We decided to ignore Jura, partly because we’re not a big fan. Additionally, in my case, no-one responded to my email to the head distiller asking when I can reclaim my voucher for a free VIP tasting that came free with the Jura 21 y.o. 200th anniversary bottling. So, I’m taking my toys home. To Kilchoman, then.
We got there just in time to buy two of the Festival bottlings (a limited number of 525, so this was a surprise) from a tiny queue. Tony and I had booked a Members’ Masterclass, where, in theory, we were going to see the difference between various types of barley, namely that grown at Rockside farm (that owns most of Kilchoman and the most fertile point on Islay) and that imported from elsewhere. Except that’s not really what happened. But no matter, this was good fun, refreshingly free of bullshit and corporate speak.
Anthony Wills, the ‘owner’, did the spiel and was a little reticent at first but soon got into his stride, slagging off those who put every barrier in his way for the necessary planning permission, the banks who weren’t keen to lend money when it was needed and but offered lots of money when it wasn’t, and explaining how the peating levels at Kilchoman are sometimes a bit hit and miss because some of it is done on site. He also revealed that, whereas most people see a 10 year old expression as the first serious age of a malt and thereby a distillery’s coming of age, Wills doesn’t see this as a milestone that requires any special celebration at all. He always wanted to release his whisky at a fairly young age (5 years). There will be older expressions, of course, but clearly not his main business. In terms of the future, he is looking to produce 200,000 litres next year, and max out around 350,000 in the future. I sincerely hope it works for him because his passion and commitment is obvious and they produce bloody good whisky.
The following notes were filtered through two highly defective noses, courtesy of stinking colds.
First up was a new make 100% Islay lightly-peated spirit aged for one month in the standard Buffalo Trace casks. This was very drinkable, very sweet, floral and drying. We could drink this.
Next came a 2012 100% Islay bourbon cask offering (61.5%) which was lovely, very toffeed and chocolatey.
Third was the 2008 100% Islay, with much more citrus and coffee, dark chocolate, chili. Much more heavily-peated than the previous two (by design? Who knows?). Interesting how this spirit has developed over the 6 years to a stage where this is eminently drinkable.
Now normally you would have provided similarly-aged samples using different non-Islay barley (in this case from the Port Ellen maltings) to produce a decent comparison. What we actually got were three malts made from Port Ellen barley but which used non-bourbon casks. Never mind.
Fourth was a 2010 Madeira finish, which made me sit up as I’m a huge fan of Madeira. Unfortunately, it wasn’t great. Initially, it was velvety, raisiny, chocolatey on the nose, and then grapey, sweet, spicy and ashy on the palate with more than a touch of limes. Anthony Wills asked us what we thought and then proceeded to tell us he thought it was “a bit shite”. Err…OK. An honest appraisal. Then we saw his point. It started to fall apart on the nose with a nasty rubbery and sulphury quality. He didn’t rule it out as a bottling contender at some point in time but it wasn’t close to that now. Apparently, whereas bourbon casks are easy to handle and predictable in their behavior and the taste they produce, Madeira, port and sherry casks, etc. are far more capricious, and here was a case in point.
Fifth was a 2011 oloroso hogshead (60% – 50ppm) which was fabulous. Even my defective nose could detect candyfloss and chocolate fudge and a superb rich, buttery and ashy palate. We both liked this and, when available, will be on my shopping list.
Lastly, was another 50 ppm sherry butt, this time from 2007. This was much sweeter than the fifth dram, full of vanilla and limes (is this a signature taste of Kilchoman?). On the palate it was spicy, citrusy and ashy and again very good.
Then, into the courtyard for other japes and larks. The problem with Kilchoman is scale, in that there isn’t the room to have the sheer range of food outlets that the bigger distilleries have. What it did have was a personal touch. Anthony Wills’ sons also work in the distillery and seem to man every conceivable opportunity to dispense drams and show us the operation of the stills. A fun day, and you have the added bonus of the Kilchoman café, where you can get an excellent Cullen Skink.
Then, back home for a much-needed sleep. It’s tiring, this boozing lark.