Scotland - Day 9 continued: An Addendum
Because we're always in a hurry, rushing from appointments to dinner, from town to town, distillery to distillery, I don't always have time to type a thorough report of every location. This has been especially true of Islay, where we don't have internet at our cottage. I've been posting up amidst the crowds at Duffie's bar in Bowmore, milking the wifi for as long as I can until they need the space for someone actually looking to eat. As I've gone back and re-read the posts, I've realized some important points that I forgot to report. Here's a quick list of significant statements about the distilleries on Islay.
- Laphroaig has managed to increase their production significantly without moving completely away from the older traditions. Whereas Lagavulin no longer malts any barley or fills any barrels on site, instead using the Diageo facilities to carry this out, Laphroaig has decided to keep up the pace by focusing on doing one thing well. Every single drop of their whisky goes into first-fill Bourbon barrels and that's it. There's no blending or mixing necessary and they don't make any other expressions. Jim McEwan over at Bruichladdich discussed with us the difficulties in creating several different spirits and having to blend various types of barrels. Laphroaig has decided upon one course and its a very simple one - one type of spirit, one type of barrel, full speed ahead. While they do partake in secondary maturation, such as their quarter cask release, that's only after it goes into first-fill Bourbon. There's not a ton of selection between their malts, but at least they haven't changed much concerning the way it's made.
- Kilchoman is known as the "farm distillery," something that other distilleries on Islay hardly resemble, however there used to be mainly farm distilleries on the island. In the 1800's almost all distillation on Islay took place on a farm, much like it does today at Kilchoman. It's the only distillery to do everything locally and it's the most traditional in every way because they've embraced what whisky making on Islay actually used to be. There are so many expensive craft whiskies which justify their cost by claiming they use "local ingredients, organic products, craft-distillation," and other tag lines that resonate with today's curious drinker. However, my question has always been and will remain: SHOULD YOU BE MAKING THIS? If it doesn't taste any better than whisky at half the price, and it's more expensive to make, and it brings nothing interesting to the table, then maybe you shouldn't be making it. This is not the case at Kilchoman. Their new-make is unbelievable – I could drink a bottle of it on my own. Their dedication to the original tradition of Islay and impeccable quality is unmatched. They understand that the prices are high, but they have very good reasons as to why – namely because they're a tiny operation that chooses heritage over efficiency. If someone therefore asked me, "Should Kilchoman continue on even though their whisky costs a fortune to make?" the answer would be YES! It's definitely worth the extra money if you can afford it. If you can't, or don't want to pay for it, that's fine too. Just don't blow it off, however, as overpriced young whisky. Quality is important. Heritage is important. After visiting the distillery, tasting with John, and sampling through the casks, I think I can safely say that Kilchoman is my favorite peated whisky in the world. That's my own personal opinion and I know that others won't agree, but it's been a long time since a single malt made me as happy or excited as Kilchoman. The local barley sherry cask we tasted was f-ing unreal. Unlike any other peated whisky I've ever had, and definitely something that should be in production, no matter if it's expensive to make. When their barrels get to ten years we're all in for a real treat.
- We're still unsure as to what we should call the casks for Lagavulin's maturation program. Because all the barrels are filled in mainland Scotland, no one at the distillery is actually sure of the specifics concerning each cask – say if it's second or third-fill. If you ask the distillery, they'll say that their whisky is aged in American and European wood. Iain said that their sherry and bourbon casks are stripped, re-charred (or re-toasted in the case of the sherry) and then either used as is or re-coopered into a hogshead. He told us they didn't use sherry casks, but when we arrived in the warehouse it was full of sherry barrels and puncheons. We laughed and said, "I thought you guys didn't use sherry!" What he meant, however, was that these "sherry" barrels have little to no actual sherry residual left inside the wood, therefore it's more accurate to talk about the wood rather than the sherry, or the size of the actual barrel. True, some of the whisky at Lagavulin is sitting inside a sherry butt. However, because this is perhaps the fourth or fifth time this particular butt has been used, the actual sweet sherry is long gone and what we're tasting according to Lagavulin is the re-toasted wood, not influence of the sherry wine. Therefore, they don't say "sherry" because that would imply that the whisky is soaking up the actual sherry residue. It's really confusing, but I think we understand it. David is still convinced, however, that there is some serious sherry influence in those whiskies. Until Diageo lets us visit their barrel program in central Scotland, I guess we'll never know for sure.