Visions of Scotland: green rolling hills, cold rain and damp mist, dry stone walls, sheep (lots of them!) and distilleries…so many distilleries. All of this awaited us when we landed in Scotland a few weeks ago for a tour of the country’s islands and iconic distilleries.
The us included my wine and spirit sales rep, Kevin Giacometti, who organized the trip, and my wife, Doria, who wasn’t going to let the opportunity to taste plenty of remarkable whiskies pass her by. She also assigned herself as official photographer for the trip, allowing Kevin and I to talk business with the various folks we met while still documenting our experiences.
We landed at Edinburgh Airport, early on a very typical Scottish Monday morning: a cold bracing wind, lashing rain…ah, it was good to be home (having lived in Edinburgh for two years, I’d grown accustomed to 40 degree mornings in mid-May). We got the rental car sorted and soon we were off, snaking our way through rush hour traffic, and the peripheral sights of industrial Glasgow, past Auchentoshan Distillery, and across the Clyde (twice…the navigation was a bit tricky with the jet lag) before crossing into Loch Lomand and the Trossachs National Park. On we went through the very picturesque village of Inverary to Kennacraig to catch the 1pm ferry to Islay. I have been on many ferries in my life (living on a small island off the west coast of Europe requires ferry travel from time to time) but this was something special. The sun came out just as we were losing sight of the Mull of Kintyre and the sea became less heavy. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking as the boat traveled up between the islands of Islay and Jura. After a two hours journey, the tiny harbor of Port Askaig came into sight. Islay at last. Onwards to the gorgeous Bridgend Hotel to catch up on some much needed food and sleep.
Tuesday morning we awoke to beautiful weather, sunshine and clear blue skies. After a stomach lining breakfast consisting of juice, cereal, yogurt, sausages, rashers, black pudding, haggis, potato scones, eggs, beans, toast and copious cups of tea we set off for Kilchoman distillery. Whisky tasting is hungry work!
Kilchoman (Kill-ho-man) was one of two distilleries that we were specifically coming to see on this trip. Kilchoman is one of eight distilleries on the island and although production only commenced in June 2005, it has quickly made a name for itself for the quality of its spirit. The island of Islay, which is also a Scotch whisky region, is known for having some of Scotland’s most distinctive malts. Legendary distilleries such as Laphroaig, Lagavullin and Ardbeg produce a spirit that is uniquely smoky, peaty, earthy and briny.
Kilchoman is true to that typical Islay style and despite its youth has been producing a spirit that is heavy in flavor but light in body and very evenly balanced. The guys at Kilchoman have effectively turned the notion that the age of a whisky has something to do with quality upside down. Gone are the days of having to wait 10 or 12 years before the whisky is ready to be bottled. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not saying that every distillery should take Kilchoman’s lead and release young whisky. But Anthony Wills along with Kilchoman’s Distillery Manager John Maclellan have been releasing their young whiskies since they legally came of age, at just over 3 years old, to much critical acclaim. I can honestly say that I was a little skeptical of the whisky when I first heard about it, but after having sampled it I changed my tune. For me, the proof is in the bottle and I encourage you to do the same. Sample it and see!
Well that’s what we were about to find out. First though we had to navigate our way along miles and miles of single lane narrow roads (think of the Monon Trail at its narrowest point) and through barren landscape to get to this little distillery. Little is actually an overstatement. Snug would be better suited to describe Kilchoman, as it sits slap bang in the middle of ‘Rockside Farm’ which is a working farm complete with animals, muck and a riding school less than 30 feet from the stills!
As whisky drinkers know, it all begins with the barley. Kilchoman is unique when it comes to Scotch production, as all of the barley that they use is grown on Rockside Farm. These ½ ton bags contain Optic and Chalice barley. Talk about locally sourced! Two bags are used per mash.
Although they do some peating onsite to a level of between 20 to 25 PPM’s (Parts per Million), they also make use of the Port Ellen malting’s facilities for a portion of their needs. The peating level of this barley is around 50PPM’s which is similar to what Ardbeg uses.
Behind me are the 1000 liter tanks the distillery uses to hold their water supplies. The water is sourced miles away up in the hills where it is collected and then transported to the distillery. Although it does not contain any peat it is a dirty brown brackish color. Filtration and distillation removes that color.
The cask behind me was used in the production of W.L. Weller Straight Kentucky Bourbon.
What surprised me the most about this small operation was the size of its bottling hall which is no bigger than a one car garage. Automation was nowhere to be seen except for the bottle filler on the back wall to the right.
The two young guys seated are putting the gold seals on the bottles by hand. Even the 50ml bottles are filled each one at a time! Talk about a labor intensive process.
Kilchoman is totally unique in the fact that they do most everything at the distillery by hand, whether it is using traditional malting floors, running their own kiln to dry a portion of the peat, to distilling, maturing and bottling onsite.
This handcrafted production is the reason why this whisky is not as affordable as, for example, a Laphroaig 10 year old. It is all hands on deck at this operation as opposed to all robots at the ready at many of Scotland’s larger distilleries.
However, since we came back from Scotland, Kilchoman’s US importer has given us a hand in getting the price of the whisky down to a more affordable level. This is your chance to try a bottle or two of either the Winter 2010 Limited Release, or the Spring 2011 Limited Release. When it arrived to us first it was over $70 a bottle. I am delighted to announce that the price on both of these two expressions is now a very respectable $54.99. All the more reason to grab a bottle!
After leaving Kilchoman we headed to the lovely Machir Bay which is literally down the road from the distillery. However our journey took much longer than the suggested 5 minutes due to frequent on-street protests by the four-legged islanders!
Part 2 of our travels will follow next week, when we meet up with our good friends at Bruichladdich.