Caol Ila, Quickly (Summer 2017)

On Wednesday I posted brief impressions of Bunnahabhain, one of the two Port Askaig distilleries on Islay. Here now is a report on an equally brief visit to the other: Caol Ila.

Both Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila are located right on the Sound of Islay, across the water from Jura and both are massive factories: Caol Ila, however, is not as rundown as Bunnahabhain. Of course, assessments of “character” differ—see the dissenting comments on my endorsement of the upcoming renovations at Bunnahabhain—and actually even I wouldn’t say that Caol Ila—or the little I saw of it on my visit, which was mostly to the gift shop—has character. However, it doesn’t look like Oliver Twist is inside, asking for a little more gruel. That’s a type of lack of character that I can get behind.

But let me back up a bit. Since you’ve memorized my post in which I described our itinerary you don’t need me to tell you here that we took the ferry from Kennacraig to Port Askaig on our way in to Islay. For some reason I’d expected that Caol Ila would be visible on the approach and originally that was as close as I was planning to come: I’d have been happy with a look. However, this didn’t prove to be the case; I think the gent on the ferry said that it’s only visible on the ferry to/from Colonsay. As a result, getting off the ferry at Port Askaig not even having caught a glimpse of Caol Ila, a distillery whose malt I really like, I felt a little thwarted. So when I heard that they had plenty of their Feis Ile bottling left—the daughter of the owner of the b&b we stayed at works at Caol Ila—that was all I needed to push me into making a quick stop if we had time. And, as it happened, we had time in the late afternoon of our second day (I’d done the Laphroaig Distillers’ Wares thingy before lunch that day) when we had some time to burn, after a lovely time at the beach at Kilnaughton Bay, and before what proved to be a terrible dinner at the Lochside Hotel in Bowmore.

I did not do a tour and am not even really sure what is in all the buildings in the pictures below. I can tell you that it’s not as harrowing a drive to get to Caol Ila as to Bunnahabhain—it’s just a mile off the main road. And while the distillery itself may be somewhat soulless—it’s clear that Lagavulin is Diageo’s tourist destination on the island—and is not going to win any beauty contests either, at least you don’t feel like you’ve strayed into an abandoned, possibly haunted factory. At least they have a larger whitewash budget. By the way, though I didn’t go in—and photography would have been forbidden even if I had—the view across the water from Caol Ila’s still house is obviously stunning.

Anyway, as I said, my main interest was in just getting a look at the distillery and purchasing a bottle of their Feis Ile release. Yes, I’d been told by a few people that this year’s Feis Ile Caol Ila was nothing special but I’ve always enjoyed sherry-bothered Caol Ila and was willing to take a chance on cask strength Caol Ila 12 finished in Talisker D.E amoroso sherry casks. (I haven’t opened the bottle yet but plan to do so soon and will report when I do).

Here are a few pictures for your exotic delectation. If you know for sure what is in the large building (a warehouse I’d imagine) please write in; ditto if you’ve done one of their tours and have an opinion to share.

Coming next week from Scotland: a report on Bowmore, where I actually did a tour (I’ll probably break this into two parts as I did with Laphroaig—I have an unfeasible number of photographs again) and more seafood from Skye. Plus another review of a 20 yo Glen Grant and another review of a London restaurant (Chinese this time).

2 thoughts on “Caol Ila, Quickly (Summer 2017)

  1. I’m always telling people not to rush around Islay, largely a case of “Don’t do what I did.” Caol Ila is the site of my greatest offense, in 2005. Ron, Bobby, and I were given the tour there by the legendary Neil Ferguson (who, I gather, is profiled in Gavin D Smith’s The Whisky Men). Lord, that man could talk–I’ve seen the foolish folk complaining about it, as if there was anything better to do in Islay than to listen to a local stillman tell you anything and everything. We cut the tour short and rushed off to our appointment at Jura, one of the greatest regrets in all my years of touring Scotland. We might have, and should have, hung out all afternoon.

    Caol Ila had been rebuilt in the ’70s, and was as efficient and up-to-date as any ’70s plant could be. (Its closure during this period is why there was a period of heavy peating at Brora in the late ’70s and early ’80s, cementing that facility’s cult status.) There was another refurbishment at Caol Ila a year or two ago, and I’m keen to see what they’ve done with it.


    • Hi there,

      mainly putting two more 62,000 ltr. wash backs in where there used to be an old 1970s control station in the fermentation section.



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