Today I had the pleasure of attending a whisky tasting led by Peter Wills, son of Kilchoman distillery owner Anthony Wills. Naturally then, there were some fantastic Kilchomans lined up for us to explore, and Peter was able to share his wealth of knowledge with us. A full description of the whiskies can be found below, but first a short introduction to Kilchoman distillery.
Kilchoman distillery was opened in 2005, becoming the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years. Located in a farmhouse where all processes from malting, distilling, maturing and bottling take place, Kilchoman provides an interesting insight into what a traditional whisky distillery may have looked like two centuries ago. Correspondingly, Kilchoman is by far the smallest distillery on Islay in terms of capacity, and indeed one of the smallest in Scotland.
Peter Wills sharing his stories from Kilchoman
Kilchoman produces a typical Islay style whisky, with medium to heavily peated expressions. The distillery still malts about 30% of its own barley, which spends about a day under a peat fire in the kiln. The result is a medium peated barley, to about 20 ppm. For the remaining 70%, Kilchoman depends on the Port Ellen Maltings, which delivers the barley to a specified 50 ppm, putting Kilchoman on par with Ardbeg in terms of smokiness. However, the distillation process at Kilchoman is designed to produce a clean, fruity spirit, which smooths out the peaty flavours and the young age of the whiskies somewhat. Since Kilchoman’s stills are small, the spirit has more contact with the copper, taking out many of the impurities. What’s more, the stills are relatively high, allowing only the lighter alcohols to make the cut. This is one of the reasons that Kilchoman’s whiskies are so very drinkable from a young age.
For maturation, Kilchoman chooses casks that previously held Buffalo Trace bourbon. Since the distillery’s production capacity is so small, fewer casks are needed, which means they can be shipped whole, rather than be taken apart and reassembled as is standard practise. This means that the wood doesn’t dry out, and there is often still a small amount of bourbon in the barrels when the first whisky goes in. This benefits Kilchoman’s whisky in terms of flavour and speeds up the maturation process.
Some of the casks at the Kilchoman distillery
From the moment the distillery opened, Kilchoman has experimented with different types of casks, selling their whisky in numerous limited editions. Anthony’s background as a wine merchant and independent bottler has given him a good knowledge of the effect that different casks have on whisky maturation, meaning that these limited editions have by and large produced excellent results. As a result, Kilchoman has gained a loyal fan base, who eagerly purchase the limited number of bottles that the distillery can produce (unfortunately this is also driving up the price). This also means that Kilchoman hasn’t seen the need to sell their whisky to blenders, as every precious drop is bottled and sold as single malt. This is all for the best, as Kilchoman produces some fantastic whisky. Tonight I was lucky enough to try seven different ones, which are described below.