Updated 15 August 2022

This page may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of our affiliate links we earn a commission at no additional cost to you. It helps us to keep this website running and buy the occasional whisky. For more information, read our disclaimer here.

Caol Ila Distillery | The Islay Home of Johnnie Walker

Located on the Sound of Islay ("Caol Ila" is Gaelic for "Sound of Islay"), Caol Ila Distillery (The Islay Home of Johnnie Walker) 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, and a new visitor centre (2022) is a welcome addition to the distillery.

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 was built for blending; the distillery has seen several refurbishments since its establishment in 1846, all with the purpose of increasing production. 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.

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). 

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 (other key components of which are Clynelish and Talisker).

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 (distillery 53).

This is an affiliate link: if you click this link and make a purchase we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

photograph of Caol Ila 12 year old whisky and packaging box

Caol Ila 12 Year Old is of medium weight, but still packing plenty of potent phenols. A refined, powerful dram with a compensating oiliness; a balanced, peaty beauty.

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.

screen shot of map of Islay showing Caol Ila Distillery

Caol Ila Distillery Tours, Pricing & Bookings

After major renovations and a complete upgrade of the visitor experience, Caol Ila Distillery is open again from 25 August 2022!

Caol Ila Flavour Journey Tour

Guided tour of the distillery, including a visit to the sensory story room, then on to a tutored tasting of three (3) drams and a wee cocktail served in the bar. Enjoy breath-taking views of the Paps of Jura, while you sip and learn about the flavours of Caol Ila and Johnnie Walker.
 £20 per person and approximately 90 minutes duration. Online bookings are available. otherwise telephone: 01496 302769 or email: caolila.distillery@diageo.com. Bookings are highly advisable to avoid disappointment.

Please note, the the brand new story room is highly immersive and uses a combination of light, media, music, sensory moments and special effects that may not be suitable for all audiences.

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://feisile.co.uk/

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 are not permitted at the distillery.

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

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

Accommodation

References & Further Reading

picture of the front cover of book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard

One of Amanda's favourite books. Around 1885, Alfred Barnard was secretary of Harper's Weekly Gazette, a journal dedicated to the wine and spirit trade. In order to provide his readers with the history and descriptions of the whisky-making process, Barnard decided to visit all distilleries in Scotland, England and Ireland. Accompanied by friends, he visited and sketched over 150 distilleries. This is a wonderful step back in time and a must have book for a whisky history geek. 

This is an affiliate link: if you click this link and make a purchase we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

Front cover image of the book Whiskies Galore : A Tour of Scotland's Island Distilleries by Ian Buxton

Whiskies Galore is not your average whisky book. It is not simply a catalogue of distilleries, but a story of discovery and adventure. Join Ian Buxton on a personal journey across Scotland's islands, combining his expert knowledge of whisky with his fondness for anecdote, as he provides a special treat for all who love Scotland's islands and their drams.

This is an affiliate link: if you click this link and make a purchase we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

Book cover of Whisky Island by Andrew Jefford

In Whisky Island, by Andrew Jefford, Islay's fascinating story is uncovered: from its history and stories of the many shipwrecks which litter its shores, to the beautiful wildlife, landscape and topography of the island revealed through intimate descriptions of the austerely beautiful and remote countryside. Interleaved through these different narrative strands comes the story of the whiskies themselves, traced from a distant past of bothies and illegal stills to present-day legality and prosperity. The flavour of each spirit is analysed and the differences between them teased out, as are the stories of the notable men and women who have played such a integral part in their creation.

This is an affiliate link: if you click this link and make a purchase we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

Cover image of the book The Island Whisky Trail: Scotland's Hebridean and West Coast Malt Whisky Distilleries by Neil Wilson

Island Whisky Trail by Neil Wilson, features Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Jura, Mull, Talisker and Oban. There is also a thorough look at the major role that women played in the history of illicit distilling in the County of Argyll with maps of known sites of distilling and appendices of the distillers and where and when they lived. I found it to be a very informative read.

About the author

Amanda

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.

Related posts

Distillery Wall Art + Whisky Gifts