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The taste of an island

February 27, 2014

Even if I didn’t know Anthony and Kathy Wills of Kilchoman, the whole story and ethos behind this farm distillery and single malt whisky would appeal to me.  A bit of history explains why.

While there are bottles of whisky on every off-license shelf now, commercial production of the spirit didn’t start until the late 1700s. Before then farmers in Scotland who grew barley couldn’t store the crop for long due to the damp climate so they germinated any grain left over, dried it over peat fires, brewed it into ale (the rough barley grown then was called “bere” which is where the word beer comes from). Some of the ale was also distilled and the leftover barley meal (called draff) was fed to their animals.

Improvements in farming yields and a reduction in tax in 1823 led to the establishment of many commercial distilleries and at one point there were 23 on the isle of Islay alone. But by the 1990s, only seven remained, all owned by large multi-nationals such as LVMH, Suntory and Diageo, most using barley purchased from malthouses. Anthony and Kathy had the vision and nerve to build the first new distillery on the island of Islay for 124 years and they started production in 2004. Going back to traditional methods similar to those early farmers, the whisky is made from start to finish at Kilchoman, from the barley grown in the fields that surround it, to germination on the malting floor, drying over peat fires, combining with water from the brook to make ‘mash’, distilling, maturing and bottling. They even feed the draff to farm animals.

When we visited the distillery in 2010, Kilchoman was at the very early stages of its journey. The start is a precarious time for a business that cannot sell its new product for three years (it must be matured for three years minimum to earn the name of single malt whisky). However, designing and building a distillery around the whisky they were aiming to produce has reaped rewards in distinctive styles and flavours. Since then Kilchoman has earned a place in the BBC Food and Farming awards, various IWSC medals and the 2007 Vintage was awarded Islay Single Malt of the Year by the Whisky Advocate Magazine. Tasting from the very beginning means I’ve been able to follow its journey through flavour; as a young whisky it is good, but age will change with each release and it’s predicted to get better and better over the years.

Four years on in Dubai and I am welcomed to the bar at Celebrities in the Royal Mirage with a single malt whisky sour made with Kilchoman Machir Bay, lemon juice, a touch of sugar syrup and a dash of bitters. It’s the perfect blend of refreshing sharpness and mellow smokiness. I quiz barman Raoul for the recipe and Craig from MMI’s Malt Whisky Society promises to send it to me. We sit at tables for dinner and Anthony talks us through every glass of Kilchoman, two of which have never been tasted in Dubai before,  each matched with a different course.

Honestly, I have reservations about drinking whisky with every course instead of wine, but enjoy the experience. Machir Bay is a typical Islay style, floral and peaty, and cuts through the fattiness of the first course foie gras beautifully; a herb coated, lightly smoked soft salmon fillet benefits from the delicate, floral notes of the 100% Islay (3rd edition). The smokiness of the 2007 Vintage Release (the oldest release by Kilchoman to date) goes incredibly well with pink lamb. The golden mellowness of the Single Cask Release 2008 momentarily takes me to Islay, the nose is like walking through peat bogs while breathing the maritime breeze, with a minerality which is almost salty on the palate. It’s a pretty good match with the soft chestnut and whisky cream inside a chocolate cigar but I just want to savour it on its own.

The light golden colour of the whisky in the glass is seductive and totally natural – Kilchoman use no colouring or caramel. Neither do they chill filter which ensures clarity but can strip out proteins which add to the character and texture.

The thing that struck me when I was talking to the distillers at Kilchoman was how in tune with the environment and the stunning natural surroundings they were. The whisky seems to capture this and bottle it; it truly is a scenic tour by taste of one tiny corner of a very small island. I’m looking forward to the next chapter…

How to make the best whisky cocktail I have ever tasted.

Machir Bay Sour

30 ml Kilchoman Machir Bay
30 ml fresh lemon juice
15 ml sugar syrup
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Shake together over ice, strain and pour into an ‘Old fashioned’ glass over ice garnished with a slice of lemon.

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  1. February 28, 2014 12:46 am

    Having finally been to the islands of Scotland, I enjoyed this virtual trip and tasting. We didnt make to Islay last time, maybe next time… It’s wonderful to hear of dedication and success stories like this.

    • February 28, 2014 2:17 pm

      We were really lucky that the weather was glorious when we went. Huge skies and the colours were breath-taking.

  2. February 28, 2014 1:01 am

    A wonderful experience! I’m not a big fan of whisky when it comes to drinking it (I love to cook and bake with it), but I’m sure I’d enjoy such an interesting event…



  3. February 28, 2014 11:28 am

    Sally, you are awful! It’s 7.30am here in London and reading this had made me fancy having a wee dram right now! Jx

    • February 28, 2014 1:35 pm

      Ha ha – the ale part of the process is sometimes called breakfast whisky I believe 🙂

  4. February 28, 2014 8:56 pm

    Beautiful place, beautiful pictures. I had a great friend who lived on Islay, but I haven’t been there for more than 35 years now. Time flies…but not up there;)

    • March 1, 2014 8:04 am

      So true. We strolled along 6 mile beaches that were completely deserted, pottered round the handful of shops and that was about it. Absolute bliss.

  5. March 2, 2014 9:41 am

    Sally, I will add the distillery onto our list of places to visit when we are in Islay next year. This region is one of my favourites 🙂

    • March 2, 2014 9:58 am

      Oh how lovely that you are going for a visit. Enjoy, enjoy – we loved the walking as well as the whisky.

  6. March 4, 2014 12:48 am

    Ah a taste of Kilchoman, even if virtual… a lovely post Sally!

  7. March 4, 2014 6:45 am

    wow wow wow


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