Scotland - Day 8: Bruichladdich & Kilchoman
Today's journey began with a quick run along the coast to the west of Bowmore distillery, before we both jumped in the car and headed north, across the bay, to Bruichladdich and Kilchoman distilleries. Our visit to Bruichladdich was more of a social call as we are quite close with both master distiller Jim McEwan and current operations manager Simon Coughlin. Jim has been a friend to K&L since our predecessor Susan Purnell helped to bottle the very first post-2001 Bruichladdich exclusively for our store. Three years after her departure, our relationship is stronger than ever and we're even more passionate about their whiskies than before. While our Chenin Blanc cask from last year is now a thing of the past, we wanted to stop by and check in on our replacement for this year - a 2003 vintage peated malt aged in refill Bourbon cask.
The distillery was absolutely packed. The same gigantic tour groups we had seen over at Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig were all visiting Bruichladdich today. We couldn't even park in the main lot. Jim was as animated as ever - always the great storyteller. We traded gossip with him for a about an hour, tasted some exclusive cask offerings, and eventually made our way over to Port Charlotte for lunch.
The PC Hotel is a lovely spot for quick bite to eat. Plenty of whisky and a fantastic lunch menu.
The local Islay ales are also fantastic. Just ask my liver.
After stopping back by the distillery to meet with Simon, we headed up into the country to Kilchoman distillery, a small farm outpost we had yet to visit. While the other Islay distilleries lay right on the main island roads, Kilchoman is really off the beaten path. They call it the "farm distillery" and it truly is. The current owners don't actually own the land outright - they lease it from a nearby landowner. Word on the street is that their relationship has gone sour as of late (gulp!). They've got a fifty year lease, however, so they won't be going anywhere for a while, thank God.
We weren't quite sure what awaited us at Kilchoman. David and I are both big fans of their whiskies, but the American market has been slower to warm than the Europeans. The prices have been quite high and Americans have a reputation for buying numbers rather than whiskies. We're known in Scotland for caring more about age than quality, a stereotype that I can't really argue. The high prices for Kilchoman whisky have been a problem for some domestic drinkers, but I think we can clear that all up by the end of this post.
We were met by distillery manager John MacLellan, who worked as the head of Bunnahabhain distillery for the past two decades. His story is much like that of Jim McEwan from Bruichladdich, in that he left a long-time employer to take over a new and entirely risky adventure. So far, we think his decision has paid off greatly. Also missing from my earlier list of distilleries who self malt is Kilchoman, who use their tiny floor to malt about 1/5th of their total production. The other 80% comes from Port Ellen who peats the barley to their own specifications. The malting room is so small it almost seems like a joke!
John showed us the kiln and talked about peating phenols. At the distillery they peat to about 25 ppm while at Port Ellen they order 50 ppm. The blend of the two grains results in the overall formula. When Kilchoman orders peat from Port Ellen, they don't have the buying power to purchase in bulk. Port Ellen is owned by Diageo, so Lagavulin and Caol Ila get a free pass. Kilchoman, on the other hand, must operate like a corner liquor store. They can't buy as much Lagavulin 16 as Costco - in fact, they have to order just a case at a time. So while Costco continues to sell Lagavulin for dirt cheap (further destroying the overall value of the brand, by the way), the corner store has to charge a hefty $90. Kilchoman faces the same issue when it comes to barley. For those who wonder why it costs what it does, this is a major reason why.
The spirit still at Kilchoman is teeny! The delicate nature of the spirit derives its nature from this small, yet elongated neck. We were fortunate enough to taste the new make straight and it is without a doubt the best new make I've ever tasted. It's fresh, citrusy, and sweetly smoky. Absolutely wonderful. There's no doubt as to why their young whisky tastes so good!
We tasted some samples straight from the cask, including the soon-to-be-bottled Islay festival release - a local barley whisky in sherry butt - amazingly full of cinnamon peat and earthy freshness. We were transfixed. I can tell you this - we will be buying a cask from Kilchoman. Their whisky is insanely good. They're doing all the right things. Their new make is light years ahead of everyone else and the young whisky shines already. There's no doubt that their whisky is worth the extra expense. It's going to be a showstopper soon.
We'll be getting a medium-priced, feature release very soon called Machir Bay that will be a full-time item. The price should be right and it tastes great. Such a great visit from John and much to be excited about!