On the Trail

Landing at Port Askaig

David Driscoll

The island of Islay, part of the Outer Hebrides off the southwestern coast of Scotland, is planet's spiritual home of single malt whisky—especially given that smoky Scotch is all the rage once again. It’s home to Bowmore, renowned for some of the most legendary expressions of all time. It’s where Laphroaig is located, one of the first distilleries to bottle its whisky as a single malt. It’s home to Lagavulin, perhaps the most beloved Scotch in the world. It’s also where you’ll find insider darlings like Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Ardbeg, and Bunnahabhain. But the most important distillery on Islay is the one that we take for granted. If you take the ferry from Kennecraig to Port Askaig, past the brooding peaks of Jura just across the straight, it’s the first facility you’ll pass on your way into town. Caol Ila distillery, one of the most overlooked and underappreciated whiskies in the business.

Caol Ila (pronounced cull-eels) is owned by Diageo, or better put: the company that owns Johnnie Walker. When you open a bottle of Black Label and taste that little hint of peat smoke in the background, it’s Caol Ila whisky you’re tasting—a vital ingredient to the Walker recipe. What’s most interesting and perhaps telling about Caol Ila as a distillery is the fact that it’s all factory, no storage. Almost all distilleries in Scotland have an adjoining warehouse next door where the whisky barrels sit in solitude, gaining complexity over time. Caol Ila, however, simply has a drive-thru hose for Diageo tanker trucks. All the barrel-filling and maturation of Caol Ila single malt whisky is done back on the mainland where space isn’t quite so limited. You see—Caol Ila produces so much peated Islay whisky that there’s simply no way for the island to contain it. That might sound rather unromantic to purists, but don’t be fooled by size or scale: Caol Ila makes perhaps one of the most perfect Scotch whiskies in existence. It took a recent shortage, however, for many of us to realize that.

Approximately 23,500 liters of Caol Ila spirit are loaded onto a tanker every day and ferried back to the central warehouse. The first time we visited Caol Ila back in 2012 we were simply blown away by the stills. The six massive monoliths sit in constant use, humming away with the mountains of Jura visible across the water. The shape of those copper stills creates a rounder, fuller, richer, and fruitier whisky, which may seem rather unimportant at first, but becomes prevalent after twelve years in ex-Bourbon casks. There are few peated single malt whiskies that pack that much natural richness along with all that smoke. The combination of sweet vanilla with classic Islay smoke is quite a wonderful thing. So wonderful, that Diageo uses most of its Caol Ila whisky for Johnnie Walker and other related blends. In fact, it’s become so important to those expressions that finding pure Caol Ila single malt has become rather tough over the past year.

Many visitors and whisky tourists heading to Islay land at Port Askaig, start the ignition to their rental cars, and head towards the town of Bowmore; excited about a quick dram at the eponymous distillery followed by a jaunt down the southern coast to the big names of the island. They snap a photo of Caol Ila, but they assume the more authentic distillery experience will be had elsewhere. Some of my most memorable Islay experiences, however, were at Caol Ila. It's because most people are packing into Lagavulin or ogling over Ardbeg that I twice got the distillery all to myself. I walked with my tour guide Jennifer, a silver-haired Islay native, through the daunting facility, tasting the wash straight from the fermenter and pulling freshly-distilled samples from the spirits safe. While more romantic whisky action may lie elsewhere, the fundamental truth is that Caol Ila keeps the peated whisky business rolling, one tanker truck at a time. Personally, I'm never without a bottle of the standard 12 year. 

-David Driscoll