After our brilliant time at Lagavulin, we drove back through Bowmore and popped into Bruichladdich to pick up the bottles Jim McEwan was kind enough to sign for us and then worked our way toward Caol Ila. Caol Ila is a couple of minutes–maybe five at the most–from the spot where cars line up for the ferry at Port Askaig, so if you’re taking the ferry to and from Islay, it’s not a bad idea to plan your visit to Caol Ila within hours of your ferry trip. The weather had shaken off its morning doldrums, and with the sun shining, we pulled into the distillery’s picturesque parking lot (how many times do you get the chance to use those words together–ever?). Built more or less right on the water, Caol Ila faces out toward the Paps of Jura, which lie directly across the Sound of Islay from it. On a beautiful afternoon like the one we had that day, the setting is simply spectacular–and for my money, as splendid a set of views and backdrops as there is on Islay.
In the Visitor Centre, we met Jennifer MacIntyre, Brand Home Lead Guide for Caol Ila, and she marshaled us along with at least ten other folks into the tasting room to sample an impressive array of Caol Ila expressions. We ended up seated with a boisterous and unruly group of five Italian male tourists who knew very little about whisky, but were nonetheless very interested in learning the most rudimentary basics, even though only one of them really spoke any English. It was the fact that they so embodied Italian stereotypes that really disappointed me. I mean, do they really have to gesticulate so much when they talk? Of course, I’m just joking: their ignorance of whisky was truly appalling, and was much worse than their “hand talking.”
OK, all joking aside (including joking about joking), we found the Italians to be great fun. They were so exuberant and curious and funny that one couldn’t help but enjoy hanging out with them. Still, they were not ideal tasting customers: they asked so many questions, that if we hadn’t tried to answer many of them, Jennifer would have never made it over to the other table of (apparently much more typical–and probably much more boring) tasters. After all, typical tasters deserve attention, too. I think Jennifer noticed that we were helping keep the Italians at bay, or at least from dominating her time completely, and later she showed us a level of kindness that I could have sworn had a hint of gratitude in it, but that may have just been typical Ileach hospitality (I just don’t think so, and I appreciate it). So even though I was less than fully focused on the whiskies we tasted, I was intrigued to taste new make Caol Ila and the Unpeated 12 year-old, and was thrilled to taste the 25 year-old. The standard 12 year-old and Distiller’s Edition expressions were like visiting again with old friends.
The Italians took off after the tasting, so the tour was a much more focused and subdued affair. Our tour guide, Cara McEachern, was young and fairly new, but she displayed a great deal of knowledge of all of the workings of the distillery and demonstrated great poise in leading the tour (especially as she tried to talk over loud machinery in operation). She seemed quite at ease giving the tours, and her confidence and energy helped make it a very good tour. I’d probably say it was an excellent tour, but yet again, no pictures inside the distillery, which was a negative, as was the fact that nearly everything there was automated. There were only one or two other people in the distillery running the place when we were there. This, along with the fact that the recent renovation/upgrade had the place looking a little too clean and freshly painted–to the point that those factors took away from the character of the place a bit. Still, it’s fascinating to see the sheer size of the operation, especially given that it’s mostly automated and running on its own. This set up may lack a bit in terms of character, but this is where the industry is headed (or where it already is), so it’s definitely worth seeing.
• The medicinal, iodine-y, adhesive bandage notes characteristic of standard Caol Ila expressions show up in the other expressions in the tasting as well, but in varied and cool ways. I won’t give away any more than that.
• Caol Ila has one of the smaller Visitor Centres and distillery shops on Islay, but it has some of the rarer expressions on offer in it (including what I remember as a 5-pack that had a Port Ellen in it).
• 95% of the whisky Caol Ila produces goes to blends like Johnnie Walker–and leaves the distillery in tankers, no less–while only 5% goes to single malt expressions.
• The influence of Diageo as a major multinational corporation shows up more obviously in the Caol Ila distillery than in the Lagavulin distillery, but that’s probably as much due to the previous bullet point (that is, Caol Ila’s role in Diageo’s overall production scheme) as anything else.
Caol Ila is a great distillery in a beautiful location, with wonderfully kind folks running the visitor experience. Beyond that, it’s helpful to realize up front that Caol Ila whisky, for all of its Islay peaty charm, is a big, big contributor to blends. With that in mind, the distillery tour is a great experience for real whisky aficionados, because it’s one of the few places you can see that side of the industry in its recently renovated form–and see it nestled amongst some of the best scenery Islay has to offer.
Stay tuned for reviews of more Caol Ila expressions in coming days…