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Caol Ila single malts are definitely in the peaty, Islay style. But their core offerings are notably lighters and less smoky than most of the other Whiskies produced on the island. In fact, they even offer a non-peated "Highland spirit" just to prove the point. But that is an exception.
What you will notice first in their signature 12 YO dram is a whiff of peat on the nose and palate with the flavor of light summer fruits and a bit of toffee. The finish is generally warm and inviting to another round. We consider Caol Ila to be a good introduction to peated Islay Whiskies for the uninitiated.
There is a narrow gap between the Islands of Islay to the left, and Jura to the right, in the Irish Sea. Less than 200 feet across at some points, this gap is called the Sound of Islay.
The Caol Ila Distillery sits on a rocky shore below verdant hills, at nearly the narrowest point of the gap -- where the Feolin Ferry crosses to land on Islay, at Port Askaig.
It was founded in 1846, by Hector Henderson, and struggled financially from day one. It was sold in 1854, then again in 1863 when it was acquired by Bullach Lade & Co. They were Whisky traders who knew how to get product to market. So the business got its footing and was at full production by the mid-1880s.
The Bulloch Lade company decided to dissolve, and reap the rewards of their work, selling off all of their assets, including Caol Ila, in 1927. It was sold again in 1930, but closed, like a lot of Scottish distillers during World War II.
It reopened in 1945, and ran well under the leadership of Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd. through 1972, when the facilities were deemed outdated. So the Whisky was sent into storage and the entire site demolished. A larger, more modern set of buildings were erected on the same site.
This process took two full years, and production returned in 1974. Diageo liked the results of all that hard work and purchased the distillery a few years later.
Caol Ila is a giant among single malt producers, yielding upwards of 7 million liters per year. Most of this production goes into the various blends in the Diageo portfolio -- including Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle.
A good portion is also set aside for official and independent single malt releases. These releases cover a wide range of agings and strengths, to appeal to a broad range of Islay Whisky fans -- from 12YO through 25YO, and cask-strength special editions up to 55% and higher.