When dealing with Kilchoman, plans are likely to change when you least expect them to; new faces emerge, different ways of doing things are trialled out, flavours defy belief. Or at least, this is what I took from Peter Wills’ presentation to the Quaich Society earlier this month. He – and not his brother – arrived at the venue, glanced at our tasting mats and requested a modification to the order. Then our projector refused to have anything to do with his laptop. Still, at least nothing burnt down.
Peter is one of the three sons of Kilchoman founder, Anthony Wills. Together with his brothers, Peter bangs the drum for his family’s whisky with both passion and real insight. This makes sense: he grew up with the distillery as it took shape on Kilchoman farm in the north west of Islay, where relatives on his mother’s side still live.
Wills Senior moved from the wine trade to independently bottling whiskies before deciding that, if he was to make available the kind of dram he aspired to, he was going to have to produce it himself. Peter admitted that, in hindsight, such a decision would not be made again; the rigmarole of building a distillery and making whisky is financially and emotionally sapping. The current estimate is that running Kilchoman costs between £30,000 and £40,000 per month. From December 2005 to September 2009 when the first official single malt whisky was released from the purpose-built warehouse, optimism and resolve were held together with sticky tape and string. Fortunately, the whisky was good – astonishingly good – and Kilchoman has weathered the initial storm.
Peter outlined the production regime at Kilchoman, dubbed on the label ‘Islay’s Farm Distillery’. One third of the roughly 150,000 litres of alcohol produced per year is their signature 100% Islay spirit: from barley to bottle, the whisky doesn’t leave the island. 100 tonnes of barley per year are grown on the farm, malted on their own floors, kilned to impart a bit of smoke but not to the same degree as the malt they buy commercially from Port Ellen, turned into whisky and matured on Islay. Impressive stuff. The remainder of the spirit is heavily-peated (50ppm), used to create a consistent character with which they could test the reaction of the world’s peatheads.
The whisky has been ‘engineered’ by Dr Jim Swan, who has worked with many a start-up distillery since the millennium. The emphasis has been on a smoky but very sweet spirit, filled into fresh oak, especially ex-Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels to accentuate that sweetness and weight on the palate. Overseeing production is former Bunnahabhain distillery manager, John MacLellan.
But I mentioned that plans change or, to use Peter’s words: ‘things break down at Kilchoman’. Whether this is a temperamental boiler or human error, the team at the distillery are forever adapting to changes, nuances and accident. Perhaps the best example of these latter instances would be Peter lighting the kiln as a 16-year-old, heading away to watch the Six Nations rugby and getting a call to say that the whole thing was on fire. This put back 100% Islay production by a week or two.
But what of the spirit itself? When they aren’t putting out fires or laboriously filling 11,000 bottles by hand and can actually focus on making whisky, what comes out at the other end? Peter had six whiskies to show off, the latest multi-vintage Machir Bay (a mix of differently-aged malts from ex-Bourbon, often married in Sherry butts), the latest single vintage 2007, the Loch Gorm all Sherry-matured malt, the second release of the 100% Islay, a single cask 100% Islay and a bottling for the Kilchoman Club.
The 100% Islay Second Release starts life as barley peated to 25ppm, so fairly mild on the smoke-o-meter. The result is a grassy-smelling whisky with pistachio, steamed milk and white chocolate maltesers. The palate reminded me of sea shells, minerally peat and smoked oatcakes with a grassy finish.
The Machir Bay was sweet, zesty and smoky, with a lovely herbal edge throughout. The 2007 is the oldest whisky the distillery has released to date, a 6yo from Bourbon barrels. Thick apple and mossy, turfy smoke on the nose, I then found lemon rind, cough syrup and proper artisanal chorizo. The palate was the smokiest I’ve seen from a Kilchoman: ashy, bonfire smoke with little thrusts of oak. Ardbeg territory.
I’ve written about the Loch Gorm before, and the latest batch was released last week. The first of the single casks was delightful: vanilla ice cream and barley sugar, pear softness and white chocolate filled the nose while a heavy biscuit sweetness and nudges of oak came into the palate. The Kilchoman Club release benefited from a little water to bring down the strength revealing sticky date, barley, thyme and honey on the nose with a sweeter smoke. The palate was gentle and oaky with banana chips, apple and plum making for a really fruity experience. A trace of peat appeared at the end.
I have said it many a time but this distillery is going places. The charm of the liquid is more than embodied by the people representing it, and Peter was an excellent speaker who could not be ruffled on technical matters. He was even good enough to hint that Kilchoman from Port pipes should be available from September and that there are other wine casks stashed away over on their little patch of Islay. I cannot wait.