My wife and I rushed through a lunch at a small bar in Port Askaig in order to make it to the 2 pm Cask Strength Experience at Caol Ila. Funny story: Turns out we didn’t need to rush that much and could have had a heartier lunch because we were literally 5 minutes away. Well funny to me at least. I had been drinking.
The final leg of the drive down to Caol Ila gives you an amazing view of the Sound of Islay and even the Paps of Jura on a clear day. When we arrive it’s was overcast and rainy, so no view for us. Walking into the Visitor Centre I immediately recognize the staff member – it was Chris from Lagavulin! Once I said hello and paid, he said that we were the only two signed up for the Cask Strength Experience and could begin right away. This tour is unique in that it includes both a distillery tour and a tasting. The only other tour I took that offered both was the Laphroaig Distillers’ Wares Tour which is nearly three times the price (but also includes a 200ml bottle you can valinch and fill yourself). For 25 pounds this is quite the value.
It turns out that being the only person on the tour isn’t so uncommon at Caol Ila. It doesn’t always happen but if you go during the off season you may have a good chance of getting a private tour. As it was a Saturday, the distillery wasn’t in production however it was a nice chance to really take our time without all the noise and the heat that is synonymous with making whisky. The tour is pretty standard, but for us, it was unique to get to see it when there is no one else around.
Chris is super knowledgeable about whisky and quite the fanatic himself. It turned out he hasn’t worked for Lagavulin and Caol Ila for very long, and I would guess that his knowledge was gained prior to working there. He shuttles between both distilleries and just needs to remember to put the right branded shirt on.
Being on a private tour definitely has its benefits: We walk through the nearly abandoned distillery at a leisurely pace and have the time to chat and nerd out about whisky. In a big group, you don’t really get to stick your nose into things and really get a sense of that nitty-gritty level. I was able to see the different stages of fermentation in the mash tuns, and just how much or little heat is given off from stage to stage. Caol Ila puts out a massive amount of spirit as most of it goes into the Johnnie Walker blends. It was unfathomable just how big the wooden mash tuns were. Chris believes that one aspect of whisky making that has not been studied enough is how much of the character of each spirit is a product of wooden versus steel mash tuns. For his money, Chris would rather have wooden mash tuns over steel.
Finishing the tour we made our way to the Warehouse, which apparently is filled almost entirely with barrels from Lagavulin. Diageo has made the decision to age all of Caol Ila’s juice on the mainland and use the warehouses on Islay for Lagavulin.
I was having such a fun time talking to Chris that I didn’t want to take notes. I was able to leave with some driver’s drams so reviews will come at some point in the future. I drank more than my fair share and still took some home. We got through a range of topics from the general state of the industry, how authentic the sherry barrels currently used are, life on Islay, and what it’s like working for Diageo. One of the most interesting points to come out of this is what it’s like to work with Iain MacArthur, and how wonderful of a person he is. Apparently Diageo has wanted to increase the price of the Lagavulin Warehouse Demonstration for quite some time, believing that they could charge much more for the casks they have on offer. It’s Iain who has consistently stopped this from happening. He’s old school and believes in old-school hospitality; if you make it out to Islay you should be shown a good time and served some of the best we have to offer. Thus 25 pounds is what is fair to him. So if you make it out to Lagavulin and see Iain, make sure you thank him for his service.
This truly was one of the most special moments on Islay for me, getting to nerd out about whisky with someone who works in the industry but shares that same passion. I valinched each of the casks I drank from and got pretty good at by the end.
If you make it to Islay, Caol Ila is a must see. And please say hello to Chris for me. Make sure he’s worn the correct shirt that day.