A taste of Islay – Kilchoman 2010 Summer release
As far as travelling in the UK is concerned, I admit to being a real Southener. Born and brought up in Gloucestershire, I love the rugged Cotswold countryside, the rolling patchwork fields of Dorset, the wilds of Dartmoor and the stunning Cornish coastline. I’ve rarely been father North than Manchester so I was really excited when we planned a visit to the Isle of Islay; the only other time I’d visited Scotland was when I got married (no not Gretna, at Gleneagles darling). I have to admit that whisky is very far down my list of preferred drinks and I’d rather have bourbon to mix with ginger ale than blended scotch. I was about to get an insight into the fanatical world of the single malt.
I have to declare an interest here – we were staying with Anthony and Kathy Wills, who set up Kilchoman, a farm distillery which is the first to be built on Islay in 124 years. Kil means church and the farm is a short distance from the ruin of Kilchoman. We arrived in the lashing rain, the island looked grey and gloomy, but as we ran into the visitor’s centre we were instantly warmed by the smell of malt and peat that wafts out of the buildings. We had a quick look around, guided by Anthony, and a quick taste but I returned the next day, in brilliant sunshine, for my own private tour with Laura (daughters both happily cantering on a beach courtesy of riding centre next door and husband on golf course). I won’t try to describe the whisky-making process accurately in detail as there was far too much to take in but I was rapt as Laura rattled off some fascinating facts and figures with obvious enthusiasm. (The Loch Lomond website gives a good step by step description). There is a mystique about taking a humble looking grain and transforming it into something that one day might sell for $70,000
The difference with Kilchoman, and part of the appeal to me, is that all their barley is grown on the island and much of it right on the farm where the distillery is based and using the local water. The golden, wispy heads of the barley trembling in the breeze was a glorious sight as we entered the gate. The process they use follows traditional farm distillery methods such as germinating the barley on the floor of the malting house and turning it by hand with wooden paddles. The barley produces the necessary sugar from its stored starch during this stage – Anthony showed us it was ready by opening up a grain to reveal a sprout that was 2/3rds of the way inside, the optimum length. We left the malting house and looked into the peat-fired oven where the grains go next to stop their germination and start the complex journey to build the unique taste of the single malt. The barley is then ground into quite fine powder like flour (called the grist – hence the expression). Getting just the right texture is important before it’s combined with water to make the ‘mash’. I loved peering into the darkly lit mash tun to see the golden, porridge-like substance slowly stirred with paddles. After this the liquid is drained off and the fermentation stage starts. I got to taste some of the watery foaming liquid which is only about 5% alcohol at this stage (and could be turned into beer). It was pretty insipid although Laura said some people absolutely love it.
Then comes the start of the magic transformation, the distillation. The stills gleamed in the sunlight from the window and I was starting to fall under the spell. The spirit is distilled twice to take out impurities and obtain just the right strength. I stopped to chat to the distilling team and as well as whisky we spoke about the stunning scenery of the island; the quiet enthusiasm they have for both was palpable (my trek blog has more about walking on the island).
What gives each single malt its unique flavour? The water, the barley, the peat smoking and t.l.c. all play a part and the final maturation in oak barrels defines its character. Kilchoman uses mainly bourbon barrels from the Buffalo Trace distillery and olorosso sherry butts. I did spot a Yquem cask too – very interesting. The distillery is very young, open in 2005, so there have only been a few releases – the inaugural release, Autumn 2009 and Summer 2010 – the first two selling out rapidly and the Summer release going fast.
What did it taste like? I must stress my opinion as a complete novice here. I tried the Autumn release first and it was exactly as I expected to it to taste – a bit sweet, a bit spicy and very smoky. If amber was a taste it would sum it up. The Summer release was a surprise though – it was fresh, with some citrus notes while warm and comforting with the peaty smoke taste – fabulous. I hadn’t expected to find drinking neat single malt whisky at 4pm very easy – but this was a great experience. I happily handed over my credit card for my own bottle of Summer release plus some gorgeous gifts from their visitor’s centre (which also has a cafe serving great home-made food – I can personally vouch for the soup including Cullen Skink, the paninis and the cakes).
I started to understand why people visit Islay as whisky tourists (there are 8 distilleries on the island) although not sure I would ever buy a branded tweed tie! I have a feeling that this won’t be the last time I write about single malt.
(If you are interested in more expert descriptions of the Kilchoman releases, visit their website or Whisky Israel (yes really!), Master of Malt, The Whisky Shop blog or whisky for everyone to list a few.)