Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Johnnie Does Caol Ila

Wednesday 20 August 2014 - 1:30pm

Price: £15.00

It ain't pretty but it does the business

I'd heard rumours about the Caol Ila distillery. Workhorse, unloved and industrial are three of the descriptors that immediately spring to mind. Whereas this morning's visit to Islay's smallest distillery was a masterclass in small-scale distilling, it was evident as soon as I pulled up in the Caol Ila visitor's car park that we had reached the other end of the spectrum; big, grey and to be fair, quite ugly. None of this perturbed me in the slightest, I should add. 

You see, while some will extol the virtues of Port Ellen, swear allegiance to Ardbeg or wax lyrical about the majesty of Lagavulin, Caol Ila is, by some distance, my favourite Islay malt. It's big, bold and (for now) bountiful in the independent sector. It's inexpensive when compared to most other Islay fare and when it's good, it's absolutely spectacular. This distillery is the proverbial sow's ear, as far as I'm concerned.

Crazy Oban Lady was right
As we had arrived a little early, we took the opportunity to check out the view of Jura. I remember the tour guide from last year's Oban visit telling me that the Caol Ila distillery manager had a better view from his office than her boss did. I have to admit, I wholeheartedly agree. It was at this point that we were set upon by a gang of 'roided-up midges thirsting for our soft, southern blood. Residing for the week by the blowy shores of Loch Indaal had clearly led us into a false sense of security as far as beasties were concerned. We retreated to the confines of the car until it was time for the tour to begin.

*Rant Alert*
Before we go any further I must point out that Caol Ila, like most (if not all) Diageo distilleries, does not allow photography within the confines of the distillery itself. Most distilleries I have visited have had a policy about flash photography, presumably due to alcohol vapour or explosive flour hanging in the air, but it seems that only Diageo has a zero tolerance apporach where cameras are concerned. I'm not sure of the reason behind this. Maybe they have an over-zealous H&S Director, employees sourced solely from the witness protection program or a Chief Exec who once went to a Paul McKenna show and now barks like a dog every time he hears the word 'cheese'. Whatever the reason, it's bloody annoying when you're trying to put together a review. Anyway, enough of my wittering.
*Rant Alert*

The Tour

South Central L.A. for midges
We were met by our tour guide, Jennifer, and taken outside for an introduction to the distillery. Naturally, I didn't catch a word of it because I was engaged in a clandestine kung-fu battle with several of the midge gang-leaders mentioned earlier. If I'm honest, I had the best of the early rounds but quickly tired. Thankfully, Jennifer led us back inside before they could call reinforcements and we began the tour proper.

No photos allowed inside, so here's a picture of some lemons
Once we were inside, the first thing that struck me was how sterile and high-tech everything was. From the large, sealed, stainless steel mash-tun to the eight Oregon pine washbacks, everything seemed so functional and impersonal. Upon entering the still room we were confronted with six giants stills (3 wash, 3 spirit) and it dawned on me; there we were, in the belly of the beast, and there wasn't another soul to be seen. Where were all the staff members? It wasn't until I looked up towards the still arm that I saw a small windowed office housing some monitors. Evidently, near enough the whole process is controlled by computer from this small room. Clearly, Caol Ila is all about pumping out the maximum amount of product with maximum efficiency. 

Bad year for Canadian sprinters, good year for whisky
Of the 3.75 million litres of spirit produced each year, 85% goes towards satisfying the world demand for blended whisky. Let's just think about the sheer scale of that for a minute. If you were a maniacal Bond villain hell-bent on reviving the temperance movement, Caol Ila would be high on your sabotage list. Additonally, you know there'd be no photographic evidence linking you to the scene. (Temperance-loving Bond villains - Please don't sabotage Caol Ila; I like it too much and Diageo can afford better lawyers than me.)

Demand is now so high that, like a lot of other distilleries, Caol Ila stopped selling casks to independent bottlers around three years ago. Jennifer advised us that the majority of Caol Ila spirit goes into second-fill Kentucky bourbon casks and that, for the sake of consistency, E150a colouring was added to the final product. Other types of cask used are Oloroso (see picture above) and Moscatel, a sweet fortified wine.

The Tasting

Caol Ila Moch(a)

After a thoroughly uninspiring tour, we were shepherded into a converted warehouse to sample some of the bottlings put out in the last few years. Due to an admin cock-up, two of our party had been unable to attend their whisky and chocolate experience earlier in the day and so Jennifer decided that we would all sit down together, five whiskies would become six and we'd all have some artisan chocolates to pair with our drams.

Some worked better than others; Moch worked very well with lemongrass and lime, ditto with the 2001 Distillers Edition and mild velvet truffle. The lime and chilli chocolate was fantastic, although not so great when combined with the 12yo. The orange and clove worked quite well with the 25yo but the star of the show was the 2013 Feis Ile bottling with milk praline.

My sherry amor
To finish off the tasting Jennifer drew some rather dusky looking whisky from a 1988 Oloroso cask. A very tasty dram indeed and, given that I was again on double rations (Mrs S hates Caol Ila), enough to put my third sheet to the wind. 

I stumbled back to the shop, letting the midges have their way with me in the process. A quick, complimentary dram of the 2014 Feis Ile, a quicker purchase of the 2013 bottling and I was away to the car, ready to sleep through the journey home.

To be continued........


The Tour: D
Our guide was very robotic and 'by the numbers', although you could argue that she's perfectly suited to such a soulless distillery. Thankfully, she warmed a little during the tasting and expertly answered any questions we had. 

The Drams: A
Caol Ila Moch
Caol Ila 12yo
Caol Ila 2001 Distillers Edition
Caol Ila 25yo
Caol Ila Feis Ile 2013
Caol Ila 1988 Warehouse Cask #985 56.5%
PLUS a free branded Glencairn glass.

Strictly speaking, this was a hybrid tasting experience and we ended up getting an extra dram in the tasting and chocolates instead of the second cask sample advertised but I have to call this how I find it. Six drams, chocolates and a free glass for £15 is superb, any way you cut it.

The Shop: B
An afterthought, it would seem. A small room with half a dozen bottles and a couple of t-shirts. Having said that, two were distillery exclusives and we were invited to try some stored behind the counter for free. I grabbed the opportunity to try the Feis Ile 2014 but there were also others on offer.

Overall: B-
If you're expecting a quaint taste of Islay life, this isn't for you; it's as close to the mainland in character as you'll probably experience on the island. Its humourless atmosphere is testament to the fact that this is a distillery built for one thing; pumping out millions of litres of spirit per year. I get the feeling that the only reason they offer tours is because every other producer on the island does. That being said, if tasting whisky is your thing, the sampling session was superb and is well worth the visit. Bring some midge cream.

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