A stunning 1983 vintage Caol Ila released at 30 years of age as part of Diageo’s 2014 Special Releases. Aged in a combination of refill American and refill European oak, this is reminiscent of a cross between Brora and Port Ellen, combining the waxiness of the former with the chamois leather note of the latter.
Don’t get me wrong – I love Caol Ila. I love it almost as much as it seems to hate me. It seems to be in a consistent state of flux, a distillery that is always trying something new, never content to sit still for very long. The distillery is famous for its seemingly endless stream of experimentation, every year a new release with a different experiment. Even now you won’t see the same Caol Ila twice – the distillery seems to dedicate itself to constant change.
There was once a time when Caol Ila was a distillery with a very specific style. Famed for its smoky peat and medicinal punch, the distillery began its life as an industrial distillery in production from 1846 to the 1930’s. The distillery was mothballed in 1929 only to be reopened twenty years later. It was then leased to Scotch Malt Whisky Society who sold it to Morrison Bowmore in 1969. Bowmore was itself bought out by Whitbread in 1972 who, seven years later, sold the distillery to Allied Distillers. Allied Distillers, in turn, became part of Diageo in 1997.
This very history of the distillery has led me to believe that Caol Ila has been continuously updating its style as time has passed. The distillery has changed hands multiple times and each owner has left an imprint of their style upon the distillery. An “industrial” Caol Ila (1846 – 1929) which wouldn’t have been a pretty whisky based on the distillery’s aforementioned production history, the whiskies which resulted from Bowmore’s time (1960 – 1969) and, finally, the time during which distillery was owned by Allied Distillers where we enjoyed the first Caol Ila’s that most of us tasted.
This theory is supported by the timing of the changes in style that Caol Ila underwent. The change from the distillery’s industrial roots to the sweet and pungent style of Bowmore’s time clearly occurred between 1969 when Bowmore took over the distillery and 1972 when Whitbread bought it. The Allied era saw further change which I believe came about after Allied Distillers was bought out by Diageo in 1997. The final shift in style from an era when Caol Ila was owned by Diageo to an era where it has switched gears and become one of the distillery’s hallmark releases (along with a style shift to non-peated malt in the standard 10 year old) happened between 2003 when the Classic Laddie was launched and 2009 when the first Special Release bottling was issued.
Perhaps the most telling story of this seemingly endless cycle of change and modernization is the story of Caol Ila’s stills. Even though at its heart Caol Ila is an old school column distillery, the original spirit stills were replaced with second hand stills in the mid 80’s (1983 – 87, to be exact) which, in turn, were replaced by a pair of newer stills in early 2004.
Yet, despite these changes to the stills and the reason for these changes (more capacity), Caol Ila is still a distiller that I find rather easy to characterize. Caol Ila is a smoky, peaty, medicinal and intense dram. The intensity of the peat comes from the distillery’s use of both “clean” and “far more winey” peat that’s harvested from the surrounds of the distillery. The intensity of the whisky and its smoky malty character are given extra dimension by the distillery’s use of both new American and new European oak.