Caol Ila

Technology with Aesthetics and a View

First Society bottling in 1988.

Three generations of Billy Stitchell's family worked in the whisky industry, but Billy joined the forestry service. His great grandfather, Duncan McCallum, worked at Caoilia Distillery, as did his grandfather and father.

In 1972 as part of the forestry service, Billy helped to demolish the old pier at Gaol lla as other workmen dismantled the old distillery around them. But whisky was in Billy's blood; forestry was not. So when the new distillery rose from the site of the old one and reopened in 1974, Billy applied for a job at Gaol lla, and his practical education in distilling began. His theoretical education had begun many years previously as he listened to the men in his family talk about the whisky industry.

Today Billy Stitchell serves as Production Manager at Gaol lla, having worked his way through the distillery to learn all of its jobs and responsibilities.

The road to Caol lla passes among a small collection of houses and curves down the hill to the Sound of Islay. It is the road that Billy Stitchell travels to work every day and is the same route used by his great grandfather at the turn of the century. The old white warehouses bordering the road to the left, even now, are reflected in the waters of the Sound of Islay to the right. But in stark contrast to the old building are the surprisingly new, modern buildings of the distillery.

The distillery itself is a very different place than the one that Billy Stitchell's ancestors would have known. In 1846, Hector Henderson built the old distillery that his great grandfather would have recognized. Henderson, an entrepreneur, situated his distillery specifically near to a good water source at Loch nam Ban and within easy reach oflocal peat beds. Then he built the distillery and warehouses in a secluded cove on the Sound of Islay, overlooking the Paps of Jura.

The setting was dramatic in the nineteenth century and still remains very much the same today. Unfortunately, Henderson's business failed, and the owner of the Isle of Jura Distillery briefly acquired Gaol lla. By 1863 when the burgeoning blended whisky industry increased demands for single malts, the whisky traders, Bulloch Lade and Gompany bought Gaol lla in order to enlarge its inventory of whisky stocks.

For nearly sixty years, Bulloch Lade improved and enlarged the distillery and operated profitably. The remote distillery became a busy place. Photographs displayed at Gaol lla show little "puffer" boats bringing coal and empty casks to the distillery for filling. Dutch boats usually delivered the barley, and all the boats seemed to manoeuvre between the other sailing ships and herring boats. But during the difficult years following the First World War, a group of businessmen held the company shares and operated Caol lla until the Distillers Company Limited bought the distillery in 1927.

Caol Ila closed during the Second World War, but otherwise, continued to operate and produce single malt under the ownership of DCL until 1972. In the early seventies, whisky blenders sought Caol Ila for its excellence, but unfortunately, the buildings did not match the quality of the whisky produced there. DCL made the decision to retain the old

warehouses for storage, but to raze the distillery complex and rebuild. It was an end to a distillery that had endured for more than a century and to the traditions and way of life that the distillery created.

In 1972, the last "puffer" left the old wooden pier. The wooden pier and buildings were levelled, and the two pagoda roofs crumbled into dust. Rebuilding would not finish for two more years. From the outset, this distillery was clearly designed to fit snugly into the hillside, appearing to be part of the rocky coastline. A massive glass fronted façade that showcased four shining copper stills, seeming to rise from the waters of the Sound, became the centerpiece of the distillery. In a scene reminiscent of an earlier time, barges loaded with the fully assembled bottoms and shoulders of the copper stills delivered them to the new pier. Workers lowered the onion-shaped pots into place, installed the necks and condensers, and then proceeded to build the new distillery around them. When the new Caol lla Distillery opened in 1974, it was a modern distillery, laid out for efficiency, but with an attention to aesthetics.

First, the lines of the Caol Ila Distillery are unbroken because of the absence of a towering grain elevator, which can be not only large and imposing but often somewhat unsightly. Instead of dropping the grain to the mash tun using gravity as the older arrangement would do, the grain at Caol lla is moved by an elevator from the first floor to the mash tun above. Both the mash tun and the washbacks are logically placed on one floor so that one operation moves smoothly to the next.

The copper domed mash tun stands out against a background of eight dark pine washbacks with brightly painted hoops. Indeed, form seems to reflect function at Caol Ila. The eye easily follows the industrial design from mash tun to washbacks just as the process is meant to do. Fermentation in the wooden washbacks at Caol Ila requires much vigilance because of the high levels of peat used in the malting. The peat makes the wash more acidic, which is not an environment the yeast like. Consequently, the mashman must carefully maintain a fine balance between the acidity and the temperature of the wash in order to keep the yeast viable. The temperature cannot move too high during the fiftyfour hours of fermentation before the wash moves to distillation.

The still room at Caol Ila, where the distillation occurs, is undoubtedly the 'Jewel in the crown." It is an incredibly striking room. The six stills sit behind massive glass windows that overlook the Sound of Islay; the condensers stand at attention behind each still that it serves. This is technology with aesthetics and a view. Although newly built in the early seventies, the stills are exact replicas of the ones replaced from the old distillery. Both the wash and spirit stills show similarities in their onion shapes with no waists and long lyne arms angled downward. The spirit stills differ slightly from the wash stills in that their short thick necks are somewhat elongated.

It is clear that these stills produce a robust full flavoured whisky. While Caol lla is peated, but not as heavily as her cousins Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg, the flavours tend to be subtle and less assertive, revealing themselves over time. Caol Ila tends to age most of its single malt in bourbon casks with some matured in sherry wood. It is a whisky that can manage additional years in the cask, and it ages very well.

Interestingly the quality of the Caol Ila samples tasted by the SMWS panel, tend to be consistently high regardless of age or type of cask. One can only conjecture whether the heavier peating, the coastal brine, the stills, or the dramatic setting and view combine to make Caol Ila a reliably excellent single malt."