Just 25 miles north of the northern Irish coast lies Scotland’s fifth and the British Isles’ eighth largest island. Rich in Gaelic, Norse, and Scottish clan history, it has seen centuries of battles for control over sea passage and fertile territory where red deer roam and arable farming of oats and barley complements plentiful brown trout and salmon fishing. This is the isle of Islay, also known as the Queen of the Hebrides.
Islay’s east coast is rugged, the south protected and wooded, while the west is distanced from the rest by two lochs that bite into the coastline. Resident birds include golden eagles, peregrine falcons and guillemots. Thousands of geese migrate here as well as elusive wading species like sanderling and corncrake. The Gulf Stream gives the island a ‘milder’ climate than you might imagine, with snow rarely seen at sea level and short-lived frosts.
Sound idyllic? Before you decide to follow in the wake of Scandinavian, Icelandic, Irish and English settlers and all those migratory birds – a note of caution. Wind speeds average between 19 and 28 km per hour and winter gales can gust in at 185km. Life here is no cup of tea – but if whisky is your tipple, you’re in luck. Islay whiskies are seeing a resurgence. Caol Ila is the biggest producer on the island. (It’s pronounced Cull Eela by the way).
Caol Ila was founded in 1846 by Glasgow distillery man Hector Henderson. He tucked his new venture away in an almost secret cove near Port Askraig overlooking the Sound of Islay (the body of water between Islay and Jura), from which Caol Ila takes its Gaelic name. The business changed hands and by 1879 a pier was built so that coal-fired vessels known as ‘puffer ships’ could unload supplies and load whisky to take to the mainland.
It’s an impossibly romantic image – flat-bottomed vessels resembling canal boats with smokestack chimneys puffing into tiny harbours whose waters reflect the white glazed distillery buildings. But don’t forget those winds! The depths surrounding Islay are plumbed with shipwrecks. The puffer ships that came this far out to the Hebrides had to be specially adapted and have a larger crew. Indeed, they were so handy on those rough seas that they were pressed into service to attend to warships during World War I and, in 1939 the Admiralty even made an order for steamships based on the design.
The war brought restrictions on raw ingredients and personnel that closed production but Caol Ila’s secret weapon is its importance for other blends, like Johnnie Walker. By the 1970s increased demand for blended whisky brought the addition of four new stills, taking the total to six, and soon after, new buildings.
The pure water used to make Caol Ila springs from local limestone into Loch Nam Ban and the barley is malted locally at Port Ellen (the other main port on the island), to the same specification as sister distillery Lagavulin. Caol Ila though has a longer fermentation time from wort to wash, and its stills are taller meaning heavy phenols are reduced. This allows flavours of pear and juniper, as well as hints of shellfish and smoke, to come through.
Fans will want to chase down Distiller’s Editions and 12, 18 or 25-year old malts. Why not pair a glass with a salad of fresh crab, finely chopped pear, red onion, celery and toasted walnuts, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, on a bed of butter lettuce? Or, as spring continues to lash us with stormy weather, simply sit by a rain-speckled window with a good book, Caol Ila in hand, and imagine a puffer ship coming into shore.