October 12, 2012

Caol Ila - the biggest whisky producer on Islay

The view from Caol Ila distillery across the Sound of Islay to the Island of Jura is so breathtaking that distillery manager, Billy Stitchell, reluctantly sits with his back to his office window to minimize distractions. In August and September, Billy saw a number of 20 feet long basking sharks in the sound and, he says,  it's not unusual to see killer whales, seals and other marine life swimming in the waters close to the biggest distillery on Islay. I suspect that he often delights in the same magnificent view from his house, perched on a hill, right above the distillery.
The 6 massive stills at Caol Ila sit behind a floor to ceiling picture window, oblivious of the jaw dropping view beyond. The distillery has been in  operation since 1846, with a couple of short mothball periods. About 90 to 95% of its vast production goes to blended whisky - mainly Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle. It has produced a lot of interesting Single Malts though, some of which I had the opportunity to sample later in Billy's tasting room, where we sat on comfy chairs and nosed a few fine drams while drinking in the view. Very nice!
When I arrived at Caol Ila, the first person I met was Hayley, a fellow Canadian, from St John, New Brunswick, who had found her way to the east coast of Islay to work at the distillery for a while, giving tours and learning as much as possible about the world of whisky, which had captivated her imagination. We chatted for a bit until Billy arrived to show me around the distillery.
Billy Stitchell is the fifth generation in his family to be involved in whisky. He has worked in the industry on Islay for 38 years, 22 of them in management. His eyes sparkle, his words are fresh, and he delights in talking about Caol Ila and its products.
When I say that Caol Ila is big, let me put it in perspective. In approximate terms, Caol Ila produces in a week what Kilchoman, Islay's smallest distillery, produces in a  year. Eight times a week a tanker, with 2 containers of 12,500 litres of whisky each, leaves the distillery and heads for the mainland. The construction of these Mundell Ltd lorries (trucks) is quite interesting. The two tanks take up the bottom part of the lorry and  a refrigerated space is on top. When the lorry returns from the mainland, the empty space is filled with goods needed on the island. According to Billy, this efficient idea was invented by Mundell, but no patent was taken out. Now, this style of lorry is used all over the world. Oops!
Still on the theme of big, Caol Ila uses 330 tonnes of malt a week, mainly from Port Ellen maltings in the south of the island. That's a lot! The distillery had a £3M upgrade last year to increase capacity. There are 8 large Oregon pine washbacks and 2 stainless steel ones. The distillation process is computerized. While some may balk at this, in favour of a more manual, hands on approach, in reality, if the whisky produced is largely the same style of spirit on an ongoing basis, it makes a certain amount of sense to automate it, especially if, like Caol Ila, you're trying to make about 6M litres of whisky a year, to help meet the increasing global demand. Last year, Scotch whisky exports, to about 200 markets, were £4.23B. That's about 25% of all UK food and drink exports.
The whisky produced at Caol Ila uses malt, peated to about 35ppm. In previous years there have been unpeated bottlings, some of which are still available for purchase, but now the intent is to only produce the peated stuff. Production processes have to be altered quite a bit to produce unpeated whisky and to make sure that the interior of the stills are peat flavour free. Fermentation time has to be increased to make the wash more acidic and allow more interaction with the copper in the stills, aiming at a lighter spirit with a clean, green, grassy character. Processes have to be shut down temporarily for the change, causing disruption in a  high volume environment.
All of the Caol Ila spirit is taken away for casking, but some returns to mature on the island, in dunnage or rack warehouses.
After our wander around, Billy took me upstairs  to the tasting room - a lovely cosy room where many glasses and bottles had been laid out for sampling.
My friend, Geoff K, back in Ottawa, came up with TCP as a primary aroma of 12 year old Caol Ila. TCP is an antiseptic mouthwash, commonly used when I was growing up and not necessarily pleasant. The Caol Ila 12 is much more pleasant but definitely has that medicinal, antiseptic, carbolic soap meets TCP nose which is unique among Islay whiskies. The Caol Ila distillery character aroma reminds Billy of when he was a wee lad and sent to take sandwiches to family members working the 2pm to 10pm shift in what was then a noisy and aromatic environment - a wee bit scary and a wee bit exciting for a young lad.
To start of the nosing, Billy produced some new make spirit. The unpeated spirit was sweet and spicy and the peated was sharper with aromas of nail polish remover. Lots of potential there for the cask!
I tasted the 10, 12 and 14 year old unpeated, (now limited) whiskies and I liked them. Good to drink, good to collect. The 10 year old is cask strength and a whopping 65.8%. There's nice citrus fruit on the nose and huge alcohol (surprise, surprise) on the palate, with a spicy aftertaste. This, unsurprisingly, benefits from the addition of some water, to tone it down. The 12 year old, limited edition release from 2010 is also cask strength, but a more subdued 58.4%. I thought this had a sweet and tree fruit nose, especially peaches and apricots. It was fruity and lively on the palate with a bit of that antiseptic quality (but in a good way!). Nicely balanced, I liked this.

Caol Ila Moch (Dawn) is an unaged expression, probably around 8 years, a crisp and clean malt with easy smoke. The Distillers Edition, double matured in Moscatel casks offers up honeyed sweetness to mingle with smoke. Quite nice. For Ontario readers, this is the only Caol Ila distillery edition available at the LCBO right now and an interesting whisky to pick up. By contrast, and I don't want to make anyone unduly sad, take a look at this website to see the astonishing range of Caol Ila that might be available to you if you lived elsewhere. Granted some of them are now discontinued, but it gives some idea of the range of offerings from this distillery over the years.
The 18 year old was my favourite - just fabulous and, to my palate, more balanced and livelier than the 25 year old - always a matter of taste. Occasionally the 18 year old arrives at the LCBO and should be tried. I've mentioned before about the single cask, cask strength, special bottlings produced for Feis Ile, Islay's whisky festival in May. Billy let me try the 2009, 2010 and 2012, all from sherry casks, and suffice to say that any one of them would have been reason enough to go visit Islay during Feis Ile. If you're in Europe and can find any of these bottlings, they'll be in the $250 to $400 range.
We finished off the tasting with a 14 year old, again cask strength, from an oloroso sherry butt, which had been stored at Lochnagar for master classes. 99% of the whisky from Caol Ila ages in ex Bourbon casks, and the 12 and 18 year old are fine examples of this maturation. But to my mind, Caol Ila produces splendid whisky matured in sherry casks, and bottled at cask strength. Look out for those if you can find them.
Next up, Kilchoman - the little distillery that could............