"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Kilchoman Distillery, Islay

I left Bruichladdich in good spirits but still with much research to do, so I headed back towards Port Charlotte to visit the Museum of Islay Life.  I mentioned the museum in my Lochindaal post and it’s a great wee place to get a feel for the Island’s past.  Archaeology, history and a small library are all provided in a converted church building and inevitably whisky plays a part in the display.  The curator was very helpful with my questions and she found some useful information in the library, including that plan of Lochindaal that requires further investigation.

Museum of Islay Life, Port Charlotte
Researching both distillery and local area history, and resolving the conundrums and contradictions in some of the evidence (or lack of it) are proving to be the most time consuming parts of this project.  The actual distillery visits and the travelling are all too short by comparison, or perhaps it just feels that way, as I often wish for the journey to last as long in reality as it does in the many fond memories I recall.  So I have to drag myself away from the museum, no time even to look at the archaeology that should interest me through the profession I should be following when not avoiding real work on projects like this!  I find the guilt eases after a dram or two!

From Port Charlotte I retraced the road back past Bruichladdich and found the turning for Kilchoman Distillery and Machir Bay.  Four to five miles along a windy, bouncy single track road brings you to Rockside Farm where the distillery is based, the dunes of Machir Bay a mile further on.  The distillery is named after the local parish and an old church nearby.  The new church here is called St Kiaran’s, named after Saint Ciaran who also founded the settlement of Kilkerran at Campbeltown.  A wonderful carved Celtic cross stands in the churchyard here.

When I began this blog I promised to visit not only every site that Barnard had but also to include every current distillery that has opened since then (and I wonder why this is taking so long…).  Kilchoman is the newest distillery on Islay having been built in 2005 and the first distillation ran in December that year.  This was the first distillery to be built on Islay in almost a century after Malt Mill was built beside Lagavulin in 1908.  I did make a quick stop here, however this was the only Islay distillery that I didn’t take a tour round as I just couldn’t work it into my timetable and the Barnard list has to take precedence, so the information here is just a quick summary.

Kilchoman is an echo of the original farm style distilleries that were scattered around Islay, and elsewhere in Scotland, long before Barnard came calling.  This heritage is recognised in the distillery visitor centre where the old distilleries are recorded on a map with brief details of each one.  Names like Octomore, Tallant, Newton and Daill still live on as farms on the island, as well as distant memories of their whisky past.  Farms often started their own small distilleries to make use of excess barley and generate some income, now major distilleries support farms by both buying their crop and supplying draff as cattle feed (you know, I don’t recall anyone using the ‘happy cattle’ joke on Islay, must be a mainland thing?).

Kilchoman are producing around 100,000 litres of spirit p.a. which is comparable to Laphroaig when Barnard visited (105,000 litres).  Laphroaig had the smallest output on Islay at that time but would not have been classed as a farm distillery.  The true farm distilleries had all closed by then, most of the twelve or so lasting only a few years from around 1816-1822, just before the Excise Act 1823 licensing requirements, although three lasted for 30-40 years.  The last closure and longest running was Lossit Distillery near Ballygrant, from 1821 to 1860 (Udo, 2005).  All this excludes the illicit distilling that certainly continued into the early decades of the 19th century.

Malting and kiln at Kilchoman
True to the old traditions Kilchoman have every stage of production on the one site, from growing their own barley to bottling the final product.  Admittedly they don’t produce enough malt for all their requirements (c30%, the remainder from Port Ellen Maltings) but they are, this year for the first time, releasing a bottling that is entirely farm produced.  Distilling from the two malt sources is kept separate and this should be an interesting comparison with the existing whisky.

The barley is peat dried for 8 hours to 20-25ppm before air drying for 40 hours, so a mid-level peating in the Islay range.  There are 4 washbacks which, like Laphroaig, are made from stainless steel, and two stills.  Most of the spirit is matured in Bourbon casks from Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery and around 20% is matured in Oloroso sherry butts.

Even at a young age this is a cracking good whisky that hints at a great depth of flavour to come as it ages.  The first few releases all hang onto a little of that evocative barley sweetness you find in New Make, with additional fruit notes coming through the smoke and I find the peat a little more pronounced in more recent bottlings, in a good way.  I have also tried a wonderful 4yo single cask bottling from an Oloroso sherry cask.  Lots more to come from this new distillery and I will be tracking their progress with interest.

Surf's up at Machir Bay
Machir Bay looking north
I didn’t have time to visit Machir Bay on this visit but I had been there once before.  A short drive on from the distillery and with parking available near the beach this is a delightful place to visit for a walk on a nice day.  The Atlantic waves rush onto the shore in a turbulent surf and the glorious sands stretch for about a mile.  Machir is actually the name for the style of grass covered dunes just behind the beach, the grass seemingly holding the sand together against the wind and tide, and a perfect place to lie back and watch the sunset with a dram of Kilchoman in your hand.