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When Kilchoman launched in 2005, it was the first new distillery on the isle of Islay for 124 years. Founder Anthony Wills harboured a desire to create something unique and on Rockside Farm in the north-west of the island he found exactly what he was looking for. There, a stones-throw from the Atlantic ocean stood some disused old buildings, surrounded on all sides by golden fields of barley. The perfect location for a traditionally-minded farm distillery.
In the years since, Kilchoman has established itself as a whisky beloved by many, with a dependable core range of malts that includes their ultimate expression “100% Islay“. This one of a kind single malt is the only to be produced entirely, not just on the island, but on the same farm. It is grown, harvested, malted, distilled, matured and bottled on the same location.
Alongside their core range, Kilchoman have released an array of limited edition “small batches”, some of which are targeted at specific markets.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Kilchoman have been running a series of online tastings that allow fans to dram along with founder Wills and his son James – so long as they’re fast enough to grab a sample pack before they quickly sell out. Fortunately I managed to grab one of their most recent offerings which just so happened to feature a preview of their 2020 Feis Ile bottle, alongside a selection of the aforementioned small batch releases.
Kilchoman “Small Batch” Madeira Cask
The Madeira Cask expression was released exclusively for the UK market with 25% of the blend coming from ex-madeira casks. Bottled at 48.3% it retails around £60 a bottle…
Smell: Smoky bacon and maple syrup. Caramel. Hazelnut. Brown sugar. Fresh apple and tinned peaches. Wee touch of cinnamon.
Taste: Nutty with caramel – Snickers bars! Apple. Black pepper. Liquorice. Orange and lemon. Nice oak notes with a touch of bonfire ash on the finish. Smoke never overpowers but is ever present from arrival to finish.
Value for Money: The familiar distillery profile is present but has been given a rather unique spin by the addition of those Madeira casks. Not quite a mind blowing experience but isn’t excessively priced for a dram of such intriguing character.
Kilchoman has such a strong core range that I found myself wondering if these small batch releases were really necessary, especially when the differences are relatively nuanced and the likes of Machir Bay and Sanaig seem to offer rather better value for money. Having said that, there will be those who are well acquainted with the core bottlings and wish to experience something new and these “Small Batch” drams make that possible without having to spend a small fortune.
Kilchoman “Small Batch” Pedro Ximenez Cask
A Netherlands exclusive but with just 10% of the liquid in the vatting drawn from ex-PX casks, it is anything but a sherry bomb. A fact backed up by the relatively light colour it displays. Bottled at 47% it retails around £60 (or €70).
Smell: Citrus smoke. Salt and brine. Campfire smoke, ash and charcoal.. but also confectionery fruits and subtle Pedro Ximenez influence. Prunes. Golden syrup and danish pastries.
Taste: Vanilla, caramel and butterscotch. Sea salt and black pepper. Raisins and blackcurrant. Treacle. Slightly woody before a smoky finish.
Value for Money: I suspect this one will be popular as Pedro Ximenez can be quite the draw in the whisky world. Anyone expecting to be bathed in sweet sticky sherry however is likely to be disappointed, instead they will find a not untypical Kilchoman that’s been given a subtle enrichment. Price is once again within reason.
I rather enjoyed this one, though must admit I would love to see a version where the P.X. has been allowed to play a more prominent role… but then I’m a sucker for big flavours. This dram is more of an exercise in restraint, Anthony Wills has steadfastly refused to allow his house style to be overpowered and you have to give him credit for that.
Kilchoman “Small Batch” STR Cask
An exclusive release for the Belgian market, 25% of the spirit has been matured in Shaved, Toasted and Re-charred ex-red wine casks from Portugal. Bottled at 48.9% and retails around €70.
Smell: A pleasant combination of smoke and brine and summer fruits. Buttery vanilla. Subtle strawberry and raspberry. Sea salt and black pepper. Caramel. Honey. Campfire smoke. Charcoal. Water brings forth bourbon vanilla and some fresh orchard fruit.
Taste: Spicy arrival. Then juicy berries – raspberry in particular. Toffee. Woody spice – cinnamon and nutmeg. Oak and thick smoke on the mouth drying finish.
Value for Money: Earlier this year I reviewed another STR cask Kilchoman (here). This new small batch bottling gives a less in-your-face demonstration of the process developed by the late Dr Jim Swan but nevertheless succeeds in showing what it can do. Worth noting that you’d pay a good bit less for the small batch version.
The pick of the three small batch bottlings for me. Again, the Kilchoman house style comes through loud and proud but the reprocessed red wine casks seem to have given a little more than either the Madeira or the PX. Dr Swan’s STR process has been adopted at several distilleries but the resulting effect seems to be working particularly well with Kilchoman’s spirit.
Kilchoman Feis Ile 2020
Due to the coronavirus outbreak the Islay Festival, like so many other events was forced to cancel their 2020 edition. With Kilchoman being in the fortunate position of bottling their product onsite however they have decided to go ahead with their exclusive festival bottling which will be made available online. Created by vatting 11 bourbon barrels filled in 2007 and 2008, this 12 year old spirit has been bottled at 54.2% and will retail around £108.
Smell: Smoke rises to meet you, though it has evolved somewhat… become more civilised perhaps. Floral heather honey. Straw. Vanilla. Caramel. White chocolate. Almond. 12 years in oak hasn’t dulled the barley, with lovely cereal notes coming through.
Taste: Less smoke here though lots of spice on arrival. Then chewy bourbon vanilla. Honey and buttered oatcakes. Caramel. Aniseed. Woody finish with currants and tobacco.
Value for Money: A real cracker of a dram, though not sure I’d be paying upwards of £100 for it. If you really must get your hands on a Feis bottling though, this one will not disappoint.
I’ve often wondered what Kilchoman will be like as it gets older. Its always felt to me like it had a certain youthful edge that was very much part of its DNA. What this bottling shows however is that the spirit certainly doesn’t lose its way as it advances in years, it simply evolves and mellows a little. There is wonderfully rewarding depth of flavour here and a finish that hangs around so long you almost don’t want to take another sip. A great dram, for those lucky enough to score a bottle.
Visit the Kilchoman website here.