The Inimitable Icon of Islay: Kilchoman
Terroir in the spirits world is alive and well. There are many who'd argue that the unique characters that are derived from the land and climate of where a spirit is made are stripped out during distillation. I'd argue that they never leave, the base material and how it's produced are just as important as the final product and are even further enhanced during aging if it's done in the same area. There are a few producers across spirits categories that have endeavored to maximize this the special characteristics that make their climate unique and produce truly authentic and compelling spirits. Kilchoman is just such a place.
When Kilchoman opened in 2005, it was the first new distillery in 124 years on Islay. Their founder, Anthony Wills, had a special approach in mind for a new kind of distillery. He wanted to create something with purpose and intention. His dream was to engage with the entire process of whiskey making. He found just the right farm and opened a distillery on the property. He set out to make whiskey in the same way it was always made: grow your own barley, malt it yourself, distill it into whiskey, age, and bottle it on site, and deliver a product that shows an incredible sense of place, quality, and the heart and soul of the people who made it. In short, he wanted to make a terroir-driven whiskey. And he has succeeded.
My colleague Andrew Stevens and I were fortunate enough to visit the farm distillery this past May and see for ourselves just how special the land is. On the drive in, you look out over Loch Gorm and pass by the fields of Rockside Farm where the distillery grows its barley. The picturesque countryside is everything you imagine Scotland to be. It is lush, green, and dotted with sheep. Pulling into the Kilchoman, there is an immediate sense of place and tradition, but with a touch of modernity. The sign out front advertises the exceptional gift shop and cafe for instance. This juxtaposition between the traditional whiskey production and modern tourism industry that exists within the industry is present throughout Islay, but never obtrusive at Kilchoman.
Anthony Wills, the distillery's founder, met us in the very welcoming shop and was kind enough to take the time to tour us around. The first stop — a view of the fields. The very reason for Kilchoman's existence is to make the 100% Islay Barley whiskey. Those fields are the tangible evidence of Kilchoman's mission. From there, the harvested barley makes the short journey into the malt barn. While the majority of the barley for Kilchoman's production is sourced from Port Ellen, all of the Rockside barley is malted in house. The kiln dries the barley and applies the fine blanket of peat smoke that adds so much complexity to the Islay Barley bottling. While most of the lineup from Kilchoman is around 50ppm in smoke phenols, the Islay Barley sees considerably less, roughly 15-20ppm and really lets the fruity complexity of the malt shine.
From there, it's off to the heart of the distillery. The one small mash tun and two tiny stills are all it takes. The smaller stills retain an enormous amount of character from the fermented juice and Kilchoman fresh off the still stood out amongst every new make spirit we tasted on the trip for its intense fruitiness, round soft smoke, and complete balance and harmony. Quite the feat for white dog spirit.
While the tour of the facility and the chance to pick Anthony's brain was incredible, the fun really began in the dunnage warehouse. We tasted through many casks, some destined for specific bottlings, others simply interesting experiments that will find their way into unique releases. While each was a special experience in its own right, the cask we eventually chose to purchase was simply outstanding. In a single glass, this whiskey relates the entire story, history, experience, and essence of Kilchoman. A truly remarkable achievement.
Laid down in 2008, just a few short years after the distillery began, and bottled just shy of its 10th birthday, this 100% Islay Barley Cask is one of the oldest to ever hit the market. It is the perfect example of why Kilchoman exists and why the discussion of terroir in whiskey matters. Aged in a fresh bourbon barrel from Buffalo Trace (the only distillery Kilchoman sources their bourbon barrels from), it is the perfect blend of sweet spices, malty goodness, fresh cut grass, salt breeze, and soft peat smoke. One sniff and I'm instantly transported to the distillery's driveway. A sip, and I'm standing in front of the kiln, peat smoke wafting out. The finish walks me past the stills and through the warehouse, glorious fruit of the new make and the drier, savory tones of the earthen floor abound. It's a malt that lingers, engages all of your senses, and makes you stop and think about art, dedication, and the passion that went into making such a harmonious package. It is a pure expression of people, place, and time.
While I'm sure Anthony feels his work is never done, I believe this whiskey has captured his intention and efforts perfectly. While Kilchoman can't point to decades of experience and tradition stretching back hundreds of years, it's amazing to watch (and taste) as they carefully lay the foundation for what will certainly be considered one of the world's most cherished whiskies over the next several centuries as they remake the model for what whiskey should be.