October 16, 2012

Kilchoman - the little distillery that could

If you wanted to pick one distillery on Islay that's quite different from the other seven, it would have to be Kilchoman. It's situated inland, in a wild and rugged part of Islay, rather than on the coast; it's very young (2004) relative to the others, independently owned (the only one on Islay now)and it's tiny (check out the size of the one wash still and one spirit still). But this charming little distillery is building a reputation and has no shortage of buyers for its still young whisky. Nearly every pub on Islay is stocking the stuff and, at the distillery, people were lining up to buy a bottle or two. Although Kilchoman currently buys in most of its barley, it's also producing its 100% line, i.e. whisky made from its own barley, grown in its own fields, malted on site, obviously made on site and then bottled on site in a tiny bottling room. Bravo!
The distillery used to be a farm, and still looks like one from a distance, apart from the telltale pagoda. The water from the taps and in the cisterns runs brown, thanks to the island peat. I was delighted to find this, as elsewhere on the island the water is filtered and normal, probably because brown water in the bath tub gets old and tired pretty easily. Kilchoman is relatively new, but folks are visiting in good numbers, thanks in part to a fine wee cafe, where I had some brilliant Cullen Skink, and a shop, which sells an assortment of local stuff as well as whisky.
John MacLellan has been the distillery manager at Kilchoman since 2010, following 21 years at Bunnahabhain. John was at Whisky Live in Paris when I visited and Anthony Wills, the Managing Director, was also away, so Tony Rozga, who used to be the stillman at Bunnahabhain, showed me around. 
We spent a bit of time looking at barley initially and sniffing the unsprouted barley (negligible aroma) then the partially sprouted stuff, which reminded me of alfalfa sprouts. When the malting floor is not covered in local barley, it's cleared and doubles as a stop on the tour and a bit of a storage area. This will change soon as production increases and more space is created to meet the demand. At this juncture, we tasted some 100% Islay 2nd edition at 50% ABV - still less than 5 years old, but with nice citric and pastry notes, quite tangy and spicy on the palate. Water toned down the alcohol and also the flavour, but there was still a nice kick on the end. There was something really warming about drinking an entirely local, "made on the farm" product, with lots of promise for more mature stuff down the road.
Kilchoman whiskies are lightly peated at about 20ppm, and the barley is milled to extract the maximum sugar from the barley, thus producing a more sugary wort. In Tony's opinion, mashing is the most important part of the production process. The malt that goes into the mashtun has to have the right percentages of flour, grist and husks to produce the desired sugar levels; the husks retain the peat flavours and also help in proper drainage of the wort. All the equipment at the distillery is new and  purpose built. The mash tun is stainless steel with a copper top. It produces 6000 litres of wort to feed the four stainless steel washbacks. The wash still has a capacity of  3230 litres and the spirit still is 2070 litres. The low wines from the first distillation have aromas of apples, wax and oil. The residue pot ale from this distillation goes back to the fields to continue the magical cycle. Kilchoman aims for a light and floral character, so the whole distillation process is taken nice and slowly. According to Tony, 300 litres of new make spirit is the cut taken daily  from the spirit still. When you think of the 6000 litres of wort that started the process, that's a mere 5% of the original liquid which will find its way into casks. It's not often that one gets  a  chance to see Cask number 1 in a distillery warehouse, especially one looking as pristine as this. Tony jumped onto the racks of casks, valinch in hand and extracted a bit of whisky from a  2006 ex bourbon cask. 80 to 90% of the maturation is in ex bourbon barrels, most of them from Buffalo Trace.It had a way to go in the maturation cycle - fresh pears, nail polish, a bit of peat and a sharp ending, but there were other folks with me and several ooh-ed and aah-ed over that one. That's the great thing about whisky - there's no such thing as bad whisky, it's just a  matter of taste. Or so it is said...........
Another similar aged whisky from a  sherry cask was very nice for its age.
We popped into the tiny bottling room/shipping area  for a quick look, and saw the chart on the wall with the upcoming shipments. Kilchoman is selling its products quite far and wide, a result of the extensive marketing efforts of Andrew Wills and John MacLellan I imagine. When Kilchoman is diluted down for bottling, the water is put through a UV and fine filter to mitigate against that brown colour I referred to earlier. Probably not a bad thing. The brown colour is - well - brown.
Back in the tasting room, we tried the Machir Bay Kilchoman, bottled at 46%, unaged but taken from 3, 4 and 5 year old bourbon barrels, and then married for about 6 weeks in sherry casks. It was fruity, sweet and quite nicely balanced. The Vintage Kilchoman, as it is known, was matured in bourbon casks, about 80% first fill, the rest refill. Still about 5 years old, it was fresh and had a long finish. It was quite nice. There was a single cask sherry 2006, at 50.5% which I didn't care for - something about the cask - but, again, there were proclamations of joy from others.
Anyway, everything is young at this point, but there's a lot going on at Kilchoman with much enthusiasm and pride, so I look forward to returning to this wee distillery on a future trip and tasting more of everything, especially the very local 100% Islay whisky.
On a trivia note, Kilchoman is Scotland's most westerly distillery - another claim to fame.
Next up - Bunnahabhain.