Updated 9 November 2021

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Caol Ila Distillery | Built For Blending

Caol Ila Distillery is the largest producer of whisky on Islay, capable of distilling around 6.5 million litres of whisky every year, 85% of which will go into blends such as Johnnie Walker. Caol Ila is purpose-built for blending; the distillery has seen several refurbishments since its establishment in 1846, all with the purpose of increasing production.

Most of the original, ailing buildings were torn down and rebuilt in 1972-74 to allow for greater efficiency in the layout, and further upgrades in 2011 resulted in modernisation of the mash tun and control equipment, and two additional washbacks (bringing the total to ten).

Caol Ila Distillery didn't release a Caol Ila single-malt until 2002, with the introduction of the Caol Ila 12-year-old (1), Before 2002, single-malt Caol Ila was the domain of independent bottlers.

Located on the Sound of Islay ("Caol Ila" is Gaelic for "Sound of Islay"), Caol Ila Distillery is a short drive or leisurely walk from Port Askaig, and the magnificent view of the Jura Paps from the still house is hard to beat.

The old malt barns at Caol Ila Whisky Distillery, Islay, Scotland - one of the few older buildings that remain.

How to Pronounce Caol Ila

Pronounced 'cull-eela' -- see Ralfy review 649 (below) at the 1:24 mark. Normally I'd put in a Brian Cox for Esquire link (here) but he says 'Ila' wrong!

Caol Ila Whisky

Caol Ila is the largest producer of whisky on Islay, capable of pumping out a massive 6.0 - 7.0 million litres per annum. The vast majority of the whisky produced at Caol Ila distillery is lightly peated, kilned at around 38ppm, compared to Ardbeg and Laphroaig kilned at 55ppm. Caol Ila ship all their whisky to the mainland for maturation and 85% of Caol Ila is used for blends like Johnnie Walker.

Ralfy notes of the Caol Ila 12 year-old, in Whisky Review 649 (below), the nose is "fresh herbal herbage, twiggy, peat smokey with fire (twig fire, leaf fire, with a bit of moss) ... not as smokey as Lagavulin and certainly not as minerally TCP/antiseptic as Laphroaig.Tequila, jalapeno pepper, English mustard, fresh ginger, definitely pepper - spicy white pepper. Green notes ... celery with a touch of grapefruit".

Of the initial taste he says the Caol Ila 12 year-old "builds up gradually, quite intense, citrus and sour arrival of twiggy peatiness - like a moor fire. [There's] a maritime note - a touch of saline solution." A few moments later there's a "rich sultana note, peatiness comes on and doesn't change much, little citrus notes and hot spicey notes - initially, a bit harsh - but softens up once its got a little bit of air in the bottle ... a growing tea note: black gunpowder Chinese tea, lapsang souchong and redbush tea, coming from the sultana rather than the peaty-ness". The finish is peat-infused vanilla, grapefruit oil, and lime leaf.

As Ralfy notes in Caol Ila 12-year-old review no. 432 and 649, single cask releases can be an excellent way of tasting Caol Ila at its finest (un-chilfiltered and no E150a added).

A personal favourite of mine is SWMS (Scotch Malt Whisky Society) release 53.241 "Dense Smoke Over a Tarry Deck". You can view a range of available SMWS single cask Caol Ila bottlings here.

Where is Caol Ila Distillery?

Caol Ila Distillery is on the east coast of Islay, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from Port Askaig Ferry Terminal, not far from Ardnahoe Distillery (2.9 mi) and Bunnahabhain Distillery (4.3 mi), overlooking the Isle of Jura.

Caol Ila Distillery Tours, Pricing & Bookings

Caol Ila Distillery is currently undergoing major renovations and are closed to visitors for the time being.

For bookings Tel: 01496 302769 or email: caolila.distillery@diageo.com. Bookings are highly advisable to avoid disappointment and tastings must be booked at least an hour in advance.

As with all Diageo distilleries, photos are not allowed in production areas, which is most of the distillery. No, it’s not because they think you’ll try and steal their ideas or equipment design! Ethanol is highly flammable, and electronic equipment poses a potential source of ignition. As such, they’ve implemented a policy on all their sites – no electronic devices to be in use in production areas, or where ethanol is likely to be in higher concentrations (like warehouses).

There will be a different tour and tasting programme during the Feis Ile (Islay Whisky and Music Festival). For more information see https://www.islayfestival.com/

As Caol Ila is a working distillery, it is possible they may have to cancel tours at short notice due to maintenance needs. Always contact the distillery before you visit to avoid disappointment. There is a scheduled maintenance period from around the end of September into October every year.  During that time, Caol Ila cannot offer tours around the distillery, but tastings are still available.

For health & safety reasons, children under eight years old are not permitted in the production areas of the distillery.

For more information on tours and bookings see https://www.malts.com/en-row/distilleries/caol-ila/

Caol Ila Distillery Images

Caol Ila Distillery, Islay, Scotland. The still house is on the right, the visitor centre and distillery offices are on the left. The mash house and washbacks are in the building behind the visitor centre.

The three wash stills at Caol Ila Distillery, Islay, Scotland. Sepia toned black and white photograph

Caol Ila runs 16 mash cycles a week, with a maximum production capacity of 26 mashes a week. Eash mash cycle uses 12.5 tonnes of grist.

Each mash cycle produces fifty-eight thousand litres of wort, which must be cooled to 18-20 deg C via the heat exchanger (pictured) before being added to a washback.

Colour photograph showing the underback (left foreground), mash tun (rear) and heat exchanger (right foreground) at Caol Ila Distillery. After being drained from the mash tun, the wort is stored in the underback, then sent through the heat exchanger to cool it down. The wort is pumped into a washback after it reaches 18 to 20 deg C.

Caol Ila has ten washbacks, eight timber and two stainless steel. Each can hold the 58,000 litres of wort produced in a mash cycle.

In addition to 58,000 litres of wort, Caol Ila adds 300-320 litres of liquid yeast into the washback. Fermentation takes roughly 60 hours. The resulting wash is around 8-9% alcohol.

The wash and spirit stills at Caol Ila Whisky Distillery, Islay, Scotland

Caol Ila Stills - Lyne Arms and Column Condensers

Two of the spirit stills (front) and three wash stills (rear) at Caol Ila Whisky Distillery, Islay, Scotland

The three wash stills at Caol Ila Distillery, Islay, Scotland

What Else Is Nearby


References & Further Reading

About the author


Amanda is an Australian-born photographer, digital nomad and whisky lover. Her passion for travel and whisky lead her to Islay, where she fell in love with an Ileach (an Islay native). Amanda and Roddy now share their Spirited Adventures.

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