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Islay whisky has a history stretching back over several centuries, with a handful of distilleries becoming icons of the region, imposing across the whole of the industry. With such a looming tradition, innovation might seem impossible, yet Islay’s youngest distillery, Kilchoman, has defied the odds to become one of Scotch Whisky’s most exciting distilleries.
Cherished by connoisseurs, the distillery has broken the mould and challenged the preconceptions surrounding the spirit’s age, releasing many fantastic young whiskies. Despite the distillery’s own youth (being founded in 2005) it has asserted a strong identity, known for its clean cut and ashy peat, and top notch single cask and annual releases. It is also Islay’s only farm distillery, with the barley for their 100% Islay expression grown on site, and hand bottled at the distillery. Truly, Kilchoman is a distillery bringing tradition to the 21st century.
Kilchoman’s techniques are fascinating. The distillery uses floor maltings, however, unlike the other handful of distilleries that use this system, they have not retained it, rather they have created the new maltings deliberately. What most distilleries have got rid of with time, Kilchoman has enthusiastically embraced.
They go a step further though, with many expressions from their range using barley grown in the fields surrounding the distillery. Unusually, Kilchoman uses the more resilient publican strain barely, as opposed to the industry –standard optic strain. Other whiskies use barley from the Port Ellen maltings (roughly 70% of all product).
After malting, the grain is peated to 25ppm for 10 hours, before drying for 40 hours. 1.2 tonnes is then milled for mashing, this happens six times a week.
Kilchoman does three waters when mashing: one at 64 degrees, one at 80 and one at 90. They use water from a nearby artificial loch. Both washbacks and mashtun are stainless steel, and rather remarkably, all equipment was custom built for Kilchoman, rather than recycling old equipment from decommissioned distilleries. Fermentation takes between 80 and 120 hours, and produces a strong cloudy beer, around 7.5% ABV, using Mauri yeast.
Kilchoman runs a very small operation, with just the two stills, one wash and one spirit. The stills are some of the smallest in Scotland, of a comparable size to the ones found in Edradour. They have also been designed for a high amount of reflux, meaning that there is more copper contact on the spirit- producing a lighter body.
The wash still is charged with about 3000 litres and the spirit still with 1600 litres. One mash charge is equal to two runs of the stills, as such from the six mashes done each week, 12 still runs are produced. The cut is taken at about 69% with the lowest cut being 60% and the highest 70%. The final bottling strength of Kilchoman is around 50-55%.
The vast majority of their spirit is housed in bourbon cask from Buffalo Trace, though the distillery is becoming increasingly known for its special cask maturations and finishes in sweet wine casks, such as Oloroso Sherry, Madeira and Port.
Bottling also occurs on site, meaning that some Kilchoman expressions are totally produced there, from grain to glass. All Kilchoman whiskies are entirely free of filtration and colouring, in keeping with their natural, grass roots approach.
Kilchoman was the first new distillery to be built on Islay for 124 years, and was founded by Anthony Willis in 2005. Willis was not new to the whisky game, having run a successful independent bottler for several years prior to Kilchoman. Spirit first trickled from the stills in November of that year.
Over the years, the distillery has picked up a few other experienced whisky folk, such as John Maclellan, who had 21 years’ experience at Bunnahabhain, and Tony Rozga, also from that distillery.
The distillery’s history has mostly been marked by great releases- from the "Inaugural Release" in 2009, to "100% Islay", to 2014’s "Port Cask Matured"- which caused quite a stir in the online community.
Overall, whilst the distillery’s history is short, they have already achieved excellence, and have shaken up the whisky industry. Drinkers can certainly expect more great things to come.
In the distillery’s early days, they made quite a name for themselves by releasing new make and barely matured spirit, until they reached the three year boundary where they could call it "whisky" by law. These releases were generally well-received, but mostly offered an interesting insight into the house-style of the distillery. Some of these spirits are still floating around, and certainly should interest any big Kilchoman fans.
Slightly more conventionally, Kilchoman has released extremely popular single cask releases, and annual releases. Particularly impressive are the "Vintage" series of comparatively old bourbon cask Kilchoman and 2014’s Port Matured special release. The distillery has also produced several excellent Feis Ile bottlings.