Precocious Whisky From Islay

Floor malting of local barley at Kilchoman distilleryOver the course of history, human beings have shown time and again that they like to dismiss things that don't adhere to the standard public perception.  There is too much security in the stability of ideas to allow for something to just come along and move years of tradition aside!  Nevertheless, the long-standing belief that older malt whisky was better malt whisky has taken blow after blow since the new millenium.  While many of the new craft American distillers attempted to showcase the benefits of young American whiskies, most were less than persuasive.  A group of Islay distilleries, however, has proven over the last decade that malt whisky need not be a minimum of ten years old to have merit.  If made well, with attention, care, and precision, young whisky could actually be quite exciting; not in a new and curious manner, but actually standing toe to toe with other mature examples.  In fact, I would dare say that most of the youthful whiskies from Bruichladdich, Ardbeg, and Kilchoman are simply better than the 12+ year old standard releases from established producers.

Kilchoman's newest release, the 100% Islay Barley Single Malt, is both a great idea and a great whisky.  In trying to present the world with a single malt that actually begins and ends on Islay (all other producers source their malted barley off the island), Kilchoman worked with their Rockside Farm neighbor and harvested their own grain right next to their facility.  They continued with their own floor malting (as seen above), which as far as I know only Bowmore and Springbank still do, and fermented their own mash for distillation of a pure Islay malt.  The first release is a three year old sparkplug that drinks amazingly well now with flashes of lemon oil, peat moss, campfire smoke and the bright zestiness of a blanco tequila.  Part of the enjoyment of the whisky is knowing the story behind it, but the malt is still irresistable and charming.  I would much rather drink this, or even Kilchoman's wonderful sherry-aged 2011 Spring Release than a 12 year old Macallan or 18 year Glenlivet.  Some consumers complain about the cost, seeing that using quality ingredients is a more expensive procedure, but it's obviously not for everyone. There's always room for non-organic Safeway produce while others enjoy the farmer's market.

The newest rendition of Bruichladdich's ultra-peated Octomore series is set to make its U.S. appearance this Fall.  The five year old, over-achieving malt is smoked to a ridiculous 152 ppm and bottled at cask strength, yet the purity and delicacy of the spirit make it palatable straight from the bottle.  Bruichladdich's attention to their stills and therefore their new make spirit has allowed them to market younger whiskies with confidence.  While clocking in well over $100, there is still a passionate following for the Octomore series amongst those who appreciate peated malts, namely because the vivaciousness of the whisky is simply unmatched. 

After only appearing in annual batch releases, Bruichladdich is ready to make Port Charlotte a full time product.  While none of the whisky in their peated malt has made it to ten years old, the Port Charlotte is so good that the lack of an age statement is unimportant.  The richness is more than convincing, the textures are soft, and the balance of smoke is fantastic.  At around the $60 price point, it will immediately compete with it's other NAS cohort - the Ardbeg Uigeadail - for control over the hearts and minds of value-searching Islay lovers.  I personally find it much more satisfying than other more established and mature Islay malts like Lagavulin 16 or Caol Ila 12.  While I find both of those whiskies more than satisfactory, there's simply something more going on in the Port Charlotte whisky - a brightness or high note that stands out above the others. 

Literally every single day there's a customer at K&L who discovers that single malts are not actually single whiskies, but rather blends of numerous malts that just happen to be made at the same distillery.  I think that understanding this fact goes a long way in breaking down the walls of ageism.  Once you realize that single malts are more about mixing for flavor and less about a single qualitative age statement (unless you're buying single barrels, of course), the idea of drinking something younger seems less risky.  NAS whiskies like Ardbeg's Uigeadail, Corryvreckan, Alligator, and Supernova have helped immensely in this transition where more drinkers today have begun to open their minds.  While older and more established distilleries are playing it safe with their mild-mannered classics, younger and hipper producers are showing us that passion, skill, and dedication can sometimes trump experience.  The classic distilleries of Islay have never been more popular, but it's the younger, hungrier distilleries who are keeping it relevant.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll