Off the coast of Southwest Scotland there’s an island of fewer than 4,000 people, more than 20,000 sheep and what was, for a long time, only 7 distilleries – until Kilchoman came along in 2005.
A new distillery has several problems to overcome. It costs money to build stills, and to buy ingredients, and develop a company, and buy casks and put up all the buildings – and everything that comes along with starting a new business. In the long run making whisky is fun, exciting and can be profitable, but that takes time, and investors are looking for a return on their investment. Several new North American distilleries have looked for unique ways to speed up maturation or forget about it all together (Tuthilltown Spirits’ small casks and Woodinville Whiskey Co’s DIY maturation casks).
Few distilleries have opened in Scotland in the last 100 years (in fact many have closed) but Kilchoman is on the short list of start-ups. Edradour (near Pitlochry) has Scotland’s smallest stills and Kilchoman are only slightly larger – a 3000 liter wash still and a 1,600 liter spirit still. It sits on Islay’s NW side and features a nice visitor’s center and gives 2 tours daily.
As young as they are, much of their whiskies feel like they’re trying to find their way. They’ve only just recently bottled a ‘house style’ – a perennially bottled product, Machir Bay. It’s bottled at 46% ABV and shows no sign of oak at all, except that some of the new-make green-ness has started to soften. Along with the other Islay malts, Machir Bay has big salt and peat and has a touch of sherry influence. It does have a nice creamy mouth feel, and is a nice effort, but it has a long way to come.
Most of the casks used for whisky maturation in Scotland (more than 90%) are made up of wood previously used to mature Bourbon. A big part of this is Bourbon law, which states that Bourbon must me “stored in a charred, new oak container” with ‘new’ being the important word to Scottish distillers. Since Bourbon makers need to use new casks each time, Scottish distillers (along with Irish, Canadian and other whisk(e)y makers, in addition to Tequila, Rum, etc) use ex-bourbon casks as their own. Those casks (American Standard Barrels, or ASBs) are broken down into staves then rebuilt into a larger casks called Hogsheads. The first time that a Hogshead is used for Scottish whisky it’s called a ‘First Fill’, then each maturation cycle after it’s called a ‘refill.’ The Single Cask Nation (SCN) – a private club (with associated membership fee) – gives you access to something very nice from the house – a 4yr single cask bottling matured in a First Fill Bourbon Cask, and this raw spirit from this new distillery does very will with these first fill casks.
The SCN selection comes in at a very potent 58.4%, having lost over 10% of it’s ABV since distillation (which escapes the stills at 69%). This particular bottling is marked as “Cask 378/07”, which implies it was the 378th cask filled in 2007. It’s listed with a distillation date of Nov. 2007 and bottled in July 2012. At $95 it’s definitely on the pricy side for a 4 year old whisky, but it’s safe to say you’ll likely never see a bottle from this run again – the rarity factor alone gives it the price, but the whisky is worth a part of that too.
Looking at the bottle and even once poured into the glass, there’s very little to be said for the color. What wood? Has the whisky even touched wood? Doesn’t look like it – the color is as close to new-make as you can get, just a touch of yellow – maybe. Let’s get into the nose.
At that heat (and that age) it’s tough to discern anything specific, but the salt and phenol definitely comes through. There’s also something floral and vegetal – Rose Hips and Thistle. It’s not until you add some water that it starts to open in a big way. Think of a grass field that has been well mowed through spring and early summer, but sometime around late summer you don’t need to mow anymore because it’s drying out and just not growing as fast. It’s kinda getting painful to walk on. It’s sharp. And it’s dry. And it has that dusty, musty, dry grass smell. With a bit of water, that’s Kilchoman 4.
Have you seen the Blue Man Group? They’re awesome. I still don’t know how they keep such a straight face the whole time with those big, wide eyes. There’s this one part where there’s different color paint on the drum heads and they bash the drums making the paint splatter up in the air and all over themselves. The experience of this whisky on your tongue is just like that – it bounces around and all over your mouth. Water really helps the flavor too. Much like that same drum head, all tight and snappy, Kilchoman 4 has a very tight flavor. Like a tie die shirt that’s all bound up with rubber bands and when you cut the rubber bands off the vibrant colors and pattern opens up, adding a bit of water to this whisky makes it just open up. The flavors become bigger. More vibrant. Honey and caramel. Seaweed. Vanilla beans.
On the other hand, the finish is a bit of a let down – there is none. Even with water, the heat is still all on the palate. By the time you swallow, there’s nothing left – it’s all evaporated.
Overall, this is a whisky you want in your cabinet. It’s a single cask bottling from a new distillery – one that’s going places. I wouldn’t stretch to call this an investment bottle, but it’s one for the books. As Kilchoman puts out more products this will be a great dram to say ‘this is where they came from.’ SCN has a winner here. With the lack of color and no finish it’s tough to give more than 3 out of 5 stars, but it’s worth keeping around. Join the SCN so you can get your hands on a bottle and join me in a dram!
About the Author:
The Whisky Guy is an educator, host, blogger , habitual traveler and more, having worked in the whisk(e)y industry for over 10 years. He can be reached through the Contact page and you can find out more by visiting the About page. He always supports enjoying whisk(e)y responsibly.