Caol Ila is perhaps Islay’s least known distillery - which is odd in some ways because it is also the biggest on the island. It is not well known because it’s owners, the mighty Diageo, have only recently started to market Caol Ila as a single malt in its own right, so the distillery has rather languished in the shadow of Lagavulin so far as the whisky drinking public are concerned.
What Caol Ila actually does however has suddenly come into sharp focus. Caol Ila is an essential part of Diageo’s global dominance of the blended whisky market. The peaty, full, oily flavours from the magnificent still room with its stunning views across the Sound of Islay to the Paps are absolutely essential to Teacher’s, Bells and many other world famous blended whisky brands, but perhaps most important of all, the global leader - Johnnie Walker. Diageo shipped 30 million cases of Scotch last year of which 13 million cases were Johnnie Walker. The value to the UK economy is measured in billions rather than millions. The importance of this trade to the UK economy as a whole, let alone Diageo, is enormous, and Caol Ila is at the heart of it. The emerging markets of China and the Far East are driving the growth in exports - with sales of Johnnie Walker striding forward by 13% last year.
Diageo has just announced a £100 million investment in the whisky industry in Scotland as it builds on these export successes including £40 million on a new distillery near Elgin, another £40m to expand operations at Cameronbridge, where Johnnie Walker, J&B and Bell’s are produced, and £20m on bottling facilities and casks. Caol Ila is moving to 24/5 production immediately to support this effort - and four new jobs have been created on Islay.
What this massive increase in production at Caol Ila will mean is a massive increase in the requirement for freight space on the ferry. A senior Diageo source told the Ileach: “Last year we shipped 240 truck loads of draff off the island because there is a limit to what even Islay cows can eat. This year we expect to ship 550 truck loads. That is a lot of additional ferry space - and that’s just the draff. If we cannot ship the draff out because the ferry cannot take it, the distilleries have to stop production. There is a huge amount at stake here - Caol Ila is absolutely fundamental to our Scotch whisky business.”
This story was published with kind permission from The Ileach - Community Newspaper of the year.