Just around the bend of Loch Indaal from Bowmore is the road to Kilchoman and Rockside Farm. You head north across the Rhinns of Islay peninsula until you can see Machir Bay and the expanse of the North Atlantic. The distillery is situated directly next to the farm, which is equipped with cattle and fields of barley that stretch away towards the hills in the distance. It's a quiet location, just down the road from Bruichladdich, with little pomp or evidence that you're visiting one of the best whisky producers of single malt whisky in Scotland. It's a simple homestead. A quaint enclosure that feels as cozy as it sounds.
Inside the main building a man named Anthony Willis is malting some Rockside barley the old fashioned way. He's still learning about the process, making adjustments after milling, but his team is getting better at it. They've managed to increase the volume of liters produced for their 100% Islay distillate and the quality seems to get better with each run. Every week two tons of barley from the farm next door are soaked and spread out on the floor until the husks are nice and dry. Every Tuesday they're shoveled by hand into wheelbarrows and transported into the kiln for peating.
Anthony Willis isn't a distiller. That's why he hired John McLellan away from Bunnahabhain. However, Anthony was formerly an independent bottler of single malt whisky and, as the industry began to lock down, refusing to barter its whisky the way it once had, he was able to read the writing on the wall. He needed to control his own supply, so in 2001 he began raising money for a distillery. He had the location in mind, he knew the farmer he wanted to work with, and he knew the style of whisky he wanted to make (being a big fan of Ardbeg). He also realized that, due to the financial hardships of founding a new distillery, he needed to create a spirit that would taste better in its youth. So he got the money, brought in an expert consultant, and designed a compact distillery with a special still that would create a lighter, sweeter, fruitier style of whisky meant for drinking sooner than later. He wouldn't know if the design had worked, however, until actually operating the machinery.
Being someone who sourced single barrels of Scotch for a living, Anthony also understood the importance of good wood. That's why, upon founding the distillery, he immediately struck up a relationship with Buffalo Trace in the U.S. and Miguel Sherry in Spain to being purchasing their left over casks. Quality whisky could only be created through maturation in quality cooperage and today Kilchoman still uses barrels from both producers exclusively (80% of its new make goes into ex-Bourbon, 20% into the Jerez butts).
In 2005, Anthony's team fired up their very special spirit still and began producing whisky at Kilchoman – Islay's farm distillery. Almost ten years later they're slowly gaining recognition for their hard work. It hasn't been easy and many consumers still don't believe that what they're doing is worth the price, but at five and six years of age Anthony's single malt whiskies are beginning to beat out more mature Islay malts in head-to-head competitions and award panels. Every batch they distill is more polished and each release tastes better than the previous one.
"It's definitely coming together," Anthony told us as we stood together in the still room. "We're almost where we want to be."
It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the Kilchoman whiskies. But I'm also an admirer of Anthony himself. Kilchoman is the distillery that we would have built if David and I could have developed our own K&L spirits facility. Anthony's goals, viewpoints, and philosophies are completely in tune with our own. He's a guy who gets whisky, who gets the business, and who understands what whisky fans want. He's smart enough to know that the only way to breakdown the consumer dependence upon age statements is to simply provide better whisky without one.
"Ten years ago this wouldn't have been possible," Anthony said. "We're succeeding because of a much more open-minded view from drinkers who are more educated than ever."
He credits Ardbeg for paving the way, but I think Kilchoman's recent releases have done more to convince drinkers about the potential of young peated whisky than any other distillery's efforts. Case in point: the new edition of Loch Gorm headed our way in the near future. Man....it is good. We all sat there looking at each other, nodding our heads.
"It's much better than our last batch," Anthony said, reading the expressions on our faces.
"No shit!" I replied. "It's twice as good. The sherry is more integrated and everything is much more in balance."
Kilchoman is doing so well that they're running out of space for warehousing. They recently erected a new dunnage site down the road from the distillery, on the way towards Bruichladdich, to help ease some of the pressure and provide more room for extra casks. They've increased their capacity for fermentation as well and they'll be adding another mash tun shortly to help maximize the distillation potential.
Since we just received two incredible Bourbon casks of 2008 distillate from Kilchoman, we decided to focus on tasting some new 100% Islay casks from Rockside for possible K&L exclusives. More on that later.
For now all we can think about is that amazing new batch of Loch Gorm! Lucky for those of you coming to our sold out dinner in a few weeks, Anthony told me as we were leaving that he plans on bringing a few bottles with him when he comes. It looks like he'll be debuting it at the event.
Lucky for you, indeed!
NOTE: Read Kyle's take on Kilchoman here at the main site.