"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 24 January 2011

Caol Ila Distillery, Islay

Having visited all the south coast and western distilleries Barnard completed his Islay trip with a day visiting the two distilleries on the east coast, both overlooking the Caol Ila (Sound of Islay) where the water flows swiftly through the gap between Islay and Jura, less than one kilometre wide at the narrow ferry crossing from Port Askaig.

Paps of Jura and Sound of Islay, from Caol Ila Distillery
Barnard’s party travelled the ten miles from Bridgend to Caol Ila in a dog-cart which set a good pace “through scenery of the most varied description”.  He eagerly anticipates a nearer view of the Paps of Jura and his impression was that they seemed to “rise straight out of the sea, their base washed by the waters of the sound which, looking so beautiful and yet so treacherous, rush between the two islands with a frightful rapidity”.

On their approach the driver of the dog-cart pointed out what Barnard described as “like a stump of a tree on a rock” but which turned out to be the distillery chimney.  The scenery here again captivated Barnard and he records
“for miles nothing met the eye but rolling hill slopes bare of bush or shrub, indented at a lower level with the loveliest little farmsteads, each surrounded with a few trees, all looking inexpressively homely and fertile, and then bursts upon our view an infinite expanse of sea, with Colonsay and other islands in the far distance”.
I’m not sure about Colonsay but the south coast of Mull is certainly visible across the sea from here, the relative closeness and ease of communication between these great isles being an important factor for those noble seafarers mentioned in my last post.

South coast of Mull across the Firth of Lorn
Barnard here shows his slightly nervous side.  The road descended through the hamlet on the slopes above the distillery and he decided that walking down the steep incline would be safer “much to the disgust of the driver, who muttered strange words in Gaelic.  His remarks, however, are lost upon us, that language not having formed part of our education”.

An extra bend has been installed in the road since then to ease out a descent that ends right by the water’s edge, where “Caol Ila Distillery stands in the wildest and most picturesque locality we have seen” and I have to say I agree with the old fellow there.  The views up the Sound and across to the Paps, which change character almost hourly as the light and clouds shift around them, are among the most splendid I can recall in Scotland, certainly as a setting for a distillery.

Caol Ila from shore
Built in 1846 from stone hewn out of the slopes behind the distillery it was then owned by Bulloch, Lade & Co from 1863 and they had made improvements in 1879, including a pier for supplies to be unloaded in any tide, and where MacBrayne’s steamers called to uplift whisky twice a week, bound for Glasgow.  The pier is still there but all supplies are now brought by road and the whisky taken out the same way by tanker.

Pier at Caol Ila, once used for supplies
Bulloch Lade & Co also owned Loch Katrine Distillery at Camlachie in Glasgow and Benmore Distillery in Campbeltown, making them one of the largest total producers of whisky in Scotland at that time.  They were blenders as well as distillers but they were caught up in the spate of failed companies in the 1920s and were taken over by DCL in 1927.  The distillery was silent from 1930-37 and 1941-45 but has remained within the various guises of DCL and has recently been added to Diageo’s Classic Malts profile.


The entire distilling operation was demolished in 1972 and then rebuilt as a larger operation, reopening in 1974.  Only the warehouses survived from before this time and so the layout and equipment is very different to that recorded in the etching in Barnard.  The barley and malting barns that are on the far right of the etching is now the location for the still house, and the two substantial kilns in the middle are where the car park, offices and visitor centre now sit.  Different stages of development can be seen in these pictures.

Date unknown, picture from Caol Ila Visitor Centre


Caol Ila 1905, picture from Museum of Islay Life















I joined a tour group and our guide Linsay took us out to the courtyard to tell us some history and explain some of the changes that had occurred over the years.  Barnard's tour began at the original barns which had two barley lofts above two malting floors, the barley being raised by a patent hydraulic hoist.  As part of Diageo they now receive their barley from Port Ellen maltings, peated to 35ppm, the same level as Lagavulin.

Barnard notes that the Mash-house and Still-house were combined and adjoin the millroom; today the expanded operation has the three departments adjoining on a much grander scale.  He records the mash tun at one end of the combined room with the worts then pumped to a separate Tun room where there are an unspecified number but “quite an array of” wash backs.  He records this as a beautiful room and today the mash tun sits at one end of a bright and airy room along with the 8 washbacks, 80,000 litres each and made from American larch.  The millroom still adjoins at the south end beside the mash tun and a large, solid looking computer bank now controls all the operations.

Caol Ila Still house
The still house now has six hefty stills, arranged in a row in a bright glass fronted building facing the shore.  Barnard noted only two stills but doesn’t give sizes, the annual output of the distillery then a reasonable 147,000 gallons (668,000litres).  It is now the largest production volume on Islay at 3.6m litres p.a.  The three wash stills are around 35,000 litres each and the three spirit stills 30,000.  As at Lagavulin the wash stills are onion shaped and the spirit stills pear shaped, but the shallow descent on the lyne arms (10 degrees on the wash stills, 5 on the spirit stills) contrasts with the 45 degree angle on those at Lagavulin, creating a lighter texture to the spirit here.


Barnard recorded three warehouses holding nearly 2,000 casks and he is led to believe that demand for the whisky far exceeds supply, which is allocated to buyers at the beginning of each distilling season.  Now the whisky is matured at Diageo’s massive warehouse complex at Alva, near Stirling in central Scotland, and the warehouses at Caol Ila are used as their spirit store and also for maturing Lagavulin casks.  While most Lagavulin whisky is bottled as single malt, 95% of Caol Ila goes into blending, particularly contributing to those smoky notes that appear in the various Johnnie Walker styles.

I understand that the distillery will close again this year from June to December as the operation is once again expanded.  Production will also go from 5 to 7 days a week and capacity will be increased to over 5 million litres p.a., one of the largest productions of any Scottish distillery.  With the new Roseisle distillery which opened last year in Speyside producing 10 million litres p.a., Diageo are clearly optimistic about future demand for their products.
Waterfall behind distillery

Barnard records that the water is “said to be the finest in Islay”, as if all distilleries wouldn’t make the same claim, and it “comes in the form of a crystal stream from a lovely lake (sic) called Torrabus, nestling among the mountains, over which ever and anon the fragrant breeze from the myrtle and blooming heather is wafted.” Easy now, Alfred, easy.  These “mountains” are the same “rolling hill slopes” of his introduction but the same stream does still supply the distillery, tumbling gracefully over a lovely waterfall into a hidden fairy pool that nestles beside the fragrant clover behind the distillery!  Forgive me, its contagious.  Anyway, the water is less peaty and more rock filtered than the streams that supply the south coast distilleries, so contributing to a gentler spirit here.

I was curious about his mention of Lake (hmmm!) Torrabus as it isn’t marked on any maps.  Loch nam Ban is the water source recorded here and is marked on old and new maps as the source of the stream that supplies the distillery.  I asked Linsay about this after the tour and she promptly phoned the man who would know about these things, her father.  He mentions an area called Torrabus off the road to Bunnahabhain and a duck pond above the village, so I say my farewells and head off in search of this mystical place.

Translating Torrabus from Gaelic to English doesn’t leave much to the imagination.  I think ‘torr’ means mound or hill and an ‘abus’, a very common suffix to place names on Islay, is a farm, so literally just ‘hillfarm’; not very precise given the number of farms in the hills around here.  However, Loch nam Ban means Loch of Women, which provides much more for the imagination and I wonder if there is a lost story to tell about this place?  If any reader knows about the origins of the name then I would welcome the story added below.

Loch nam Ban in the hills above Caol Ila
Nevertheless, the maps suggest that this must be the same loch, and as I found often in the Campbeltown reports a local name may have been mentioned to Barnard at the time.  He records “This lake yields a never failing supply of this most essential factor in Distillation.”  Hmmm, the current supply when I visited looked like it may have been tinkering with the idea of failing, a fate that befell some other distillery supplies for a short spell last summer.  The picture here shows the dipstick for the loch rather adrift on dry land, although I imagine the snowfall last month will have helpfully replenished this essential resource for the months ahead.

I hadn’t given up on the Loch Torrabus name though, and intrepid as ever in the cause of providing you with a story I once more knocked on the door of a nearby dwelling.  I explained my predicament to the gentleman who answered but he hadn’t heard of the other loch name either, although there were some marshy patches on the slopes below us towards the distillery.  This meeting was not entirely in vain though as I was told a wonderful story with which to round up this post.

View south from Loch nam Ban
The gentleman had previously lived in Cornwall where he owned a large yacht.  While opening a bottle of Caol Ila whisky his wife commented on what a lovely sounding name it was, and so the yacht was christened.  That inspired a later trip up the coast and through the Sound of Islay, and now they have the pleasure of living on the slopes above the distillery and enjoying those spectacular views.  Be it providence or fate, perhaps naming your most cherished possessions after whisky can inspire adventure and help to realise your destiny.

I enjoyed my visit to Caol Ila and my thanks go to Linsay (and her father) for helping with all my questions.  It seems fitting to end with Barnard’s own last words on his visit to the distillery, a sentiment I fully endorse - “We now bid farewell to this charming spot hoping that some future day will bring us an opportunity of a revisit to Caol Ila”.