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Last week I spent some time on Islay. The island is home to some of the finest malt whisky distilleries in the world. There are 8 currently in production with Number 9 on its way (more on that in my next review week). The most recent of the current 8 is Kilchoman, the smallest, yet perhaps most intriguing of them all.
Kilchoman was founded in 2005 on the site of Rockside Farm on the island’s West Coast. The location was chosen for its excellent barley growing capabilities. The distillery is unique on Islay and in all of Scotland, perhaps only Daftmill runs similarly. Kilchoman is a traditional farm distillery. Barley is grown, harvested, milled, malted, fermented, distilled, matured and bottled in this one single location. Although, the farm isn’t big enough to supply the distillery’s full requirements so some is brought in from the Port Ellen maltings.
Touring Kilchoman on a typically windy Islay day, I was struck by how unlike its island neighbours it is. There are no whitewashed, wind-battered walls and there is no stormy shore. Instead, some quaint stone buildings huddle together, surrounded by fields of golden barley. Only the cutting Atlantic wind, blowing in from nearby Machir Bay reminds me that I’m still on Islay.
Few distilleries in Scotland still operate a malting floor, yet compared to the ones I’ve seen at the likes of Bowmore and Springbank, the floor at Kilchoman is tiny, a theme which quickly establishes itself throughout my visit. The mash tun, washbacks and pot stills are the smallest I’ve seen. Though the latter, it must be said, are perfectly formed and absolutely gorgeous.
The distillery has its own filling station and bottling hall, not to mention a lovely visitor centre and welcoming cafe. There I was able to pull up a chair and sample a few drams from one of the tasting flights on offer. I was already fairly well acquainted with the Kilchoman range but after a few samples, I decided to take home a bottle of their Sanaig expression so that I might get to know it a little better. Sanaig is named after a rocky bay on Islay’s northern shore. It is matured predominantly in Oloroso casks before being bottled at natural colour and 46% ABV.
Smell: Malt & Dried Fruits… Raisins, Prunes, Figs… Lemon, Cola, Touch of Vanilla and wisps of Pungent Peat Smoke.
Taste: A marriage of Sherry and Smoke, each trying to dominate but being held in place. Raisin & Sultana, Liquorice, Caramel, Toffee, Pepper, Smoke & Ash.
Thoughts: It’s a relatively young whisky but still feels like good value at £50 a bottle. Sanaig is a bit like a mirror image of the excellent Machir Bay single malt. Where Machir Bay is largely matured in bourbon casks with a small amount of sherry, Sanaig is the reverse, tilting the blend in favour of Oloroso casks. The final result is a blissful union of bold, young peated spirit and dried fruits cask character.
Kilchoman has become the benchmark against which all new distilleries should be judged. If anyone out there still believes that malt whisky needs a minimum of 10 or 12 years to shine, they really need to sit down and get to know the malt of this exceptional wee distillery.
*If the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission on any purchases you make after following links from my page. The whisky is also available from several other excellent retailers.