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.
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.
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.
Kilchoman 100% Islay, 2nd Edition
This whisky was entirely produced at the Kilchoman distillery, using barley grown on the farm. As such, this whisky is only mildly peated at 20ppm. Using first fill and refill bourbon barrels, the 100% Islay is quite a soft Kilchoman expression. The nose is subtle and fruity, with aromas of citrus and pear. There’s also more than a whiff of new make, and the nose is not overly peaty. On the palate, the smoke is given more space to develop, and is accompanied by notes of vanilla, toasted oak and breakfast cereal. The finish is long and warming, with the not at all unpleasant aftertaste of raw spirit. Bottled at 50%.
Kilchoman Machir Bay
Peated to 50 ppm and bottled at 46%, Machir Bay is a vatting of 90% bourbon casks and 10% Oloroso sherry butts. There is almost no smoke on the nose, which instead displays notes of tropical fruit. The palate is a different story though, as the peat rushes in full force. The finish is less warming than the 100% Islay (due to its lower alcohol content), but the increase in smokiness more than makes up for this.
Previous bottlings were labelled with the year in which they were released, since the distillery was still experimenting with different styles. Apparently Kilchoman have now settled on one single variety, as the whisky is now bottled simply as Machir Bay. The vatting of different ages of whisky seems here to stay though.
Sanaig is a vatting of 70% Oloroso and 30% bourbon casks. Although peated to the same level as the Machir Bay, the sherry influence gives this whisky a sweeter, mellower character. There are hints of raisins and red fruit throughout, and the smoke is never far away. On the whole, a definite step up from the Machir Bay. Bottled at 46%.
Kilchoman Loch Gorm – 2014 Release
Loch Gorm is a vatting of whiskies that were all aged in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. This becomes immediately clear on the nose, as the sherry scents are much stronger than in the Sanaig. Notes of pepper, cloves and dried red fruit mingle with a subtle hint of peat smoke. Loch Gorm is more full-bodied than the previous Kilchomans in this tasting and provides a deal more complexity and sweetness. Although peated to 50 ppm, the sherry casks have smoothed out much of the smoke during Loch Gorm’s five years of maturation, but the finish is still intensely warming. This is a gorgeous whisky, and my favourite in the core range. Bottled at 46%.
Kilchoman Original Cask Strength – Quarter Cask 2016
Aged in traditional quarter casks (a process being popularised at Laphroaig) that allow for more contact with the oak, this Kilchoman has a rather friendly vanilla character. The nose is light and floral, with notes of tropical fruit. The palate has a very pleasant sweetness to it, with hints of Demerara sugar and vanilla. The finish is huge, thanks to the 56.9% at which this whisky was bottled.
Kilchoman Single Cask #559 – Oloroso Sherry 2016
Although the sherry is less apparent on the nose compared to Loch Gorm, things are decidedly different on the palate. This dram is very rich and full-bodied, and a true sherry bomb. This is partially due to the fact that this whisky was aged in a sherry hogshead rather than a butt, allowing for more contact with the wood due to the smaller volume. Bottled at 58.2%, this single cask whisky is essentially Loch Gorm on steroids. The result is an amazing dram that’s easily my favourite in this tasting.
Kilchoman Single Cask #678 – PX Sherry 2010
Pedro Ximénez casks are traditionally less used for maturing whisky than Oloroso butts. This is because PX casks are so powerful in terms of flavour that they tend to overwhelm any whisky that’s placed inside them. That’s why this Kilchoman did not receive a full maturation in PX casks, but rather a 3 month finish. As a result, this PX finished Kilchoman is actually less sweet than the Oloroso aged version, and has a better balance between sherry influence and distillery character. Bottled at 57%.