Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Whisky Road Trip, Florida Scotch dinner part 4

After tasting through Monkey Shoulder, the Port Cask Finish bottling from Arran, and Kilkerran, Work In Progress 7 - Sherry Wood, we moved on to the final whisky of the latest installment of the Florida Scotch dinner; Kilchoman’s Machir Bay. Although not a prerequisite, something smoky always seems appropriate for the last dram of this event as it accompanies a round of hand rolled cigars.

With distillate flowing for the first time in December of 2005, Kilchoman was the next new distillery to come to life in Scotland after Glengyle. More significantly though, it was the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years.

There are currently eight distilleries producing whisky on Islay. Additionally, 20 others are known to have existed in the past. It’s very likely that there were many others, of which we have no record simply because they would have been small scale, unlicensed, farm distilleries that came and went 200 or more years ago. Even of the 20 that we know about, most of them were established in the first half of the 1800’s and were out of production before the end of that century. There are three exceptions to that generalization. Lochindaal operated from 1829 to 1929, Malt Mill (which was a small but separate distillery within the Lagavulin complex) ran from 1908 to 1960, and Port Ellen went from 1825 to 1983 (but that included being mothballed for a lengthy period, from 1929 to 1966).

The introduction of steam powered “puffer” ships in the late 1800’s, which dramatically improved the commercial transportation links between mainland Scotland and the islands, prompted the building of two new distilleries on Islay, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain, both of which were established in 1881. It’s very likely that many of the existing distilleries on Islay expanded significantly during this period as well.

Interestingly, Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain were the first two purpose-built commercial distilleries on the island; all of the others had grown organically out of smaller scale, farm-based operations. They were also the last two distilleries built on Islay (ignoring the anomaly that was Malt Mill) until Kilchoman came along nearly a century and a quarter later. The most fascinating part of this story is that while Kilchoman was established as a commercial distillery, its initial concept was that it would only use barley from local farms, which would all be malted at the distillery on traditional floor maltings.

Kilchoman was established by Anthony Wills, who had been in the whisky industry as an independent bottler for eight years. When that business became increasingly difficult as surplus whisky stocks dried up and buying opportunities for independent bottlers became quite scarce, Wills decided that the only way forward in the industry was to start his own distillery. Such an endeavor requires a lot of capital, and luring investors isn’t easy when the necessary aging of the product results in a lengthy timescale before financial returns can be realized. At least today it’s trendy and popular to start a new distillery; I’m sure it was exponentially harder to convince investors that this was a good idea back in 2002, when planning for Kilchoman began.

But Wills prevailed and was able to secure £1million; enough to at least get the distillery constructed. Once he had gotten that far it was easier to shop the idea around than when it was just words on paper. Of course more money was needed to fuel operations and growth, and to date the project has had a total investment of more than £10million.

In the early days of Islay’s distilling history, its remote location and abundant peat resources were its biggest assets. Before the Wash Act of 1823, the British government had excise taxes set so high that most legal distilling wasn’t economically feasible. Barely accessible by the tax men, Islay became a haven for illicit distilling.

When the post World War II boom period was going full swing in the 1960’s, consumer preferences were also changing in favor of milder, more approachable whiskies. That trend was highlighted by the fact that both Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich switched their spirit over from heavily peated to unpeated in the early 1960’s. Islay’s reputation for producing big, bold peat monsters meant that the boom period’s beneficial effects were muted on the island. Port Ellen going back into production in 1966 after a 37 year closure, and Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich adding second sets of stills (1963 and 1975, respectively) were really the only notable expansions of that period.

When the downturn of the 1980’s came along, Islay was hit particularly hard. Port Ellen closed for good in 1983, Ardbeg was closed for most of the decade, and all of the other distilleries limited production, often to just a few days a week. It’s doubtful that anyone could have seen the coming resurgence in the popularity of Islay whisky when the industry began to rebound in the 1990’s. Today all of the island’s distilleries are revered by the many lovers of smoky single malt and Islay is the ultimate destination for many of the enthusiasts who embark on a whisky pilgrimage.

Anthony Wills had the foresight to recognize the importance of this trend and capitalize on it when he chose a location for his new distillery. Just having the word “Islay” on the label draws a lot of attention. The buzz around the first new distillery to be constructed on the island in well over a century drew a lot of media coverage. Being one of eight distilleries on an island that’s a prime destination for touring enthusiasts guarantees a steady stream of visitors.

All of that is irrelevant though, if the whisky isn’t up to snuff. The second smartest thing Wills did (after his choice of location) was hiring Dr. James Swan as a consultant. For the new distillery to be economically viable it would be necessary to start selling whisky when it was relatively young. The goal, which was deftly achieved by Dr. Swan, was to produce a quickly maturing spirit. This was done by designing the equipment and process to make a fruit-forward, gentle spirit and minimize the heavier compounds which require lengthy aging to tame. Long fermentation times, maximizing copper contact and the use of 1st fill casks primarily were the keys to this strategy. The first Kilchoman I tasted was the spring 2011 release, a mix of 4 year old and 3 year old whisky; I was immediately won over.

I mentioned above that the original concept was for Kilchoman to be a complete farm distillery. The realities of the local barley supply and the distillery’s floor malting capacity didn’t quite allow for that. Currently 20% of their barley is from the farm surrounding the distillery and malted in-house. There are five other distilleries in Scotland that malt some, but not all, of their own barley. They all blend that together with the commercially malted barley that makes up the majority of their supply. At Kilchoman the two are kept separate and local barley is only and exclusively used for their 100% Islay bottling. The floor malted barley is peated to 20 ppm and the commercial malt is peated to 50 ppm, further differentiating the two.

Production has grown steadily since spirit first came off the stills in December of 2005. In 2006 50,000 liters (of alcohol) were produced. By 2012 that was up to 110,000 liters. The projected quantity for 2016 is 200,000 liters, and the distillery’s maximum output is estimated to be 250,000 liters unless more stills are added. In November of 2015 Kilchoman purchased the surrounding Rockside Farm, which has been the source of most of their local barley, ensuring that the “farm distillery” concept will continue to be a part of their business model going forward.

As time has marched on, the ages of the various Kilchoman bottlings have slowly been creeping upward. While none of the labels carry age statements, information about their maturation is usually pretty easy to find. When the 100% Islay expression was introduced in 2010 it was a 3 year old. By the spring of 2015 its age had surpassed the 5 year mark. The Vintage releases come out every other year, but they are from distillate produced in successive years, so each is a year older than the one before it; the 2006 Vintage (released in 2011) was a 5 year old, the 2007 Vintage (released in 2013) was a 6 year old, the 2008 Vintage (released in 2015) was a 7 year old, and the 2009 Vintage will be and 8 year old (when it is released in 2017). Loch Gorm, which is their expression aged exclusively in Oloroso Sherry casks, started off as a 5 year old in 2013 and it has now crested the 6 year mark.

According to Wills, most of the core expressions will ultimately end up somewhere in the 8 year old to 12 year old range. He won’t be more precise than that until the whiskies actually get that old and can be properly evaluated.

For the Florida event we went with Machir Bay, which is Kilchoman’s flagship bottling. It was introduced in 2012 as a vatting of 3 year old (60%), 4 year old (35%) and 5 year old (5%), all of which was aged in 1st fill bourbon barrels, with the 4 year old portion finished for an additional 8 weeks in Oloroso Sherry butts. The bottle at hand is from the 2015 release, which is reported to be a 6 year old that spent 5.5 years in 1st fill bourbon barrels and 6 months in Oloroso Sherry casks.

The nose is fragrant with obvious peat smoke, but there’s a mellowness to it; the peat has depth, but isn’t harsh or jarring. Malt character and briny coastal notes round out the aromatics.
In the mouth it is full bodied, with a hint of malty sweetness up front. A big wave of peat smoke quickly rises up and takes center stage. Notes of burning beach grass and smoldering driftwood embers reverberate and linger. There are some interesting complexities, with the dry phenolic character countered by subtle tropical fruit and a touch of freshly cut hay.
It gracefully meanders through the increasingly spice-driven finish before slowly fading off.
This is very nice as it is, but I’m curious to see where it goes as the age edges upward.

An interesting point which I noticed is that the year of the release for Machir Bay was clearly noted on the label and on the box it came in for the first three years (2012, 2013 and 2014). That is no longer the case with the 2015 release, although the year can still be identified by the bottling code that is printed directly on the glass. To me, this signals that the year-to-year changes may now be subtle enough that the information isn’t too important. It also gives them the flexibility to make age changes midway through a calendar year and not have to worry about maturation information being inaccurate.

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