Thursday, 25 September 2014

Johnnie Does Kilchoman

Wednesday 20 August 2014 - 11:00am

Price: £6.00

The morning of day three had arrived and I was particularly excited to jump in the car and head off to Islay's newest (and only independent) distillery. I must declare that it's going to be hard to review this distillery with any level of disinterest, and I mean that in the original and correct sense of the word, as I'm a huge fan of what Kilchoman are doing. For a small, farm distillery to be pumping out the quality they have, despite being tender in years, is something to be admired. Even Agent X, not known for his love of peat, professes to really like Machir Bay. Admittedly, he says it smells of horse shit and wet dog but insists he means it in the best possible way. High praise indeed.   

Before we get to dissecting the tour, I simply must point out that the final road leading to Kilchoman is by far the most horrendous surface on which this city boy has ever driven. Presumably the military used it at some point to test short range missiles but I dare any chaps to drive at over 12 mph and come away with anything less than moderate testicular trauma. My Ford happens to have the same type of suspension you'd find on Fred Flintstone's car and so I dared not break even half that speed. Anyway, once parked (and boys adjusted) we set off in search of the shop.

On the way across the courtyard, we noted that the distillery was situated right next to a horse-riding school. I tried to convince Mrs S that we should go searching the site for a wet dog but she was having none of it. Once at the shop we were greeted by Eva, a very knowledgeable lady with a thick, Eastern European accent and an unnerving, almost mechanical style of delivery. She rounded us up expertly and took us to the malting floor to begin our tour.

The first thing I noticed at Kilchoman was that everything was done on a much smaller scale than any other Scottish distillery I had visited. This by itself would not have been an issue, however, our group numbered 15 and a lot of the areas were a tight fit. It made me feel quite sorry for the chaps who were trying to get on with their day's work, but I digress.

Quite the learning curve (They'll only get worse)

Kilchoman is a family-owned distillery in the west of Islay that puts out around 120- 130,000 litres of spirit a year. Just to put that into context, we were told that that's roughly the same amount of spirit Caol Ila (Islay's biggest distillery) produces in a week. 30% of the barley used at Kilchoman is grown on Islay and malted on site. Rather than laying the barley on the malting floor and spraying, it is wetted in a steep (pictured). It is then spread out over the floor using wheelbarrows and turned by hand with shovels and a small manual plough.

Kilning it softly

Once malted, this 30% is then peat dried for 8-9 hours in their on-site kiln, giving a peating level of 20-25ppm. This barley is used in their 100% Islay release and is more lightly peated than the other 70%, which is bought from the Port Ellen maltings, peated to 50ppm. Yup, that's right folks, the stuff that goes into their other releases is more highly peated than Laphroaig. 

Appropriately copper-topped

Barely enough room to swing a bottle on a string

The metallic, copper-topped mash-tun (located in the still house) is a tiddler compared to other distilleries and the four washbacks follow suit. Stainless steel was chosen over wood, we were told, as wooden washbacks tire after a while and this impacts the flavour. It's worth noting that this was the exact opposite of what we were told at Ardbeg. The members of the group were then given a chance to sample the wash.

Interestingly, and unlike some other places, instead of using a skimming arm to cut down on excess foaming in their washbacks, Kilchoman employs a rather high-tech solution. Look carefully in the above picture and you will see what looks like the bottom of a plastic bottle tied to some string, in fact I'm pretty sure that's exactly what it is. It is filled with an anti-foaming oil which negates the need for larger, deeper washbacks. Space at Kilchoman is clearly at a premium and with 15 of us on the tour, it all got rather claustrophobic in there.

Have I said witchcraft yet?

No? Ok then, witchcraft

Skipping the mill room (again, too many of us on the tour to fit in) we headed back into the combined mash/still house for a closer look at the gear. Kilchoman uses one wash still and one spirit still. Two tons of barley will produce 600 litres of new make spirit and the downward-angled still arm apparently allows more of the heavier vapours to be collected, much like Lagavulin in that respect but let's not get ahead of ourselves; that's a story for another day. We were offered a taste of new-make spirit but, surprisingly, only two members of the group took the chance. Yes, I was one of them, purely for the sake of science you understand. It was surprisingly complex and came at me in waves of cereal, fruit, peat and smoke. Whatever they're doing in there, they're doing it right; it was frankly delicious. Off to the filling store.

Forty litres of unleaded and do the windows, please

Four barrels? I reckon we could do that in about a fortnight

One of the benefits of being a relatively small operation is being able to get away with filling and bottling on site. Not all casks are kept in-house to mature; from what we were told a deal has been struck with another distillery and the Kilchoman casks are stored in their warehouses. The bourbon casks used come fresh from Buffalo Trace, are used no more than twice and then sold off. Other types of cask are used (Machir Bay 2014 is 90% bourbon, 10% Oloroso) but this is mainly an ex-bourbon operation.

Magic sloshy-filly box

Poking our heads round the corner revealed an absolute treasure trove as we came upon a few chaps filling empty bottles with the good stuff. Jamming my fist in my mouth to stop me from leaping lustfully at the machinery and trying to suckle straight from the teat, I watched, mesmerised, as the bottles were filled four at a time. Looking for a place to secrete myself until such time as I could pounce unnoticed, I was cruelly lured away by Eva with the promise of tasting some whisky back in the shop. Yeah, fair enough.

Back in the shop we were presented with a mini glencairn as a souvenir and got to sample a couple of drams. In addition to the ever-excellent Machir Bay, I had my first taste of the 100% Islay. I'd like to go on record as saying that it was damn-near the dram of the week for me; in a week that contained 70's Ardbeg and 60's Lagavulin (more on that later), that's no mean feat. I was won over by its creamy, sweet smokiness. Definitely on my hit-list.

No sooner had the last drops touched our lips, we were advised that the tour was over. A quick word at the counter revealed that I was two weeks too early to buy a bottle of the Port-matured and I set off on the cross-island journey to Port Askaig, fearing for my fertility along the way.

To be continued............


The Tour: C
I've said before that your guide can make or break a tour and this is a perfect case in point. Whilst very knowledgeable, it was unfortunate that our host lacked any real warmth or humour. Having said that, ask me to give a presentation in a second language and I'd be no stand-up comedian either.

The Drams: A
Kilchoman 100% Islay - 4th Edition
Kilchoman Machir Bay 2014
PLUS a free miniature Glencairn glass.

Yes, I know there were only two drams at the end of the tour - not nearly in the same league as Laphroaig/Ardbeg, but remember, this tour cost only £6. Plus, you got a free glass to take away afterwards. Compare this to Bowmore and you can see that this is great bang for your buck. An easy A.

The Shop: B-
Four bottlings on offer but no distillery exclusives, including one distillery exclusive (thanks to Jon for putting me right). Shop is massively weighted towards non-whisky items but, refreshingly, it wasn't the usual bunch of stuff with the brand logo emblazoned across it. A closer look shows that the shop is a platform for Scottish craft and local trinkets (reclaimed sea-glass jewellery, anyone?). There's a cafe too. 

Overall: B-
Mixed feelings on this one. It may be a little unfair to judge Kilchoman by the same criteria as distilleries established in the 18th century, as it's a mere fledgling in comparison. Having said that, when you're cramming eight tours into five days how can you not hold it up against its peers? It's certainly worth a visit to get a real taste for the whole process, from malting to bottling. Give this a few years and it could be a real belter.

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