Built in 1846, Caol Ila is the largest of the eight working distilleries on the island of Islay (situated off the west coast of Scotland), with a production capacity of 3 million litres per year.
For more than 100 years small coal-fired "puffers" like the SS Pibroch brought barley, coal and empty casks to the distillery, returning her whisky to the mainland through the strait that divides Islay and Jura, the Sound of Islay – in Gaelic, "Caol Ila".
That tradition has passed. And other changes have taken place – like when the old distillery became outdated and was replaced by a new, £1 million building in 1974. Craftsmen faithfully reproduced the six stills from the original design to ensure the distinctive quality of Caol Ila remained.
Of course, not everything has changed. The barley used here is still malted locally at Port Ellen and pure spring water still rises from limestone in nearby Loch nam Ban, then falls to the sea at Caol Ila in a clear crystal stream, just as it always has. Their offspring is a fine-ageing malt reserved in oak casks for up to eighteen years.
Talk of offspring brings us to the descendants of generations past who keep traditions alive. Billy Stitchell is the manager of the distillery and has worked there for years. As did his father, both his grandfathers and his great-grandfather – their unbroken line is proof that traditions matter round here - all the more valuable, now that eleven men do work once done by thirty-two.
The result of their craft and skill is an easy-going single malt whisky of dry, sea air aromas and pleasing smoky-smoothness. Anyone who visits this magical island soon finds that Islay is home to some of the great malt whiskies. Caol Ila is certainly one of them, whose discovery is one of life’s great pleasures.