Caol Ila Distillery, Islay.
HOW pleasant is the process of exploration when performed in fine weather and in company with good companions. Our long day commenced with a stroll through the beautiful grounds of the Hotel and a climb up the steep hill in its rear. The haymakers were just commencing their work, and the air was laden with all the perfumes of early summer. It was a delicious morning, and as the light mists rolled away we could look out over the beautiful sea, from which the eye wandered to the gently undulating foreground, where patches of glittering green and clumps of crimson rhododendrons guide the eye along the beautiful policies of Islay House. We felt that we could not leave the spot, but a signal from our coachman below compelled us to descend quickly, and mount the trim dog-cart for our drive of ten miles to Caol Ila. Away we go at a fine pace through the crisp air and glorious sunshine. The route lay through scenery of the most varied description; now we passed flourishing farmsteads and highly cultivated fields, then through tiny little villages nestling peacefully on the hillsides, while anon we catch glimpses from the hills, of lake and woodland. Ever since our residence upon the island we had been longing for a nearer view of the famous “Paps of Jura,” and here they appeared before us, seeming 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. The Paps are generally enveloped in mist, but on this day their tops were seen distinctly, so bare, simple, and yet grand, in the clear atmosphere. On reaching Port Askaig we diverged from the highway into a mountain road. Here the driver directed our attention to an object about two miles away, which looked like a stump of a tree on a rock but which he assured us was Caol Ila. On near acquaintance we discovered this to be the top of the chimney of the Distillery. After crossing a stream the route became more interesting; 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 few trees, all looking inexpressibly homely and fertile, and then bursts upon our view an infinite expanse of sea with Colonsay and other islands in the far distance. We soon came in sight of the distillery lying directly beneath us, and we wonder for a moment how we are to get down to it. Our driver however, knew the road well, for often had he been here before, and turning sharp to the right, we commenced the descent through a little hamlet of houses. But the way is so steep, and our nerves none of the best, that we insist upon doing the remainder of the descent on foot, 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. As we descended the hill we paused now and then to gaze upon the far-stretching view before us, and to rest presently we found ourselves at the object of our search, and within a few yards of the sea. Caol Ila Distillery stands in the wildest and most picturesque locality we have seen. It is situated on the Sound of Islay, on the very verge of the sea, in a deep recess of the mountain, mostly cut out of the solid rock. The coast hereabouts is wild and broken, and detached pieces of rock lie here and there of such size that they form small islands.
Messrs. Bulloch, Lade & Co. have built a fine pier at which vessels can load or unload at any state of the tide, and besides the chartered vessels arriving with barley, &c., there are two of David MacBrayne’s steamers calling here twice a week for Whisky. The buildings connected with the works are of solid construction and handsome appearance; they are all built of stone, hewn from the adjacent rocks.
The Distillery was built in the year 1846, and subsequently much extended and improved, and is arranged in the most modern style and possesses all the newest appliances used in the art of distilling. We had a letter of introduction to the manager, and were shown over the place by the brewer, whose explanations were most interesting. We were first conducted to the spacious Barns which are in close proximity to the landing stage. The barley is delivered on to the floors by means of a patent hydraulic hoist. The Barns are 120 feet long by 80 feet wide, the two lowest floors of which are used for malting purposes, and the two upper floors for storage of barley. Two cisterns are placed in the upper stories, of a steeping capacity of over 1,100 bushels; only the finest barley is used. There are two Kilns, one of which is about fifty feet square, and the other thirty-five feet, floored with hair-cloth, and the malt is dried with peat alone. Adjoining the Kilns, to the south of the premises, are three dried malt storage rooms, covering an area of 360 square yards. The Millroom is placed about the centre of the buildings on the ground floor, and contains a pair of friction rollers. After the malt is ground it is conveyed by means of elevators to the Grist Rooms above. These rooms have a storage accommodation for over 1,600 bushels of grist. The Mash-house and Still-house are combined and adjoin the Mill-room; it forms a very large square-built building which is beautifully kept and well lighted, and contains two brightly polished Stills and Spirit Safe, Spirits, Low-wines and Feints Receivers, Coppers for heating water, and Wash Charger. The Mash Tun is placed at one end of the building, over which is fixed a Patent Mashing Machine in which the grist and hot water mix together before reaching the Mash Tun, where it is again broken up and mixed afresh by the patent revolving metal rakes. The Mash Tun is of a mashing capacity of 500 bushels. The Underback is a large cast-iron vessel of almost equal size. A patent centrifugal pump connects this vessel and conveys the worts to the Wort Receiver situated in the Tun Room, which we next visited. This is a beautiful room and contains quite an array of Wash Backs, and a Patent Refrigerator. The Worm Tub adjoins the Still House and is a huge wood en vessel containing an endless variety of copper worms, supplied with cold water from the mountain stream. The Draff House faces the Sound of Islay, in close proximity to the wharf where the draff is stored previous to shipment. On the opposite side of the yard stands the Spirit Store, wherein are two huge Vats for collecting the Whisky previous to its being filled into casks. Our guide next directed us to the Duty Free Warehouses of which there are three, capable of holding nearly 2,000 casks.
The water used, said to be the finest in Islay, comes in the form of a crystal stream from a lovely lake called Torrabus, nestling among the mountains, over which ever and anon the fragrant breeze from the myrtle and blooming heather is wafted. This lake yields a never failing supply of this most essential factor in Distillation. We need not describe the suitable Cooperage and artisan shops, which are all perfect. The engine and steam boiler powers are highly efficient, and are evidently planned with a view to future extension. Comfortable dwellings have been provided for the employees, forming quite a little village in themselves, and we envied the healthy life of these men and their families.
The annual output is over 147,000 gallons, and the Whisky is sold in Scotland, England and the chief foreign markets, where the make speaks for itself. We understand that such is the demand for this favourite Whisky, that the orders much exceed the output, and have to be allocated amongst buyers at the commencement of each Distilling season.
There is a complete system of Hydrants with sets of hose and reel at all commanding points of the buildings. The Counting Houses farm an imposing edifice fronting the Sound of Islay, the ground floor of which is occupied by the Inland Revenue officers, and the upper portion by the Manager and a staff of clerks. The Head Office of this Distillery is at 4, Bothwell Street, Glasgow, where all business is transacted.
We now bid farewell to this charming spot boring that some future day will bring us an opportunity of a revisit to Caol Ila.