Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kilchoman Tasting

In light of the loss of Port Ellen (1983) and the near losses of Ardbeg (mothballed 1981-1989) and Bruichladdich (mothballed 1993-2001), it was a pretty big deal when Kilchoman opened in December of 2005 as the first new distillery built on Islay in 124 years. My first experience with Kilchoman was their Spring 2011 Release, a bottle which I had purchased in the fall of that year and finally sampled shortly before my trip to Scotland in the spring of 2012.

I was quite impressed by this young offering, especially considering its age (70% 3 year and 30% 4 year). Making a pilgrimage to and taking a tour of the Kilchoman distillery had become a top priority of the four days I would spend on Islay. Fortunately their gift shop was well stocked with a nice variety of miniatures. In addition to the 700 ml Sherry Cask Release bottle that I bought there, I also picked up 50 ml bottles of the Winter 2010 Release and Inaugural 100% Islay (reviewed here) as well as the 2006 Vintage and 2012 Machir Bay (reviewed here).

When I recently received an email from the Burgundy Lion in Montreal detailing their upcoming tastings, the Kilchoman event hosted by Anthony Wills, the distillery’s founder, immediately caught my attention. As the distillery had started out selling some very young whiskies, I was really curious to see how their products had evolved over the last three and a half years. The average age of their bottlings has crept up a little every year, but they do have to sell a pretty good amount of whisky to keep the operation going, so they’re certainly not offering a range of 9 year olds as the distillery approaches the 10th anniversary of the start of production.

Before I get into the individual whiskies, I’ll touch on some of the insights that I gained from the man who established the business. Starting an independent distillery from scratch is no easy task. Mr. Wills knew this, but as an independent bottler he also knew that it was getting harder and harder to source quality whisky and that distillery ownership was the best way to secure a future in the industry. Understanding that the reputable name of an established single malt brand can be a big asset to an independent bottler, he also realized how important the Islay “brand” and location would be to a new distillery, and he wisely chose to locate there.

The biggest challenge would be finding investors; trying to start a brand new distillery was almost unheard of 10-plus years ago and the return on investment would come on a very long time scale. He was able to pull together £1 million; just enough to get the distillery built. Once the vision had a physical manifestation, it was a little easier to attract more capital to keep the place running and growing. The total investment to date has been £10 million. That’s quite a leap of faith.

Having a respectable product to sell early on would be critical to keeping the place going. Wills had the foresight to bring on Dr. James Swan as a consultant with the objective of creating a spirit that would mature quickly. They targeted a style that would be light, clean and fruity. I’m sure every aspect of the process was scrutinized, but the small stills with tall, narrow necks were chosen to maximize copper contact with this goal in mind. The almost exclusive use of 1st fill casks is also an important part of the equation (we were told at the tasting that Kilchoman only uses 1st fill Bourbon barrels from the Buffalo Trace distillery and fresh Sherry casks from the same source as Glenfarclas, but I know some of their early bottlings were aged at least partially in refill Bourbon barrels).


Kilchoman has charted a steady course for growth. Production in 2006, their first full year, was 50,000 liters of alcohol. I believe it was a little over 110,000 in 2012, and we were told that they were likely to come in at 170,000 for 2015 and were forecasting 200,000 liters for 2016. Production will max out at 250,000 liters per year with the current set of stills.

The original idea was for this to be a complete farm distillery, with all of the barley grown on site and malted in house. They quickly realized that this wasn’t feasible but kept the concept alive for one whisky. Their 100% Islay bottling is made from barley grown on a neighboring farm (which they have since bought, bringing that part of the process under their control too) and malted to 20 parts-per-million phenols on a traditional floor malting. The other 80% of their barley, which is used for all of the other bottlings, comes from the Port Ellen malting facility and is peated to 50 ppm.

Kilchoman also does their own bottling and 100% of the whisky they produce ends up as single malt; none of it goes into blends. Everything they bottle in non-chill filtered and natural color.

One of the big questions that I had (and it must be a common question because it was answered before anyone asked it) was “what is the end game in terms of the level of maturation they will eventually build up to?” The answer was 8 to 12 years. Until they have whisky in that age range, they won’t really know where the sweet spot is though. I did get the impression that Anthony was leaning toward the younger part of that estimate as being more likely though. This seems pretty reasonable to me considering how well their spirit performs even down around 4 years of age. Also, looking back to the 1980’s and 1990’s, 8 year old single malts were actually quite common before they were lost to an arms race of increasing age statements.

Of course we’ve now moved into unprecedented boom times and those higher age statements can’t be sustained, so non-age stated single malts are becoming the norm. While Kilchoman has never used official age statements on their labels, preferring to let the whisky stand for itself, they’ve always been very forthright with the age information on their website. Anthony made the very good point that it’s much better to have started without age statements than to have built a reputation around them and then find yourself in a position where you have to eliminate them and try to put a positive spin on the change, as many distillers are now doing.

First up was the 100% Islay bottling. The miniature of this offering that I got at the distillery was the inaugural edition, bottled in 2010 and aged just three years. For the event we tasted the 5th edition which was released in May of 2015. This latest edition is a 5 year old, coming from barrels filled in 2009 and 2010. In both cases the whisky was aged solely in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and bottled at 50% abv.

The nose is very aromatic, with fresh peat smoke, sea spray and fish nets.
On the palate there is a moderate peat level accompanied by tree fruit with a slightly floral edge.
The finish shows good length.
Overall it is clean and well-integrated, with good intensity but not too assertive.

Next up was the Machir Bay bottling, which is Kilchoman’s core expression and accounts for 20% of their sales. The miniature of this bottling that I picked up at the distillery was from the initial release that came out in 2012. Back then it was a vatting of 3 year (60%), 4 year (35%) and 5 year (5%), all of which was aged in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and the 4 year old having spent another 8 weeks in Oloroso Sherry butts. The 2013 bottling was a vatting of 4 and 5 year old Bourbon barrels, with the 4 year old being finished in Oloroso Sherry butts for 4 weeks.

For the event, I’m not sure if we tasted the 2014 or the 2015 Machir Bay (I never saw the bottle), but I believe it was the former. We were told that it was a 5 year old, 90% of which was aged in Bourbon barrels and 10% in Oloroso Sherry casks. The Kilchoman website describes the 2014 as a vatting of 5 and 6 year old Bourbon barrels and Oloroso Sherry butts. There’s no info on the site about the 2015 bottling but I did find a review online claiming that it is aged 5.5 years in 1st fill Bourbon barrels and finished for 6 months in Oloroso Sherry casks, giving a total age of 6 years. All of the Machir Bay bottlings have been at 46% abv.

Compared to the 100% Islay, the nose has fuller, deeper peat smoke aromas, but still with plenty of maritime character.
On the palate the peat is bigger and more robust, with the fruit character dropping into the background.
The smoky notes reverberate and evolve through the lengthy finish.
Surprisingly, this one came across with less apparent maturity than the 100% Islay.

The third whisky of the event was Kilchoman’s Original Cask Strength. This one is from a release of 9200 bottles that came out late in 2014, and as far as I can tell there hasn’t been a 2015 release to date. Aside from a small number of single cask bottlings, this is the distillery’s first cask strength offering, so it has no equivalent among the earlier samples I was able to try. At 59.2% abv, this is a 5 year old coming from a vatting of 35 Bourbon barrels that were all filled in 2009.

The nose has an intense campfire-like smokiness. It has somewhat restrained coastal qualities, with aromas of fresh, wet beach grass thrown on to burning driftwood.
It’s big and assertive on the palate. Pine and wintermint are mingled in with the peat smoke adding nice complexity.
The smoke becomes a bit sooty in nature as the flavors evolve into the finish.
Adding a few drops of water helps to reveal greater depth.

The fourth and final whisky we tasted was the 2015 bottling of Loch Gorm, which is the version of Kilchoman aged exclusively in Sherry casks. There were Loch Gorm releases in 2014 and 2013 as well. The Sherry Cask Release bottle that I acquired at the distillery was essentially the 2012 predecessor to the Loch Gorm series. These have all been bottled at 46% after aging exclusively in Oloroso Sherry casks.

The Sherry Cask Release was aged for 5 years in butts with 6000 bottles produced. The 2013 Loch Gorm was a release of 10,000 bottles and was aged for 5 years in butts with a further 6 weeks in hogsheads. The 2014 Loch Gorm was a release of 17,000 bottles aged for 5 years in butts. The 2015 Loch Gorm is slightly older with a mix of casks filled in 2010 and 2009, all of which were at least 5 years old. 10,000 bottled were produced from a mix of butts and hogsheads.

The nose has lovely, rich 1st fill Sherry cask notes beautifully integrated with the aromas of smoldering peat embers.
The palate has a nice back and forth between the peat smoke and lush Sherry fruit.
Overall it shows good depth, complexity and length.

I mentioned above that I had sampled the Winter 2010 Release and the Spring 2011 Release. I was curious what had happened to this series, so I did a little research and learned there had been four other bottlings. The Inaugural 2009 Release was the distillery’s first general release and had a total of 8450 bottles. It, along with the Autumn 2009 Release and the Spring 2010 Release, was aged about 3 year in Bourbon barrels and finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks (6 months, 2.5 months and 3.5 months, respectively). The Summer 2010 Release and Winter 2010 Release were each aged for more then 3 years, solely in Bourbon barrels. The Spring 2011 Release was a vatting of 3 year old (70%) and 4 year old (30%) aged in Bourbon barrels, with the 4 year old portion finished for an additional 5 weeks in Oloroso Sherry casks. These were all bottled at 46% abv. Looking back it is quite obvious that this series of bottlings was the predecessor to the Machir Bay offerings.

The 2006 Vintage release was another of the miniatures I picked up at the distillery, and that series has continued on. These are aged exclusively in Bourbon barrels and bottled at 46%. They have been released every other year, but the age of the whisky has gone up by a full year with each new release. The 2006 Vintage was bottled in 2011 as a 5 year old, the 2007 Vintage was released in 2013 as a 6 year old, and the 2008 Vintage was released in 2015 as a 7 year old.

A good variety of single cask bottlings have come from the distillery over the years, but each is quite rare by their nature. Aside from everything discussed above, the only other general releases to date have been the Port Cask Matured bottling (fall 2014) and the Madeira Cask Matured bottling (fall 2015). These were both distilled in 2011 and aged exclusively in their namesake cask types. Each release was at 55% abv with a yield of about 6000 bottles.

It was a pleasure to revisit the Kilchoman whiskies almost four years after seeing the distillery in person. Their offerings are progressing nicely and the nearly-10-year-old distillery looks like it is on the path to fulfilling its potential.

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