Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila are probably the most difficult distilleries to get to on Islay, especially without a car. But Bunnahabhain is one of my absolute favourites and Caol Ila was in the area, and I’m quite partial to it. Caol Ila is doable with public transport as it’s only about a 15 minute walk from the main road where one of the bus lines goes, but Bunnahabhain is quite remote. So I booked a taxi for the trips I needed that day. I used Islay Taxis for all my taxi rides, and they were superb. The taxis were cheaper than I thought and I just ran a tab and paid for everything at the end of my trip.
Anyways I digress. The weather was cloudy but no rain, and the drive up to Bunnahabhain was stunning. The distillery is a bit odd looking. It sits in a little natural bay and looks a lot like a dockyard in one of those old 19th century maritime towns that don’t use them anymore. The distillery is surrounded by green hills on all sides, aside from the sea-facing one.
I headed up to the visitor centre and shop. It was quite a humble affair, just a rustic little room with some trinkets and a fantastic collection of whiskies. I noticed the two other Burn Stewart malts there, Tobermory and Deanston, the fantastic Bunnahabhain 12 and 18 year olds, the 25 year old which I have yet to try, and a fair selection of their peated malts. But what really caught my eye were a number of little 200ml bottles of single cask, disitllery-only bottles.
I arrived at the same time as some other tourists and we were all given a sample of the Ceòbanach, a bourbon matured peated whisky. Again I was having far too much fun to take notes, but it was quite a nice one, very salty and very smokey. While we were sipping away I was told by David that I was the only one doing the warehouse tasting that day, and if I wanted we could start early and he’d show me around the distillery. So yes, a private tour & tasting at one of my favourite distilleries.
It was a Saturday so the distillery wasn’t operating but I got a really good tour and David explained all the inner workings of everything to me. Lots of glorious technical details. After the brief tour of the distillery we made our way down to Warehouse 9. There I sat down and David drew some cask samples for me to try.
There was a 7 year old wine cask matured whisky, an 8 year old peated 1st fill PX cask and a 12 year old 1st fill Sherry butt. David didn’t tell me what they were until I’d taken a sip which was kind of fun. I picked up on the wine cask right away, lovely spicy nose. The others were also really great. Again no notes. David was very frank and open and we had a really great chat about the whisky industry while I was sipping away so didn’t really get the chance.At the end of the tasting I had the chance to draw my own 200ml bottle from any of the 3 casks. Of course I agreed. I made a horrid mess with the valinch, but not as bad as I’d made at Laphroaig, and bottled the 8 year old peated PX cask.
I had some more time to kill before my taxi came to pick me up, so I walked out along the coast a little to find a nice spot to eat my lunch. I was walking along this path on a hillside, right along the water’s edge. I found the perfect spot, two rocks with about 40cm between them, so I spread my rain suit out on one and sat down and used the other as a table and had lunch. I had a good 2 hours until my taxi so I just sat there for a good while listening to music and enjoying the view. I could see the Paps of Jura in the distance and I watched a cargo ship go by. But then the weather gave in and it started raining so I made my way back to the distillery and just waited there for the taxi, the two girls at the shop were great company and made me feel right at home.
The ride over to Caol Ila was quite nice and the distillery’s surroundings were really nice. The building itself is a 1970’s era block with windows, not the prettiest of places, but what I really liked what was the unapologetic attitude towards that, kind of “We’re not as rustic as the others but we can still make some damn fine stuff here”. I’d had a really bad experience at Lagavulin and I was expecting worse from Caol Ila due to the distillery’s industrial nature and that it’s owned by the same company, but I was so very wrong. I was nicely welcomed at the visitor centre and was given a nice dram while I waited for my tour/tasting to start.
We ended up only being three people for the Premium Tasting, which also included a tour of the distillery. Our guide, Justina, was brilliant. Not a single bit of the tour or tasting felt scripted and you could really tell she was talking about a topic that genuinely interested her, as if this was more than just a job. Unfortunately we could not take photos inside the distillery, but on the inside Caol Ila was just another distillery, with all the same mechanisms and ,machinery and everywhere else, just quite a lot of it.
We then made our way to the old cooperage for the tasting. The heating was out so it was quite chilly in there but it kind of added to the atmosphere of the whole thing. I was really surprised by what we got to taste here. Again Justina did a fantastic job and really kept a good conversation going and helped everyone really hone in on what they were smelling and tasting, rather than just giving a schpiel about each one and what we should be tasting. Once again I was too engaged to take tasting notes.
We started with the Moch, which is a NAS, lightly peated Caol Ila. I found it a bit young and unrefined, but still interesting. We than had the 18-year-old which is my favourite of their core range. I just find it strikes the perfect balance between the peat and the mellowed aged notes. After that we had the 25-year-old, which is a nice whisky, but a little overpriced in my opinion, and the peat is pretty much gone from it, very mellow. We then left the core range behind and tried the 15-year-old unpeated style, which was really good, huge bourbon influence which works really well with the gentle, light unpeated Caol Ila. After that we had 2 Feis Ile bottlings, the one from 2015 which I previously tried at the Bon Accord and from 2013, which was still available at the distillery shop. The 2013 was a lot more complex and interesting than the 2015, it was a very rich and fruity dram, quite lovely. After the tasting, which ended up going on a bit longer than intended because we were having a great time, I hung out in the shop a little waiting for the rain to stop and then set off to Port Askaig, where my taxi would pick me up and take me back to Port Ellen, on foot.
The walk was really lovely, having to climb a little to the top of the hill above Caol Ila, and then descend down another. The way down was a twisting road down a very steep rock face which was really nice as it was dotted with little waterfalls. Once I got down to Port Askaig there really wasn’t much there, a hotel, a general store and a ferry terminal. The folk down there were super friendly though once I got talking to them, and one even offered me a ride to Bowmore, but I’d already booked my taxis.
The day had turned out to be really fantastic. I’d had a private tour of one of my favourite distilleries, had really picturesque picnic lunch, great company at both distilleries and I was really amazed at how much I enjoyed my visit to Caol Ila, just goes to show not to judge a book by it’s cover.