Today we're moving past Single Cask Nation's sold out bottlings and covering Kilchoman, the little distillery that could. There's a soft spot in many a whisky geek's heart for this distillery. Founded in just 2005, it's the youngest distillery on Islay and the first to be built on the island in 124 years. Kilchoman is a small distillery, a "farm distillery," and everything is done on site: farming, harvesting, malting, distillation, maturation, coopering, and bottling. Soup to nuts, Kilchoman does it all, because Kilchoman cares. They're like the Apple of whisky, making every part of the widget and strictly controlling the entire process. You can probably guess that I'm a fan, and you'd be right.
One of the first things people notice about this whisky is its age. That 4 isn't a mistake, it's a feature! How often do you get to taste a whisky on its way to becoming? (In start-ups who need to see a return on their investment, that's where.) With Kilchoman you're already seeing 4, 5, and 6 year old whisky making its way into bottlings, and it won't be long until the company is putting out 10 and 12 year old expressions. It's similar to Bruichladdich's post-reboot strategy where they bottled PC7, PC8, PC9, etc. while they waited for the whisky to "finish." Lest you're tempted to think that this is ripping off the consumer, you should know that Kilchoman's Machir Bay (a vatting of 4 and 5 year old whisky) took the title of Whisky of the Year at the 2012 International Whisky Competition - the youngest whisky ever to do so. Kilchoman is often described by aficionados as "mature beyond its years," so I would not say that this particular 4 year old cask is unfinished. It is doing what single cask bottlings do best: capturing a snapshot of a great whisky in its youth for posterity. It's whisky scrapbooking. But is it worth the money?
Here I'm going to do some flying by the seat of my pants and capture some first impressions. On the nose, this whisky is young, dirty, fruity, peaty, peppery, and ABV hot (it's 58.4% - cask strength does a body good). Immediately Bruichladdich's Octomore springs to mind as a close cousin. The comparison is apt: both whiskies are young (Octomore is typically bottled at 5 years old, although a 10 year old expression exists), both are intensely peaty, and both present a stunningly rich combination of oils, fruits, and umami on the palate (here I credit both distilleries' use of a longer-than-usual fermentation, typically 96 to 100+ hours). This particular bottling isn't exactly representative of what you'd find in Machir Bay. The pepper and peat are more intense and argumentative. The whisky is more "farmyard" in its character. It is absolutely a close cousin to Octomore, if a bit of a departure for Kilchoman. In fact, I'm stunned to think that this is only peated to somewhere between 20-50 ppm phenols.* Octomores are famous for being the most heavily peated whiskies in the world, and they're well known to be the most treasured and unique whiskies in my collection (Orpheus and Comus). What I'm basically telling you is that you can get a taste of Octomore here for half the price, and that is remarkable. Who's ready for a highland hoe-down?
*Kilchoman grows 25% of the barley used in its maltings on site, with the other 75% coming from Port Ellen. Port Ellen maltings are peated to around 50 ppm phenols (similar to Ardbeg), while Kilchoman's own maltings are peated to around 20-25 ppm. I can't be sure which malting (possibly it was both) was used to fill this cask, but whatever it was the peat is still enormous.
This smells like a whisky from another age. It's earthy and farmy - like you can practically smell the dirt clods and cow paddies (actually not unpleasant). There's a lot of white pepper, tarry ropes, wet steam engine coal smoke, heavy train grease, and smoke n' oakum on the gun decks. What a powerhouse of a nose! It's like few other whiskies you'll ever experience, even if - no, especially if - you're a fan of the Islay style. Prepare to be surprised.
The whisky betrays a little more of its youth on the palate. It's way hot, greasy, and peppery, like the surface of a charcoal grill after you've just had a monstrous 4th of July cookout on it. There's a good malty note, but it's more fruity lambic and less light beer. This is making me wonder how old Talisker's Storm really is, because there are similar malt characteristics at play. The finish is steak seasoning all over your tongue, with peppery heat concentrating on the tip of your tongue and the back of your throat. You can smell it and taste it on your breath hours later.
I really am pleased to have this little crowd pleaser at the back of the cabinet. I often break it out for a teachable moment on whisky maturation, but I need to remember to enjoy it on its own more often. While it's still in stock, I suppose you can too. In either case, you really owe it to yourself to enjoy this little snippet of history in the making if you get the chance. Kilchoman is a distillery that's going places.
Tasting is a synesthetic experience. In this blog, every whisky gets a song - one that describes, suits, and evokes. I review any whisky that suits my fancy, and some that don't. I don't give scores. You'll know whether it's a winner or loser when we peel back its mysteries and start putting pen to paper.