Caol Ila distillery

The Caol Ila Distillery was for many years the insider tip for those looking for a great priced and delicious whisky from the Scottish island of Islay. It is located in the northeastern part of the island on the strait to the island of Jura. From there you have a wonderful view of the legendary Sound of Islay and the Paps on the island of Jura. The Caol Ila distillery is not as popular as many others in Scotland but it’s one with a large fanbase. The whisky itself is a bit lighter and convinces with a peppery and floral note.


Caol Ila, which translates as “Sound of Islay”, is a whisky distillery on the east coast of the famous whisky island of Islay. It is located a few minutes by car from the ferry port Askaig. Here you can also cross over to the neighboring island of Jura, where the Jura whisky Distillery is to be found. Incidentally, this was the only way of transporting Caol Ila whisky for almost 100 years. He took the ferry to Jura and from there to the Scottish mainland and England! This important hub of the island has meanwhile dedicated its own whisky, thePort Askaig single malt. The nearest whisky distilleryBunnahabhain, is just five kilometers further north. With the construction of the new Ardnahoe Distillery, a third east coast distillery was added. Islay Sound, which separates the island from the neighboring island of Jura, is barely a kilometer wide here. Like all Islay distilleries, Caol Ila has a small visitor center. There you can book tours of the distillery and buy a souvenir or two in addition to whisky.

Caol Ila is certainly not the most attractive distillery on the island. It is located together with Bunnahabhain and the new Ardnahoe Distillery on the north east coast of the island and on a clear day overlooks the “Paps of Jura” on the neighboring island. The distillery can be reached by car in 5 minutes from Port Askaig ferry terminal. If possible, we would advise against walking to the distillery, as hiking on the narrow single track roads of Scotland can be dangerous.

How does Caol Ila single malt taste?

Caol Ila single malts are a little milder than Islay whiskies but Caol Ila malts are also heavily peated and therefore have a sweet-malty peat smoke. Typical tasting notes for Caol Ila are floral and peppery, the peaty phenolic almost rubberry aromas, extinguished campfire and an intense malty sweetness are a bewitching combination. Only around 15% of the whisky produced is sold as single malt, the majority of the production is reserved for blends, Caol Ila being a major component of Johnnie Walker.

The distillery’s standard whisky is that Caol Ila 12 years which presents itself in the glass with a light straw yellow color. Sweet and malty notes are interwoven in the bouquet with broad peaty elements. These are in turn refined by a spring-like floral touch of blooming iris and some oak wood. Sea salt and a sweet maltiness determine the oily body. In the end, the Caol Ila 12 years is completed by a memory of smoked ham and some tobacco. This single malt is one of the absolute Islay classics. On your whisky journey, this is where you should stop and enjoy!

A specialty is that Caol Ila Moch (“Twilight”), which is bottled with 43% alcohol and is characterized by an unusual lightness for Islay whisky. Light gold in color, it develops a fresh salty aroma with a slightly smoky note, reminiscent of a campfire on Islay beach. On the palate, a sweet honey note and a hint of citrus fruits emerge, which are complemented by a note of fresh hay in the long finish. The oily body is characterized by a distinctive peat note, which never gains the upper hand over the fruity-fresh elements of this fine, limited-edition bottling.

There is another special highlight in the form of the Caol Ila Distillers Edition. It appears as an annual vintage bottling, usually around 12 years old and with a special finish. Both Distillers Editions Diageo (the owner of the distillery) gives each distillery a different special cask finish. Other distilleries that bring out Distillers Editions are Lagavulin, Talisker, Oban, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie and Glenkinchie. In the case of Caol Ila, the whisky is placed in former Muscat wine barrels for six months to mature. These give it a variety of fruit flavors.

At Caol Ila, however, non-smoky whiskies appear frequently among the annual Special releases by Diageo, these are marked as “unpeated”. The older bottlings available, some of which date back to 1975, are surprisingly not smoky, which probably corresponded to the requirements of the blenders at the time.


How is Caol Ila whisky produced?

Today’s production volume is 6.5 million liters of pure alcohol, which translates into around 20 million bottles a year. This makes Caol Ila by far the largest distillery on the island and one of the larger Scotch whisky producers in Scotland. Caol Ila’s whisky has played an important role in the making of well-known Blended Scotch Whiskies for decades, above all Johnnie Walker.

Caol Ila takes the water from the peaty Loch nam Ban (Torrabolls Hole), the waterfall of which flows directly into the Sound of Islay by the distillery. Since the closure of their own floor maltings, Caol Ila has been purchasing the malted barley from the famous malt house in Port Ellen. For the maturation of the whisky, ex-bourbon barrels are the mainstay for Caol Ila, which are supplemented with used sherry barrels for some bottlings.


1846, Hector Henderson founded the Caol Ila distillery after having spent six years looking for a suitable location, but had no economic success with it despite having already gained experience as a co-founder of the Littlemill distillery. As early as 1854 his entire property was auctioned and Norman Buchanan took over the still young distillery, which he ran until 1863. The next owner, Bulloch Lade & Co., expanded production and in 1879 Caol Ila was already distilling over 380,000 liters of pure alcohol. Further changes of ownership followed, in the course of which the distillery was acquired by Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd. (SMD) in 1930. The distillery was closed from 1930 to 1937 and again from 1941 and 1945. Until the early 1970s, production was hardly more than just making ends meet. The own floor maltings were founded in 1970,

SMD decided to exploit the potential of Caol Ila and subjected the distillery to a thorough renovation. From April 1972 to January 1974 it was shut down for this purpose. The old distillery was demolished and replaced by today’s much larger buildings. The number of copper stills has been increased from two to six pot stills. After the renovation, Caol Ila had three wash stills and three spirit stills available. With the new buildings, which were the first of all Islay distilleries to be built from concrete, Caol Ila rose to become a major distillery. In 1992, Caol Ila came into the possession of United Distillers (UD) through the takeover of SMD. In 1997, the Islay distillery finally ended up with the current owner, the spirits giant Diageo. This made the whisky from Caol Ila part of the Classic Malts Series.

Caol Ila factsheet

Name Pronounced AKA Region Country of Origin
Caol Ila cull eel*a Islay Scotland
Status Active Whisky Type Website Tours Available
Active 1846 - Present Malt Caol Ila Tour Link
Manager Distiller Blender Owned by Parent Group
Keith Law Diageo

Caol Ila Timeline:

1846: Built by Hector Henderson, also owner of the Camlachie distillery, Glasgow

1852: Henderson, Lamont & Co. when bankrupt

1863: Distillery acquired by Norman Buchanan who continued until bankrupt

1879: Sold to Bulloch, Lade & Co., proprietors of Camlachie, who extended and rebuilt the distillery (1857 mentioned as well)

1896: Incorporated as a limited company

1920: Liquidated and sold to J.P. O’Brien Ltd. who resold it later that year to the Caol Ila Distillery Co. Ltd., subsidiary of Robertson & Baxter Ltd.

1927: The Distillers Company Ltd. (DCL) and its associates obtained control

1930: Transferred to Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd. (SMD), which acquired all the shares

1930: Silent

1937: Reopens

1972: The distillery closes in April 1972 and demolished, except for the warehouses

1974: The new larger distilleryw ith six stills begins production

1988: First Single Malts bottled by owners

1992: Licensed to United Malt & Grain Distillers Ltd. (UMGD)

1999: Owned by United Distillers & Vintners Ltd. (UDV)

2004: Owned by Diageo plc

Can I tour Caol Ila?

Yes Caol Ila distillery is tourable. On Trip Advisor the distillery has been rated as excellent by 257 of 439 tours to date. This gives Caol Ila an overall rating of 4.5

Latest reviews

Best Tour! by Ninawyo

Our group of 5 came in January of 2019 for a Whisky and Chocolate pairing. I am late in writing this review -- but just want to say, out of the many tours we did in Islay, this was our favorite! One, because it was unique -- and the flavors of the whisky were so different when paired with the chocolate. But mostly as we loved Nigel our tour guide. He was so friendly and knowledgeable -- you saw his passion for the whisky at every turn. He answered all our questions, and again, we just loved his enthusiasm! I would definitely recommend!

Under Renovastion by SrikanthSivaraj

We travelled across Islay to visit the famous Caol Ila Distillery only to be told that the place is closed. Only the reception and the exhibition area were open. Disappointment.

Only One Tour a Day Due to Construction, Otherwise Closed to Public. by V B

We have been to the distillery before and had a very good experience. Currently, the distillery is closed to the public except for one tour a day, due to construction. The timing of this tour was at a time that did not allow our group of 11 to visit. This review is based on the current situation during construction.

Rating Reviews
Excellent 257
Very good 116
Average 51
Poor 11
Terrible 4