Islay’s largest distillery remains one of its lesser known. Only 5% of its considerable spirit production is bottled as a single malt, the rest providing the peaty backbone of big-selling blends such as Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle. By Islay standards, it is relatively light and fresh, with a distinctive oily mouthfeel and honey-like lemony sweetness to complement its smoke.
One of the relatively few Gaelic distillery names which has not been anglicised for ease of spelling, “Caol Ila” translates to “Sound of Islay”, after the narrow stretch of water between Islay and Jura which is overlooked by the distillery. Founded in 1846, it was taken over shortly afterwards by the owner of the Jura distillery on the other side of its namesake body of water. After a period of openings and closures fairly typical of the histories of Scotch whisky, the entire distillery was demolished and rebuilt in 1972, upgrading it to become the massive complex it is today. The 1989 limited release of a semi-official Flora & Fauna single malt from Caol Ila opened it up to malt fans and eventually paved the way for a full official range beginning in 2002, although the vast bulk of its production remains destined for Johnnie Walker and others. This includes some unpeated “Highland style” malt, which more recently has also been released as a single malt.