Even experienced whisky drinkers can’t always tell that Kilchoman is a young Scotch whisky. Earlier this year, John MacLellan, distillery manager at Kilchoman, held a tasting for a group of bankers in Manhattan. He told them the story of the distillery and how it only started production in December 2005. After handing out the tasting glasses, MacLellan said to the group, “Now gents, anyone got any suggestions about the possible age?” “Oh jeez,” they said. “It’s gotta be 21 years old…it’s got to be 18 or 15 years old.” Then MacLellan said with a sly smile, “Now we know why you guys are bankers, because you can’t count.”
Right now, the oldest whisky you can get from Kilchoman is just five years old, and that’s because Kilchoman is the newest Scotch whisky distillery on Scotland’s Isle of Islay. With a population of just 3,000, this tiny island off the Scottish west coast boasts nine Scotch whisky distilleries, including behemoths like Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, and Laphroaig.
It’s been 124 years since anyone attempted to start a new distillery on Islay — that is until Kilchoman Distillery began production in 2005. Founder Anthony Wills converted a cluster of old stone buildings at Rockside Farm into a still house, malting floor and visitor center. The site is surrounded by rolling green hills dotted with sheep, clear blue lakes and fields of barley — a truly idyllic setting for a Scotch distillery.
Dwarfed by the other whisky giants on Islay (and most of the other whisky distilleries in Scotland) in terms of size and resources, Kilchoman is the new kid on a very old block — competing with some of the world’s most respected whisky brands. The secret to their success is lies in the tight-knit team if Islay locals working at the distillery and, of course, the incredible quality of their whisky.
“When I left school,” says MacLellan, whose 21-year career at Bunnahabhain Distillery gives him a long-term perspective on the whisky business, “people really didn’t want to go to the distillery because they thought they were going down to the mines…It was hot work, it was dirty work, it was poorly paid.”
Distilleries like Kilchoman are changing this perception. “It’s a nice place to work,” says MacLellan. The “crowd of kids” he works with bakes cakes for each other’s birthdays and participates in the Islay Beach Rugby Tournament (Kilchoman won this year). “I’ve lost weight, I feel a lot fitter, I’m much happier.” And “when something needs done at Kilchoman, everybody chips in. It’s good fun.”
As distillery manager at a small place like Kilchoman, MacLellan enjoys overseeing the entire process of whisky-making: “I see it from when the barley come in the door, right to the end consumer very often drinking the whiskey here on site.” He’s also memorized all the places Kilchomen will be shipped to over the coming week, which he’ll proudly recite for visitors to the distillery. “The best thing is to see the pallets go onto the lorry with a label to California or somewhere in the world.”
At the start, Kilchoman put out seasonal releases of whisky every few months, which sold out very quickly. Part of MacLellan’s job when he joined the Kilchoman team two years ago, was to help the distillery create something that would be perpetually available.
Meet Machir Bay Single Malt, named for the picturesque coastline just a few minutes from the distillery. First released in January 2012, this bottling is a blend of 3, 4 and 5 year old Kilchoman whisky. It’s finished in sherry casks for eight weeks before release, which according to MacLellan, gives the whisky some extra flavor and color. You’ll find a hint of smoke in this whisky, along with the unmistakable Islay peat flavor. A little brine and some woody caramel adds to the complexity.
The other Kilchoman to look for is 100% Islay, which is made with barley grown on nearby hills at Rockside Farm and malted at Kilchoman. The peat, says MacLellan, is not as strong on the 100% Islay, which makes it more of an everyday whisky. “If you’re a real regular whisky drinker, it’s your go-to whisky. It’s a whisky you would drink just because it’s that time of day, [or] you’re having a dram before your dinner.”
MacLellan believes that tastings are the best way to encourage people to buy whisky, so he and his team constantly hold tastings at the distillery and around the world. “We do not stand up and tell people what they should taste. We are very sure that it’s a hugely personal thing,” he says.
One thing he hopes that people learn through his tastings is that “It doesn’t have to be about old. Whisky can also be about young.” The age of Kilchoman’s whiskies might discourage some people, but MacLellan says that people owe it to themselves to at least try it: “It’s fresh, it has lots of nice cereal notes, it has the peat very fresh in it. The whiskies are more vibrant, they’re not flat.”
His final piece of advice: attend as many whisky tastings as you can. “Be like a Scotsman, try everything you can for free first before you buy it. Try everything you can get your hands on…your taste evolves. What you might not like when you’re 28 you might love when your 38 or 48. It’s a constantly changing thing.”