Kilchoman tasting with Anthony Wills

Five expressions from Islay’s newest distillery

It doesn’t matter quite how busy my week gets, I always look forward to the whisky tastings held at the Oak Barrel in Sydney. The other week was no exception, so as soon as 6.30pm hit, into the tasting cave we ventured for a rather special Kilchoman masterclass.

Kilchoman brochure

The Oak Barrel’s whisky expert, Dave, normally runs the tastings. But occasionally he takes a seat with the rest of us and invites someone along to present instead. It’s fair to say that he keeps pretty good company, because the other week we were privileged to have someone pretty special presenting for us – the founder and owner of Kilchoman Distillery, Mr Anthony Wills.

Kilchoman: The story 

You may know of Kilchoman as the first new distillery to be built on Islay in 125 years, but here are a few things you may not be aware of.

Kilchoman (pronounced kil-ho-man) is the brainchild of former independent whisky bottler, Mr Anthony Wills. After finding that it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to get his hands on quality single cask whiskies to bottle, Anthony came to the conclusion that there was only going to be one way for him to secure his own supply of whisky well into the future. How? To build his very own distillery of course!

I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who’ve had similar dreams, but the number who’ve actually turned that dream into reality? My guess is that you can probably count them on one hand.

Kilchoman - Brochure Anthony

With the financial and moral support of his family, in 2005 Anthony & Co. sunk a million pounds into refurbishing and rebuilding the distillery’s buildings and purchasing the required equipment.

With no money left for production (and no actual distilling experience), Anthony managed to convince John Maclellan to leave his secure, long-term job as Master Distiller at Bunnahabhain and come and work for him. He was joined by Dr Jim Swan, whom Anthony brought on-board to help define and craft a specific spirit for Kilchoman, one Anthony describes as ‘clean, floral, sweet and peaty’. And so by the end of 2005, the stills were run for the first time and Kilchoman’s very first American Oak cask was filled on 14 December 2005.

Kilchoman managed to make a trading profit after just five years in business and last year they produced over 130,000 litres of spirit – coming a very long way from their first year of production where they produced 50,000 litres of spirit and filled just 12 casks a week!

Edit: I’ve been reliably informed that John Maclellan didn’t actually join Kilchoman until 2010, well after the stills started running. Thanks to Andrew for clearing that up for me!

Kilchoman: The whiskies

After Anthony delivered this interesting and informative intro, it was time to get down to business and taste some whisky.

Kilchoman tasting glasses

Before we get into each one though, here are some Kilchoman fast facts:

  • The barley for all of their expression (except 100% Islay) comes from Port Ellen Maltings (who also supply to the likes of Ardbeg and Lagavulin).
  • The barley from Port Ellen Maltings is malted to standard Ardbeg specs, which is around 50 PPM
  • Kilchoman fill their barrels at 63.5% ABV
  • All of Kilchoman’s first fill bourbon barrels are sourced from Buffalo Trace in Kentucky
  • Their sherry casks are all from Miguel Martin in Jerez, Spain (the same supplier Glenfarclas use for all of their casks)
  • All Kilchoman bottlings (which are bottled on-site mind you) are Non-Chill Filtered and natural colour.

Summer 2010 Release 

You may have guessed it from the name, but this expression was released in the Summer of 2010 (Winter, if you were in Australia at the time.. it was probably the same temperature as a Scottish summer!) This release was matured in first fill bourbon barrels and after three years was bottled at a respectable 46% ABV.

Kilchoman - Summer 2010 

Quite fresh and light on the nose with some floral notes, light sweetness, hints of citrus and maybe some pineapple. Quite crisp and not overly peaty. This translated to a medium oily palate, with some sweet creamy floral vanilla and a big wave of fresh peat that hung around for a good while. A light salty tang on the finish. Delicate, but not my favourite. 

Interestingly, this expression was bottled in their original generic style bottle, before they had their own bespoke bottle mould produced. Ever wondered what a bottle mould costs? Kilchoman paid a cool 20,000 pounds! 

100% Islay 2nd edition 

The second expression personified what Kilchoman was all about when Anthony originally envisaged it – making a whisky that was 100% Islay. And so from the barley grown at Rockside Farm next door to the distillery, to the in-house malting using local peat, to the distilling, maturation and eventual bottling – it’s all done on Islay.

Kilchoman - 100 Islay

Does that actually give it a different profile though? You bet it did. A vatting of three and four year old whiskies, bottled at 50% ABV, 100% Islay had a noticeably different nose.

I got some malty grassy notes, vanilla, crème caramel and bananas nicely balanced out by the peat. This carried through to a lovely creamy and oily palate, vanilla and floral with peat sitting at the back of the palate. It finished with waves of warmth and hints of spice.

In case you’re wondering, the Rockside Farm barley is peated on-site using local peat for around 20 hours. This results in a level of around 10-20 PPM (parts per million). The barley is malted in two tonne batches and the whole malting process takes around 12-14 days. 

Machir Bay 2012 edition 

The first of Kilchoman’s core expressions, Machir Bay was released in 2012 as a vatting of three and four year old whiskies, with ‘a splash of five year old’ as Anthony put it. All came from first fill American Oak ex-bourbon barrels, however the vatting was finished in 20 year old ex-Oloroso casks for a couple of months prior to bottling.

Kilchoman - Machir Bay 

This has a noticeably heavier nose to the two before it – I got some hints of kiwi, a pleasant sourness, some fruitiness, light peat and hints of spice (presumably from the sherry finishing). Slightly thinner on the palate, but still creamy and sweet followed by a pronounced wave of vibrant peat.

Still a remarkably fresh and bright whisky, with none of the tarry medicinal notes often associated with bolder peated whiskies. 

Loch Gorm 1st release 

First released in 2013, Loch Gorm is a five year old Kilchoman solely matured in ex-European Oak sherry casks. In case that wasn’t enough, it’s then finished for a few months in fresh, first fill Oloroso casks, imparting the lovely dark liquid amber colour seen here.

Kilchoman - Loch Gorm

Compared to the three before it, Loch Gorm has a much weightier, heavy, meatier nose. You can see some more of my notes here but I want to mention something that I couldn’t articulate last time I tried Loch Gorm.

On our previous encounter, Loch Gorm confused me slightly. On initial nosing, it wasn’t the peat monster I was expecting, nor was it a fruity sherry bomb. The more I concentrated, the more these flavour profiles played hide and seek with one another.

Whilst I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, I now feel as though this was simply a hallmark of a rather well-balanced nose. Indeed, Anthony was quite proud of Loch Gorm and mentioned that he felt much the same.

Cask strength small batch release

As far as I’m aware, this is the first time a single cask Kilchoman has been on taste in Australia. Another five year old, but this time matured in first fill bourbon barrels, then finished for around six weeks in Oloroso sherry casks. As for strength? A big and gutsy 58.2%…

Kilchoman - Small Batch

…but you wouldn’t have picked it from the nose! Certainly noticeable as a higher ABV whisky, but I wouldn’t have picked it being that high at all. Amazingly fresh, creamy nose with big waves of milk chocolate, mars bars and coffee beans, magically mixed with some grassy notes, pine trees, fresh peat and vanilla.

Much of this translated straight to the palate – lovely round, creamy flavours. More vanilla, milk chocolate, hints of salted caramel and a nice helping of peat looming in the background. Long, warming, creamy finish.

You should have seen the flurry of people filling in order forms for this one. It was seriously good!

Some final thoughts 

In many ways, the story of Kilchoman reminds me of some of Australia’s very own young distilleries. And like some of Australia’s young distilleries, Kilchoman’s output really is testament to the fact that young whisky can be bloody good whisky.

Anthony took the time to explain that he and Jim Swan set out to produce a spirit that would mature reasonably quickly and taste great when bottled young. With that in mind, I think he and his team have really hit the mark with their latest round of releases.

As for the evening – It’s always great to hear from brand ambassadors, especially those who are knowledgable and enthusiastic. But there’s something different about listening to someone who’s been there from day one, someone who had an idea and saw it become reality and someone who knows the ins and outs of every aspect of their distillery and is happy to share every little detail.

Anthony Wills

On that note, I’d like to say a sincere thanks to Mr Anthony Wills for flying half way across the world to share the story of Kilchoman with us. A special thank you is also in order for Dave and The Oak Barrel for hosting another fantastic tasting and to Island2Island for bringing Kilchoman and Anthony to our shores.

The best of the rest

What better way to spend a weeknight than with some fine whisky. That’s exactly how a recent Wednesday evening panned out for me, with the Oak Barrel in Sydney holding their final whisky masterclass for the year – The best of the rest.

The Oak Barrel

Throughout the year, Dave (the Oak Barrel’s grand whisky master – probably not his title, but we’ll pretend it is) puts on a series of different masterclasses and 2013 saw some stunners. Among others, there was the Glendronach single cask masterclass at the beginning of the year. The smoke stack and smoke signal classes, exploring all things peaty (not just Islay peat) and the sherry and sherried whisky class – pairing sherried whiskies with their sherry counterparts (think fino, oloroso, pedro ximenez etc.)

As the year draws to an end though, there were some great whiskies discovered in 2013 that hadn’t had their chance to shine, so this was their night. Here are some short notes on the six tasted.

Powers John’s Lane
12 years old, 46% ABV, Bourbon & Oloroso sherry cask, single pot still, Ireland

First cab off the rank was one I’d head of, but never considered trying. Not that I have anything against Irish whiskey, but I think sometimes it can be really easy to get caught up in hype surrounding Scottish single malts and inadvertently ignore some of the other fantastic whiskies out there. Thankfully, this single pot still Irish whiskey brought that to my attention and has made sure that I wont be making that mistake again!

Powers

On the nose, this Powers was quite soft and creamy, yet fruity (in a fresh fruit salad kind of way). This was followed by some whiffs of spice (think cinnamon) and a hint of honey. A really enjoyable, delicate nose on this one for sure. The palate blows you away – coating your tongue with rich, oily fruit and big cinnamon and spice notes. This fades to a creamy vanilla and subtle sweetness on the finish. So surprising given the delicate nose!

Dave really nailed it when he simply described this one as ‘elegant’.

Adelphi Longmorn
1992, 21 years old, 52.4% ABV, American Oak ex-sherry cask, Oak Barrel Sydney exclusive, Scotland

Adelphi Longmorn

Adelphi are known for some of the finest independent bottlings out there and this one was no exception, bottled exclusively for the Oak Barrel in Sydney. As far as I’m aware, they’re the only bottle shop in Australia that’s had their own bottling done, so it’s pretty special!

It was a great example of an older Longmorn from the days when their stills were coal fired (ie. when some poor bloke had to shovel mounds of coal into a fire under the still to keep it running).

On the nose, the main note I got was sourness. Not in an unpleasant way, but think sour green apples in candy format crossed with apple cider vinegar and hints of toffee sweetness. I’ve never nosed a whisky like this before – really quite interesting. The nose translated to massively palate – big initial alcohol spice, followed by chewy toffee and mild oak notes fading to a creamy soft finish.

Glendronach Cask Strength
Batch 1, released 2012, NAS, 54.8% ABV, Oloroso & Pedro Ximenez cask, Scotland

Glendronach CS

Boom! (yes, I did actually write that in my whisky ledger) This has a rich nose. Think high cacao dark chocolate, rich raisins and leather. Despite a higher ABV than the Longmorn right before it, the alcohol really wasn’t that apparent on the nose. This huge nose carries through to the palate, with plenty of dark fruits and cinnamon spice.

Interestingly, Glendronach spirit is actually slightly peated to around 14 parts per million (ppm) – peat monsters like Ardbeg and Laphroaig are around 45 ppm – yet time in quality sherry casks really pulls it back and takes away that peat edge.

Heartwood Convict Redemption
Batch 1, bottle No. 72, released 2013, 12 years old, 72.5% ABV, Port cask, Australia

I guess you can think of Heartwood as an Australian independent bottler; they buy up some highest quality casks they can find then mature some of the finest Tasmanian whiskies in those casks, bottling them when they think they’re just right.

Heartwood

That ABV is not a typo (check the picture!), The Convict Redemption was indeed bottled at a humungous 72.5%. How’s that so? It turns out the angels in Tasmania are a bit different to those in Scotland and like to help themselves to a big chunk of water each year. This was originally casked at around 63%, but after 12 years of maturation it lost more water content than alcohol, resulting in this massive ABV.

Very expressive on the nose. There’s no hiding from that alcohol, but you also get some earthy notes, rich fruits from the port cask maturation and weirdly, a hint of garlic? Yes, garlic! The garlic doesn’t carry through to the palate (thankfully), but that massive ABV does, stunning your tongue and making you salivate, helping release those chewy toffee and fruit notes hiding underneath.

I must admit, this was a little bit too full-on for me, but I can understand why this is sold out and has a local cult following. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for future Heartwood releases.

Glendronach 1978 single cask
1978, 33 years old, Cask No. 1068, 52.9% ABV, Oloroso sherry puncheon, Scotland

Next up was the 1978 single cask Glendronach, which had me all kinds of excited.

Glendronach 1978

Look at that coca-cola colour! If I were to try and sum up the nose on this in one word, I would simply say ‘deep’. I felt like I couldn’t jam my nose deep enough into that glass, I just wanted to nose it more and more and more.

I don’t know that I ever really understood the concept of a ‘complex nose’, but after nosing this, I fell like I finally get it. The more you sniffed, the more the nose changed and the more you got out of it – and not just one scent profile. Think kiwi fruit, rich figs, dark chocolate, wet brown sugar and antique furniture – yes, you really could smell those things. Quite amazing really.

This translated to rich, yet soft palate that started off with an almond nutty-bitterness, followed by rich red winter fruit and brown sugar (minus the sweetness – if that’s possible?) You really could get lost in this whisky.

Kilchoman Loch Gorm
1st release 2013, NAS (5 years old), 46% ABV, Oloroso sherry cask, Scotland

The final whisky of the night was the recently released Kilchoman Loch Gorm. Kilchoman is the first distillery to be opened on the island of Islay on 124 years and their young whiskies have come out swinging. I first became acquainted when I met their Machir Bay and it well and truly took me by surprise. So when I heard about this new offering, matured in oloroso sherry casks for five years, before a further two months in fresh sherry casks, I couldn’t wait to try it.

Loch Gorm

I approached this expecting something like Ardbeg Uigeadail – sherry and peat – and I was way off the mark. Despite that amazingly rich sherried colour, the nose is surprisingly void of sherry notes?! Instead, I got rich peat smoke, almost bbq like with some meaty notes in there and some saltiness.

Interestingly, the sherry influence pops up and says hello when you taste it – rich sherry sweetness, smoke and tobacco flavours fading to a long, lingering wood smoke finish. This one really, really took me by surprise. The Kilchoman range is a great example of how good young whisky can be.

Overall

What a great way to round out the year. The Powers was the biggest surprise for me and I’ve no doubt I’ll add a bottle to the cabinet at some point. But the 1978 Glendronach was the highlight of the evening for me. Not because it was old, not because it was rare and not because it was expensive. But because it really was an eye-opening whisky, with so many layers and just so much going on – something you don’t encounter often and are never sure when (or if) you’ll ever encounter again.

Thanks again for your time and effort Dave. See you in 2014!