Those that have spent a little time looking into Kilchoman will know its success has come down to a combination of skill, good fortunate, hard work and some costly mistakes. It’s all of those ups & downs that have inadvertently provided new distilleries with a ‘how-to/how-not-to’ guide. With over 30 new distilleries currently being planned/built at present, mostly small-scale like Kilchoman, the traditional distillery at Rockside farm on Islay is a model for this new wave of start-ups. Making characterful, high quality whisky based on traditional/craft production on a small-scale , Kilchoman is surely set to achieve great things with their gradually maturing spirit in the proceeding years.
Kilchoman is a distillery that respects tradition & location [growing its own barley, in house maltings, maturing & bottling on site, the consumer [bottling at 46% & higher, transparency, sensible prices], and ultimately the spirit. For the Wills family, the cask can colour but should never detract from the character of the spirit that is held in highest regard.
- Rockside farm produces 150 tonnes of grain which is malted on site and used to make their 100% Islay single malt. Commercial malt is brought in for the rest of the range.
- They have increased production from five to six days a week due to demand.
- In 2016 they produced 200,000 litres which is currently their capacity, the equivalent of around 22-23 bourbon barrels a week.
- Their barley is peat smoked for 9-10 hours, with the moisture reduced to around 4%, making the grain ‘pop’ as it hits the gears of the mill.
- Fermentation time is an average of 89 hours with longer fermentations over 100 hours common.
- They take a high cut from the run to capture lighter flavours.
- They buy only first-fill casks. Initially [2005-2006], they bought casks from Heaven Hill but experienced too much inconsistency. They found amazing consistency from Buffalo Trace after establishing a contact with them and have used their casks ever since. All the bourbon barrels arrive whole from the Buffalo Trace distillery. The instant hit from the new make spirit straight into fresh bourbon casks is key to the Kilchoman signature.
- For older Kilchoman expressions, the recipe wont change. With the style of spirit being at the heart of all releases, it’s the use of their own refill casks that will carry the older expressions through a longer maturation period.
To the whisky!
Kilchoman 100% Islay 6th edition 2010/2016 5yo Ob. 50% WB85
So to recap, this is made from their [Concerto] barley grown on the farm, malted [traditional floor maltings], mashed, brewed, distilled and bottled on site. Every part of the process is done ‘traditionally’, apart from the yeast component. At the moment, they use standard dried brewers yeast that comes from Solihull. This is a 5yo malt, all bourbon cask matured. Only very few [of their own] refill casks are used, but predominately it’s first-fill. Whereas the rest of their range carry a ppm of around 50, this has a lower ppm of 12-15.
- N: Chalky, powdery, dusty oiliness, gentle spice, a little cowshed [Pittyvaich]. Really similar to the 2nd edition on the nose, [brought along by Nick for comparison]. Soon the fruits come out with lightly smoked vanillas.
- T: Exquisite youth. Oily-dry, soft greenish notes, sugary with a little ham. Amazingly they manage to avoid that hyperactive, high resinousness that the majority of young, first-fill whiskies give off.
- F: Clean yet rugged barley finish, a little salt on vanilla wafers and a narrow mouthfeel. The peat is ever present but always tickling away in the background.
- C: This years release has produced a super clean, balanced and immaculate 5yo. The 7th release will be a 7yo and will incorporate 10% oloroso to widen the mouthfeel.
Scores 85 points
The next five expressions are all [around] 50ppm, using commercial grain from the Port Ellen maltings with the same spec as Ardbeg & Laphroaig.
Kilchoman Machir Bay  Ob. 46% WB87.33
Here, Kilchoman are looking to achieve the same spirit character as the 100% Islay barley malt but with a higher ppm and an introduction of sherry maturation to that mix. Some previous Machir Bay releases used up to 40% oloroso matured spirit but this uses only 10%, matured using Martell [blog] casks. Four batches are made a year but all follow the same recipe.
- N: You can see the family resemblance to 100% Islay with a rich honeyed oiliness and a chewy sweet>funk.
- T: Clearly sweeter [than the 100% Islay], honeyed again. Dries quicker. Some burned/smoked herbal/heathers. Sweet/oily dry, sweet and soft.
- F: Greenish now with soft sweet vinegar. Dries to a clean finish just like the 100% Islay. A slight oiliness remains.
- C: A sweeter start compared to the 100% Islay but a more sour-dry finish. Again, it’s good stuff though I rather prefer the ‘exquisiteness’ of the first one. This carries ‘youthful exuberance’ [George].
Scores 84 points
Kilchoman Sanaig  Ob. 46% WB83
30% bourbon, 70% oloroso hogsheads, 50ppm.
- N: Lime & banana fruits [isn’t a banana a herb too?], a dirty tarry-ness, mild TCP [worn dressings], Worcestershire sauce, fruity mechanics oil/garages, sherried cream, PX?
- T: ‘Interesting’, PX again? A bit cloying and slightly,.. flat. Becomes a bit powdery.
- F: Oily-powdery, sherry char with soft barley.
- C: Apparently it’s won more awards then any other expressions. Not my favourite of the night but interestingly the one I kept going back to, each time with more curiosity.
Scores 83 points
It’s half time and George decides it’s time to retell the families infamous Rugby story. In 2007, Anthony & Kathy reluctant to leave the boys George, Peter & James alone to attend the distillery whilst they travelled to Twickenham? to watch rugby, left clear instructions.
Before the match:
Attend to the kiln, add one bag of fuel, turn the barley, then return to the TV to watch the first half.
At half time:
Attend to the kiln, add another bag of fuel, turn the barley, watch the second half and return to the distillery.
Bearing in mind the TV, sofas, creature comforts etc. were located 15 minutes away from the distillery, the logic went – if one bag of coal lasts till half time, two bags would keep the distillery going to the end of the match, the barley would surely be fine and no-one would be any the wiser. 62 mins into the match and there’s a phone call from the fire brigade to tell the boys their kiln was on fire and the roof of the maltings was going up.
Sadly there was no opportunity to capitalise on a reverse [Glenfiddich] Snow Phoenix. It took two hours to put fire out. The silo was destroyed, losing 40 tonnes of barley and Kilchoman were out of production for 10 months.
The future was touch-and-go for a while but amazingly it all came good. Kilchoman have now fully recovered and are planning to expand to 450K litres in the next five years.
Kilchoman Loch Gorm 2009/2017 7yo Ob. [13500 bts] 46% WB87
A 7yo matured in 100% Oloroso. More of their precious refills are used here than any other expression in order to protect the spirit.
- N: Charry peat, full sherry, but amazingly no sulphur – they’ve been super careful, brilliantly done. Meaty/vegetal,..
- T: Thickish, bitter/charring, deep, sweet-dry peat, balanced meaty=<vegetal. Illusions of greater age.
- F: Bigger smoke finish, the sherry is so well tempered.
- C: Extremely well tempered, and as close to the ‘sulphury edge’ as one could get without becoming so. This is a real labour of love for Kilchoman to make, demanding lots of their precious refill sherry casks and requiring much attention to make sure the spirit stays intact. How many distilleries make the mistake of allowing the sherry to swamp the spirit? Hats off to Kilchoman, and best of the night so far.
Scores 86 points
Tonight’s flight has so far perfectly demonstrated the effect sherry has on the peated Kilchoman spirit:
- 1] 12ppm all bourbon
- 2] 50ppm 10% sherry
- 3] 50ppm 70% sherry
- 4] 50ppm 100% sherry
Now it’s wine time !
Kilchoman Madeira Cask 2011/2015 4yo Ob. [6100 bts] 50% WB87.43
Released in 2015 as a small release, consisting of 70% bourbon, 20% sherry and 10% various wine casks. It can be a big risk involving wine casks, so it was bottled as a 4yo to avoid the risk of over doing it. Originally planned to be bottled at 55%, it was found to be too spirity – so 50% it is.
- N: Xmas cake, Bruichladdich ‘Sherry Classic’ vibe [remember that oddity WB?],… with brandy cream and all the wine gums. Same oily, yet dry Kilchoman signature, though ‘big’ – those first-fills rather ‘obvious’ for the first time tonight.
- T: Resinous and candid in its makeup, although its still quite a combo.
- F: Dry chocolatey sherry.
- C: A freaky one as using Madeira may suggest. Nick brilliantly coins this a ‘Gestalt’ malt at the same moment as i’m swinging between yes & no, leaning in the end firmly to a yes. Why? – it’s fun, it works and whether you like it or not, those Madeira casks are rather superb. Looking for a Madeira casked single malt, look no further – recommended.
Scores 85 points
[Watch out for a red wine cask matured release, due around September – likely to be a genuine one off.]
Kilchoman Original cask strength 2010/2016 6yo Ob. [12000 bts] 56.9% WB85.26
Lastly we return back to 100% bourbon, matured for 6 years in quarter casks and bottled at strength.
- N: Sweaty salt ’n’ vinegar crisps, vegetal, leather, vanilla, wine gums, custard & creams. Generally, really pungent.
- T: Pungent almost umami aromas, big on aromatic spices, fruity, savoury, woody resins,…. the peat tickling round the edges.
- F: Dry fruits and resinous waxy peatiness – the peat is always there but its the bourbon-y spirit that leads.
- C: On the palate especially, it is very similar to the 100% islay, but the abv along with other factors [grain/maltings], making up the difference. For me the best here tonight, on par with the Loch Gorm but for very different reasons.
Scores 86 points