The distillery produces a light-bodied, peaty spirit. It is sweet and fruity with notes of seaweed and aromatic smoke.
Owners Diageo also releases an unpeated version as part of their annual special releases. This is more akin to a Highland style of whisky with a fruity, floral character.
Long fermentation helps to produce a fruity wash. This is then distilled in tall copper pot stills that promote a lighter spirit. A high cut point also captures the lighter flavours present in the early part of the spirit run.
The majority of maturation takes place in refill casks that once held Bourbon whiskey from the United States. These help to preserve the smoky character as it matures for several years. Some of the spirit is also aged in ex-sherry casks. One distillery exclusive was part-matured in a Californian red wine cask.
Caol Ila was established in 1846 by Hector Henderson, part-owner of Littlemill in the Lowlands. The distillery was built a mile north of Port Askaig, overlooking the Sound of Islay. Henderson used a fleet of steam ships, or puffers, to deliver supplies to the site. The puffers would then sail off with a cargo of whisky to be sold on the mainland.
In 1863 the distillery was taken over by Bulloch Lade & co. At the time blended Scotch was booming and Caol Ila’s single malt became a key component in many recipes.
Bulloch Lade merged with the Distillers Company Ltd (D.C.L.) in 1927. This began a long association with the Johnnie Walker blended Scotch brand. Caol Ila has featured in several of the Johnnie Walker products, most notably Black Label.
During the single malt boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the distillery was demolished and completely rebuilt. The stills were increased from two to six, making it the largest distillery on Islay. The new design was the work of architect George Leslie Darge. His still-house design featured floor to ceiling windows that gave excellent views of the neighbouring island of Jura. The same layout was used in the rebuilding of Linkwood, Glen Ord and Clynelish.
Caol Ila was bottled as a single malt for the first time in 2002. The original 12-year-old offering was then joined by 18, 25 and Distiller’s Edition versions. The no-age-statement Moch was added later.
In 2017 owners Diageo announced that Caol Ila was to receive an upgrade as part of a £150million investment in Scotch whisky tourism. Plans were approved within the year for the distillery to become the island home of Johnnie Walker.
A new state-of-the-art visitor centre was to be constructed within the warehouse, complete with whisky bar overlooking the sound of Islay. The new setup would see visitors enter through the distillery roof after crossing a footbridge from a car park on the hill above. Caol Ila was one of four distilleries chosen for the project along with Cardhu, Glenkinchie and Clynelish.