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Kilchoman Distillery was the brainchild of Anthony Wills, a 40 year veteran of the drinks industry. Wills entered the whisky business as an independent bottler in the 1990’s but by the early 2000’s he was finding it increasingly difficult to source top quality casks, as more and more of Scotland’s distilleries cottoned on to a surge in interest regarding single malts and chose to hold onto their stocks.
After moving to Islay in 2000, Wills leased a cluster of semi-derelict buildings at Rockside Farm with the intention of opening the first new distillery on the island in 124 years. With funding secured construction soon began and the distillery was finally up and running by 2005, with the goal of having a product on the market as soon as possible made a priority.
In the early days, Wills was advised by the late Dr. Jim Swan, consultant to many a fledgling distiller. Part of the plan from the beginning was to produce good quality whisky at a young age and in that regard Kilchoman was massively successful, inadvertently drawing up the blueprint for countless new distilleries that followed in their wake.
In 2010, they employed John McLellan who spent 21 years at Bunnahabhain, during which time he helped launch the spirit as a single malt for the first time in more than 100 years. McLellan would go on to play a key role, contributing to the creation of Kilchoman’s first core expression “Machir Bay” and overseeing the launch of their “100% Islay” release, which used barley grown only on the land surrounding the distillery. McLellan was forced to take leave in 2014 due to ill health and sadly passed away in 2016 but his place in history as one of the driving forces behind a new Islay single malt is secured.
The range has diversified over the years with the addition of “Loch Gorm” and “Sanaig” alongside the occasional vintage or single cask release. Among the latest of their creations is the STR Cask Matured edition which deploys a process developed by Dr. Swan. STR stands for Shaved, Toasted and Re-charred, a system which involves stripping away the top layer from the staves that make up the inner walls of red wine casks. The newly revealed oak is then lightly toasted in order to caramelise the natural sugars in the wood before re-charring splits the surface and allows greater penetration of the spirit and ultimately, maximum flavour extraction. The point of this operation is to permeate the ageing whisky with a balance of both wine and virgin oak character.
First released in 2019, this single malt was created using 43 casks filled in 2012 and bottled at 50% abv without chill-filtering or colouring. It retails around £78 a bottle.
Smell: Wonderfully heady mix of fruits and smoke. Berries, red apples and orange. Bonfire smoke. Honey. Caramel. Burnt toast. Sea salt and pepper.
Taste: Fruit jam and salted caramel. Pepper and sea spray. Some subtle barley extract. Undercurrent of smoke rises to dominate at the finish.
Value for Money: Not bad. An undeniably tasty dram that maybe pushes its luck a wee bit where price is concerned.
Very much a dram worth taking your time over. The first time I sampled it was in the famous Pot Still Bar in Glasgow and I very much enjoyed it but since it was one of many that evening I couldn’t draw much of a conclusion from the experience. A while later a bottle had found its way into my cabinet at home and I tasted it alongside other recent acquisitions but was left a wee bit disappointed with what I found. It seemed to burst onto the palate in an explosion of fruit but very quickly collapsed into smoke and not a lot else. I am pleased to say however, that it has fared much better on repeat visits. Perhaps it needed a wee bit of air in the bottle or a little time to settle down but whatever the case, it is now a much more integrated experience with neither wine, spicy oak or peated spirit dominating. I’m not sure I’d say they sit in harmony with one another you understand, it’s more like they are constantly battling for your attention, changing positions like a closely run three-man race. A good dram, slightly hindered by the kind of price point that makes you wince but stops short of making you weep.
Visit the Kilchoman website here.