Whisky Tasting: Kilchoman Distillery

KilchomanTo be completely honest, Kilchoman isn’t at the top of my list of favorite whiskies. There’s just too much other stuff on Islay alone which gets my interest.

Id never been over enamored with the distillery on my visit several years ago. Although set on the rugged west coast of Islay overlooking Loch Gorm and a stone’s throw from Machir Bay, it just isn’t steeped with history, whitewashed walls and block lettering on the side like I was used to seeing on the island.

However, I approached this tasting evening with an open mind.

Hosted by George Wills, one of three sons of former independent whisky bottler and founder Anthony – all who play a role in Kilchoman.

For those of you not in the know, the distillery started out in 2005 using some old farm buildings (to blend into the Islay countryside) and was the first new distillery to be built on the island for 125 years. Generally speaking, their whiskies are from casks between five and six years old. They do have older casks, but obviously need to preserve their stocks for the future.

100% Islay
Why 100% Isay? Because this uses barley which was all grown on their farm in Islay. The aim was to create a spirit true to its surroundings – something similar seems to be going on with Bruichladdich too. In a day where demand requires scale, and the only scale the island can really offer is in Port Ellen maltings, then this is an admirable (and very marketable) approach to take.

Bottled at 50% abv, this is a pale coloured whisky and lightly peated (10-15ppm). The barley used is a hardy strain called Publican, which can cope with the strong Atlantic winds and downpours on their open coastal fields – meaning a yield can be more easily predicted to make this. Having said that, it is limited to 12,500 annually released bottles – but the reason for the limited supply is blamed on George’s brother, Peter, whom he blames for a fire at the distillery years ago.. (Note: Peter not present to defend himself. Every story – two sides and all that…).

This has a certain sweetness to is and I noted as “ok”, Water was suggested, but this didn’t help for my palate as I preferred the flavours which came with the strength. The peat came through in a subtle way as did vanilla and caramel too. (These are matured in 100% Bourbon casks – Buffalo Trace to be precise).

Machir Bay
Now we’re talking. Named after the nearby bay (sand and wind blasted, open beach, big waves. Great to blast the cobwebs away), this is more peated (50ppm I think) and has much more going on all round.

It has a great nose and is 90% bourbon and 10% sherry casks, so has a slight richness to it and gives more of a characterful glass. The finish is long and the peat subtle but noticeable and welcome.

Loch Gorm
Loch Gorm is their sherried bottling – 100% maturation in Jose Miguel oloroso sherry butts (the same bodega as Glenfarclas use). The butts used are fresh and refill, which probably gives this its balance.

It’s very rich and smooth on the palate, however less so on the finish. It has a peppery taste to it which grows with time, and people mentioned an ‘earthy’ feel to it.

Bottles at 46% abv, this is very drinkable.

Port Cask
No introduction needed, this is matured in ex-Dias casks from Portugal. It has a ruby-red hue to it and is sweet, but also harsh too. It does soften with water, but this one divided opinion. Guesses where that this is a fairly young spirit but a few were puzzled why it was bottled at 55% abv. It needs to mellow some more.

Notable that this evening represented the only place where you were going to be able to buy it in the UK at this moment in time, such is the scarceness of it. And, people did.

Original Cask Strength
A 50ppm bottling at 59.2% – this is a real beast. Matured in fresh and refill bourbon (out of 35 casks, 27 were fresh) this is one to keep an eye on for the future. This has a very strong nose and, for me, an increased complexity to it. It’s possibly as you have to contend with the strength, and as you do the vanilla flavours come in waves, or it could be because I was still recovering from the Port cask.

Very intriguing.

UK Landrover Tour
The visit from Kilchoman was part of a UK-wide tour. 2 men in a landrover and a load of whisky. In fact, they had previously done much of Europe too.

This is a cask-strength Machir Bay, 90% bourbon, 10% oloroso and limited to just shy of 500 bottles – or so they tell me.

Whatever Machir Bay does for you, this intensified it. Hit of the night for me,

And that’s it.

What really got me about Kilchoman is that it has matured as a whisky. It has settled in to it’s groove and lost the new-make taste which I remember from an early visit. Machir Bay has found an identity I can appreciate and it will be finding a way onto my shelf before too long. Also, there’s enough going on to keep me interested – I will take note of their cask-strength spirits and special releases too. And although the Port Cask didn’t hit the spot for me, it does show a distillery with ambitions in delivering taste rather than volume.

Great stuff. Im now a convert.

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