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Caol Ila (pronounced: kul-EE-la) is arguably the most consistent distillery in Scotland in terms of quality. Despite many changes of ownership since 1846 it has seen very few silent periods and remains today the workhorse of Islay, producing more than any other neighboring distilleries on the island. It is also one of the most popular malts with blenders, which has led to a wealth of independent examples being made available through the years. Its proliferation and consistency of quality make it quite hard to find bad examples of Caol Ila.
Caol Ila Distillery
Stills: 3 Wash & 3 Spirit
Water source: Loch Nam Bam
Capacity: 3,750,000 litres per year
1846-1972: The old distillery.
Caol Ila was dismantled and rebuilt during the years 1972-74, this was to increase the production capacity which was done by adding four new stills and extra washbacks. The upshot of this upgrade is that most whisky fans are fascinated to compare the distillates from the old and the new distilleries. The old style Caol Ila was produced through a single pair of direct fired stills with worm tub condensers, longer ferments and floor malted barley. This made it a recognisably more old school style whisky. It has more viscosity on the palate with a greater density of oils and peat, more mineral and intensely phenolic and medicinal aspects and, as always with older style whiskies, much more pronounced fruit characters, particularly green and stone fruits in Caol Ila's case. Sadly the bottlings from this era are fewer and rarer than their contemporary counterparts. However excellent examples from G&M, Cadenheads and Signatory all exist and are almost all excellent and fascinating to taste.
1974-Present: The new distillery.
The new Caol Ila once completed in 1974 was a much bigger beast, designed to cope with the demands of the blending hall and perfectly symbolised the nature of the new whisky industry that was emerging in Scotland. It was an industry of mass production and consistency, but also one that was prone to corner cutting and cost reduction. The new Caol Ila now had efficient steam heated stills with shell condensers and malt that came from the large malting facility in Port Ellen. This led to more uniform peat levels (Caol Ila has always been approximately 35-40 parts per million) and a very consistent house style. Unlike many other distilleries Caol Ila has remained fairly unchanged since this makeover. The whisky produced since 1974 is noticeably lighter but it is still a powerful Islay style, often mistakenly described as one of the more delicate Islay malts, it is in fact highly coastal and medicinal in style. Like all Islay whiskies is takes particularly well to refill wood, which accentuates its naturally drying, aromatic and fresh qualities. Caol Ila can age particularly well up to 30 years with older examples taking on concentrated coastal and farmy aspects with distinctive notes of green tea and herb liqueurs. Expressions over 30 years of age are exceptionally rare. Sherried expressions are also rare although several legendary examples do exist such as the Manager's Dram bottling from 1990 or the James MacArthur 'London Scottish' bottling. Caol Ila remains an often excellent and always dependable bottling, its style is full flavoured and distinctive and thankfully its high availability helps to keep the prices down and many excellent value drams are still to be found from this distillery. Hopefully this will always be the case.