Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kilchoman, Spring 2011 Release

stats: single malt scotch, Islay, 92 proof, $60

My original intention was to post reviews of the Kilchoman Spring 2011 Release and an early Kilkerran release before I left for Scotland, as a prelude to the trip. Of course, planning and preparations for the trip took precedence, and those posts were put on the back burner. There are still a few Scotland follow-ups to come, but I’m going to intersperse them with these reviews to keep things fresh.

Kilchoman is one of a handful of new distilleries built in Scotland in the last ten years, and the first new one to open on Islay in 124 years. Opening a new distillery from scratch has got to be a daunting prospect. Land and buildings must be purchased or leased, milling, mashing, fermenting and distilling equipment must be acquired. Casks are another big expense. All of that and many years of production costs until you have properly aged whisky to sell. Unless you have incredibly deep pockets, something else must be done to generate revenue more quickly. Some new whisky companies will start off making vodka or gin for quick cash flow in the early years. Others will sell futures (pay now for the whisky that will be ready in 10 years).

Kilchoman has taken a dual approach to solving this problem. They actually started off as an independent bottler using the MacBeatha brand name. Not much info is available, but these all appear to be distilled at other Islay distilleries and bottled at Kilchoman. I did see one such bottle on display at Kilchoman during my recent visit, but didn’t think to ask about it at the time. The second method employed by Islay’s newest distiller has been to bottle and release some very young expressions. They started with 1 month, 1 year and 2 year old new spirit (Scottish law dictates that it must be aged at least 3 years to be called whisky), followed by several releases in the 3 – 5 year range. The current popularity of all things Islay combined with excitement over the first new distiller on the island in more than a century has fueled demand for these early releases. But this can be a risky strategy - if the young offerings don’t impress, the brand’s reputation can be damaged at an early stage.

The Spring 2011 Release is comprised of 4yr (30%) and 3yr (70%), all of which was aged in first fill bourbon barrels, with the 4yr being finished in oloroso sherry butts for 5 weeks.

The nose is dense and smoky in a youthful way without coming across as immature. Fairly heavy in body with aggressive smoke up front on the palate, countered by a balancing richness, which quickly gives way to smoldering peat flavors. Then it gradually progresses into the long, camp-fire finish which is laced with subtle fruit notes.

It is quite enjoyable regardless of age, and that much more impressive when its youth is taken into account. I’m guessing that by the time it reaches 10 years it will gain complexity and lose some of its intensity. Lovely now and showing great potential.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Scotland follow-up, part 1

My pilgrimage to Scotland was the trip of a lifetime. I wanted to make the most of my time there and I really tried to pack a lot into two weeks. Needless to say, plenty of advanced planning was essential. I spent countless hours online, reading reviews of B&B’s and restaurants, researching all the different distillery tours, mapping out my routes, estimating drive times and coordinating with ferry schedules. But once we were there, my efforts were well rewarded. I’m still amazed by how much we were able to see and do in 13 days. At the same time, I think I struck a good balance between always having something interesting to do, and never feeling overloaded with activities or rushed to stay on a schedule.

I was mostly able to stick to my goal of putting up daily blog posts, foregoing sleep for writing time. I think whisky adrenaline and copious amounts of black tea allowed me to get by on 5 hours of sleep a night for much of the vacation. Of course, I could only blog about so much each day, and I skipped over a lot that I would have loved to write about, so a few follow-up posts are in order.

I made the decision to immerse myself fully in the culture, and the culinary arena was a big part of that. I tried to experience as many savory items as I could, starting with local oysters on the ½ shell, on both Mull and Islay. Then it was on to porridge and black pudding with breakfast, and Cullen Skink for lunch (the name sounds more dreadful than it ought to, it’s just smoked haddock chowder). However, all of that is irrelevant if you can’t bring yourself to eat Haggis. Considered the national dish of Scotland, it consists of sheep heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal and suet. This was traditionally cooked in a sheep’s stomach, but most modern Haggis is prepared in a sausage casing. It took me a few days to work myself up to trying it, but when I finally did (stuffed into deep fried mushrooms) I was actually quite fond of it. I also had Haggis in a turnover with tatties and neeps (potato and turnip), but my favorite preparation was the Haggis panini with pickled cabbage served at the Ardbeg distillery’s Old Kiln Café.

Normally, I would consider it a great sacrilege to do anything with single malt Scotch other than put it in a glass and drink it. But, on my first night in Scotland, I was treated to an appetizer of salmon which had been cured in Oban single malt before being hot smoked.

Delicious. After that, I was happy to sample any whisky infused menu item that came my way. In fact, the next night I found myself having a chocolate pot for dessert which was laced with Tobermory single malt – quite delightful. At the Bunnahabhain distillery’s retail shop, I came across a box of Bunnahabhain fudge. The single malt was only 1% of the total ingredients, but it was just enough to add an enchanting dimension to the fudge. As soon as I tasted the first piece, I knew that the box wouldn’t last long enough for any of it to come back to the States. As good as this all was, the pinnacle of whisky foods was Laphroaig marmalade. The home-made specialty of the Cala Sith Guest House, it incorporates a healthy does of Laphroaig 10 yr single malt. Sticky sweet and wondrously smoky, you knew you could only be on Islay the moment you tasted it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was hungover on Day 6, but after the extended tasting tours at Lagavulin and Ardbeg the day before, I was definitely a little rough around the edges. Having Laphroaig marmalade on my toast first thing in the morning that day was certainly a shock to the system.