitors arrive at the distillery by way of a new car park on the hillside above the main site. They enter the visitor centre – housed within the original distillery warehouse – by way of a new footbridge, and the views across the Sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura are so absorbing that one previous distillery manager reportedly had to place his desk against a wall, opposite the window, in order to get any work done.

The retail and bar area is decorated and furnished in much the same manner as the other three ‘corner’ distilleries, with a pleasing blend of traditional and contemporary. Branded items are on sale, along with a comprehensive array of relevant whiskies.

The principal experience on offer is the Flavour Journey, described by the guide as “a tour of the distillery using our noses”. It begins with participants being exposed to aromas from four containers, intended to highlight smoke, burnt sugar/crème brûlée, brine/seaweed, and maritime spices/cloves.

These are the four key elements of Caol Ila, which gives the Johnnie Walker Black and Johnnie Walker Double Black expressions their peaty characteristics. As distillery manager Sam Hale puts it, “Caol Ila is integral to the Johnnie Walker family. It provides the smoke and complements the other component whiskies really well.”

As at the other three ‘corner’ distilleries, the history of Caol Ila is intertwined with that of Johnnie Walker in a series of immersive story rooms, stretching back to when the Islay malt first appeared in the Johnnie Walker inventory in 1897.

The Johnnie Walker statue outside Caol Ila. Credit: Diageo

Lavish use of archive images brings the history of the distillery to life, and the origins of whisky making on Islay are explored by way of the tale of the Beaton family, hereditary physicians to the Lord of the Isles. The Beatons are believed to have arrived on Islay with the knowledge of whisky distillation during the 13th century.

Caol Ila was established in 1846 by Hector Henderson, who also owned Glasgow’s Camlachie distillery. Just six years later, however, the company of Henderson, Lamont & Co encountered financial difficulties, and Caol Ila was sold to Norman Buchanan. His period of ownership was similarly brief, with the distillery passing into the hands of Glasgow blenders Bulloch, Lade & Co in 1863. That company built the present substantial pier, and the distillery was rebuilt and enlarged during 1879.

Bulloch, Lade & Co was liquidated in 1920 as the Scotch whisky industry endured a torrid inter-war period, with many distillery closures, and the company’s assets were sold to JP O’Brien, which passed Caol Ila on to a consortium. Seven years later, the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) took a controlling interest in Caol Ila and the Islay distillery rapidly became a valued part of the company’s portfolio of facilities, providing malts for blending.

As already noted, the distillery was built to be served by the sea, and in DCL’s hands a familiar sight at the Caol Ila pier was the Pibroch ‘puffer’ which made weekly trips to the company’s Islay distilleries from the 1920s onwards, being replaced by a second vessel of the same name in 1957.

The Pibroch features in a number of evocative photographs in the new Caol Ila visitor centre, carrying barley and empty casks to the distillery and shipping out casks full of mature whisky ready for blending.

The puffer continued in service until the 1970s, when the advent of roll-on/roll-off vehicle ferries rendered it redundant, and the existing Caol Ila distillery was itself deemed redundant in the same decade. In 1972, all of its structures with the exception of the stone-built warehouse were demolished, being replaced by a somewhat stark, modernist structure in the style favoured by DCL for its rebuilding programmes of the 1960s and ’70s. The two coal-fired stills were replaced with six steam-heated vessels, and the overall cost of the two-year transformation was around £1 million.

Panoramic views in the Caol Ila still room. Credit: Diageo

Further expansion took place more recently, with Caol Ila in the hands of DCL’s successor company Diageo. It was already the largest distillery on Islay in terms of capacity before Diageo’s announcement in November 2011 that it was to spend £3.5 million making it even larger. Work carried out during 2012 saw potential output increase from its previous level of 5.7 million litres to 6.4 million litres per annum, and upgrading included the installation of a new full-lauter mash tun and two stainless steel washbacks to augment the existing eight wooden vessels.

After their introduction to the site, its whiskies and heritage in the visitor centre, guests can explore the distillery in all its glory. En route to the production building, a statue of Johnnie Walker stands next to the Sound of Jura, tipping his hat to people as they pass.

Distillery manager Sam Hale explains how the Caol Ila spirit style is created, noting, “The malt is peated to 38ppm and fermentation lasts over 60 hours to promote fruity citrus notes. The stills are ‘gentle giants’, which give lots of reflux. In terms of cut points, we cut quite early so as not to get too many phenolic notes. The new-make spirit is almost a surprise. You expect it to be bold, but it’s not in your face. We’re talking subtle smoke and fruitiness.”

After exploring the distillery, visitors return to the warehouse building and take their seats in tasting booths with panoramic views across the Sound of Islay. There, the entry-level Caol Ila 12 Years Old is sampled, followed by the Distillery Exclusive expression, matured in bourbon wood before being finished in Californian red wine casks.

Next is a first-fill bourbon variant, available at the distillery as a ‘fill your own bottle’ option. In keeping with the theme of linking Caol Ila with Johnnie Walker, and emphasising that whisky should be drunk any way you wish, the fourth and final offering is a Johnnie Walker Double Black and lemonade.

A tasting of Caol Ila whiskies. Credit: Diageo

Beyond the expressions sampled as part of the tour, the core Caol Ila range comprises the NAS Moch (Gaelic for ‘dawn’) and 18- and 25-year-olds, plus a NAS Cask Strength bottling and a Distillers Edition which has undergone secondary ageing in moscatel casks.

Unpeated variants aged from eight to 18 years of age have also been released, with periods of unpeated production having been carried out as required by the Diageo inventory since 1999.

To coincide with Caol Ila’s new status as one of the Four Corners of Scotland distilleries, a 14-year-old cask-strength bottling, exclusive to the distillery and, has been released. It has been matured in refill and freshly charred hogsheads.

Ultimately, the Flavour Journey tour will be joined by the Sleeping Stills Experience and Spirit of Smoke. The former involves a visit to the story rooms and maturation area, followed by a tasting of three drams and the chance to make your own Caol Ila cocktail. Spirit of Smoke includes sampling five unique cask-strength Caol Ila expressions in the distillery warehouse.

Barbara Smith, managing director of Diageo’s Scotland brand homes, says, “We’ve ensured our visitor experience not only tells the story of the Caol Ila brand, but also the major role whisky plays in [Islay’s] history.”

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