The Islay Series – Distillery #3: Kilchoman

The 3rd part of my 8-part series on the Islay distilleries focuses on Kilchoman, which is the youngest distillery on the island but certainly not overawed by the competition.

Kilchoman is located on the Western side of Islay, within a village which shares the same name as the distillery. The term Kilchoman is derived from the Gaelic term Kilachoman, which translates to ‘St Comman’s Church’. Building commenced in early 2005 and the distillery came onstream later that year, with the first casks being filled with new make spirit on the 14th of December 2005.

The distillery was the first to be built on Islay in 124 years and at the time of its construction was considered to be the most westerly distillery in Scotland. However, the construction of Abhainn Dearg distillery on the Isle of Lewis in 2008 meant that title no longer applied to Kilchoman.

The distillery is one of only three distilleries in Islay and six overall in Scotland to retain its own floor maltings and is able to produce 25% of its barley requirements in house. The malted barley is peated to between 20-25ppm while the rest of their requirements are sourced from the Port Ellen maltings facility and peated to 50ppm.

Kilchoman, like Bruichladdich, sources its barley from within Islay and attains its malting requirements from the surrounding farms and fields belonging to the Rockside Farm and other farmers. The distillery has the capacity to produce up to 150,000 litres of new make spirit on an annual basis, although there are plans to increase that for 2015.

The lost distilleries of Islay.
The lost distilleries of Islay.

In terms of history, Kilchoman is a baby when compared to the likes of Islay old boys such as Bowmore and Laphroaig. Although the distillery was completed in 2005, the plans to build it were put in place back in 2002 and gradually came to fruition once the necessary funding was secured. Their partnership with Rockside Farms was seen as a mutually beneficial arrangement with both farm and distillery attaining a level of recognition as the whisky aged.

However, it has been noted from various sources that the partnership ended a few years ago after discussions on the vision for the distillery. While Kilchoman is no longer a direct partner of Rockside Farms, it still retains a very good relationship with the farm which serves as its primary source of barley on the island.

In 2006, the distillery experienced a kiln fire which resulted in distilling being halted for a few weeks. Production eventually resumed but no further maltings were carried out in the distillery for the rest of the year. In 2010, Kilchoman managed to recruit Bunnahabhain’s John Maclellan as their General Manager and began focusing on expanding into the US market.

In terms of equipment, the distillery sports a stainless steel mash tun, 4 stainless steel washbacks and a pair of stills. The distillery is currently running at full capacity and is able to produce up to 150,000 litres of new make spirit, although there are plans for them to produce 190,000 litres in 2015 with the addition of a further washback.

The view from inside one of the washbacks.
The view from inside one of the washbacks.

Kilchoman aims to produce a floral and lightly peated whisky, although it has experimented with heavily peated expressions during its short history. While the first bottles of whisky were released in 2009, it wasn’t until 2012 that Kilchoman created the Machir Bay core range of expressions.

Kilchoman has also taken a page from Bruichladdich’s book by experimenting with different casks. It has released the sherry-matured Loch Gorm and the 3 year old Port Cask Matured, which has been matured for the entirity of its life in casks which once held ruby port.

In 2014, the distillery even released its first duty free exclusive whisky, Coull Point, which is a 5 year old whisky which was matured in bourbon casks for the majority of its life before being transferred to ex-Oloroso sherry casks for a few weeks before being bottled.

Kilchoman's wash still has a capacity of 3230 litres.
Kilchoman’s wash still has a capacity of 3230 litres.
Kilchoman's spirit still further distills the spirit and has a capacity of 2070 litres.
Kilchoman’s spirit still further refines the spirit and has a capacity of 2070 litres.

The barley is fermented in the washbacks for between 80 and 120 hours and this produces a wash which is approximately 7-8% abv, which is akin to a weak beer. The wash is then transferred to the wash still, which has a capacity of 3230 litres but is only filled up to 3000 litres per charge. The spirit from the wash still is then transferred to the spirit still, which has a capacity of 2070 litres but it only filled up to 1600 litres per charge.

The resulting spirit is collected at 69% abv from the spirit safe and it is then reduced to 63.5% by cutting with water before being filled into casks for maturation. Kilchoman is able to do 6 mashes and 12 distillation runs per week, which yields approximately 22 new filled casks per week.

While the distillery initially relied on using Bruichladdich’s facilities for its vatting purposes, the owner, Anthony Willis, realised that there was a need to concentrate the operations within the distillery itself and committed to constructing a bottling hall within the premises. The distillery has also built two new dunnage warehouses near the sea overlooking Loch Indaal and these warehouses have a capacity of 9000 casks. However, the distillery also does utilise the warehouses belonging to the old Port Ellen distillery for the storage of its casks.

As the distillery was unfortunately not in operation during my visit, I was unable to attend the standard tour. However, after having a chat with the distillery store manager, I was granted a quick look around the distillery and was able to get a glimpse of the inner workings of this proud young distillery.

After the tour, I ended up back within the distillery shop, where the distillery manager treated me to a selection of different whiskies to taste. The ones that I tasted were the Original Cask Strength, 100% Islay 4th Edition, Port Cask Matured and Single Cask Release. The reviews for these whiskies can be found at the following link: https://whiskymate.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/whisky-review-3-kilchoman/

The cabinet within the distillery store which showcases every release from Kilchoman to date.
The cabinet within the distillery store which showcases every release from Kilchoman to date.
From left: 100% Islay, Single Cask Release, Original Cask Strength & Port Cask Matured.
From left: 100% Islay 4th Edition, Single Cask Release, Original Cask Strength & Port Cask Matured.

At the end of my visit, the distillery manager even surprised me by providing me with two small bottles containing samples of two other whiskies from the distillery: The 2010 UK Winter Tour bottling and the Machir Bay Cask Strength. The reviews for both can also be found in the link listed above.

Overall, the visit to Kilchoman was quite short but very insightful and fun. Kudos to the staff for going out of their way to make me feel at home and bringing me around the facility (as well as for the wonderful whiskies!). It was a pity that I was unable to go for the standard tour this time round, but it is definitely on my list for when the opportunity arises for me to return to Islay.

The next post will focus on a distillery that has been in the shadows of its more illustrious brethren, but has been producing stellar whisky that deserves far more recognition.

Until the next post, have a wonderful week (and weekend) ahead.

Slainte!

Brendan

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2 thoughts on “The Islay Series – Distillery #3: Kilchoman

  1. I asked as nicely as I could but the girls would not drive me to a fourth distillery during the time I was on Islay. If I was going to ask for another, however, it would be this one. Sounds like you had a great time. And when I go back to Islay (note: when, not if) then I shall certainly drop by for a visit!
    Keep on waffling,
    Nick

    Liked by 1 person

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