...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Single Malt Report returns with a Kilchoman Taste Off!!!

Sometimes, after a couple of drinks, I attempt to make a Top Distilleries list.  You know, a Top Five or Top Ten.  There's no data to back up the lists, just a half-crocked subjective brainstorm.  Kilchoman always makes the Top Ten and often makes the big Five.  While its whisky is very very young, it is also very very good.  Anthony Wills and John MacLellan have found a way to design a malt that is ready to go when it is less than a handful of years old.  That's fantastic for their business and fantastic for us drinkers.

I'm a big fan of their Summer 2010 release.  Their Machir Bay is as good as you've heard, maybe better.  And last year's K&L Exclusive 100% Islay Single Sherry Cask is killer.  So far they were three for three in my glass.  I had to try to more!  So I assembled three different Kilchomans from three different sources and dug in.

As you can see, I assembled these guys from a number of sources.  And I'm going to list these in the reverse order from which they appear above.  They'll be in order of their age, oak influence, and (not so coincidentally) color.

Kilchoman 3 year old Inaugural 100% Islay -- 30mL sample from Whiskysamples
Kilchoman Spring 2010 -- 30mL sample from Florin
Kilchoman 2007 -- 20mL sample from the Whiskybase shop

Bottling: Inaugural 100% Islay
Barley Varietal: Optic
Age: at least three years (bottled 2011)
Maturation: former Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 50%
Limited Bottling: 11,300+

Kilchoman has been gradually releasing 100% Islay bottlings, which contain Optic barley grown on a local Islay farm.  The peating levels, 10-20ppm, differ from their non 100% Islay releases.  The barley from their regular releases comes from the Port Ellen maltings with the Ardbeg specs, approximately 50ppm.  Thus one feels less of the peat hammer on the Kichoman 100% Islay whiskies and more of the malt spirit.

The color is very light, almost clear.

The nose starts with peated snickerdoodle cookies, boldly so.  It's very spirity with just a hint of charred oak.  Way in the back, there's some lemon zest, brown sugar, and toast.

Cinnamon leads in the palate, followed by marshmallows.  A strong barley element with little oak.  Almost reminds me of a higher peated version of 'Laddie Bere.  But it's the malted grain that speaks the loudest, with the peat staying more subtle than that of the other two Kilchomans here.

It finishes boldly at first.  Then fades.  Then returns.  All barley spirit.

The nose holds fresh cherries, cinnamon red hots, and dusty peat.

The palate and finish are earthy with some dried grass and cracked pepper.  The spirit remains spicy and the ethyl stays strong, but it does become easier drinkin'.

This is a very young whisky.  In fact it's the only Kilchoman I've had that has tasted very young.  One of the most admirable aspects of the Kilchoman single malts is that they taste and nose considerably older than their age.  This one doesn't.  This is a zesty punchy spirit that pushes the oak into the background.  Happily, the spirit is good.

Availability - Several US retailers, though it's getting harder to find
Pricing - $90-$100 in the US, similar price internationally without shipping rate
Rating - 80

Bottling: Spring 2010
Age: more than three years
Maturation: 3 years in former Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels, then 3-1/2 months in former oloroso sherry casks
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Limited Bottling: 8,500+

In 2010 and 2011, Kilchoman started rolling out their releases with each season.  I tried the Summer 2010 and LOVED it.  So I was excited to try the previous release.  The malt is heavily peated (~50ppm), the spirit ages for its first three years in former Buffalo Trace barrels, and then is finished off in (possibly first-fill) oloroso sherry casks.  This finish is nowhere nearly as aggressive as other sherry finished whiskies (I'm talking about you, Lasanta), instead it's more of a seasoning.

The color is a medium amber

The nose leads with those peat-laced cinnamon sugar cookies, then lemon cake, a little bit of dried grass and grain, followed by white and green fruits (green grapes and pears).

Here comes the peat in the palate, deeply sooty.  Ripe apples, smoked dried fruit, a little granulated sugar.  The texture is light though the alcohol punch feels stronger than 46%.

It finishes a little dry.  Ashes, toast, black pepper, and some of those cookies from the nose.

Candied apples arise in the nose.  There's also some sap, menthol, and honey roasted nuts.  The peat recedes into a farmy note.

The peat is much softer in the palate now.  The texture thickens and some peppery spice kicks up.

The finish is peat, sugar, spice, and nuts.

This one swam relatively well, though I prefer it neatly.  The oak, though more apparent than in the 100% Islay, remained quite restrained.  This one would taste and smell familiar to the fans of the Machir Bay releases.  It's younger than those whiskies, but you can sense the roots taking shape.

Availability - less than a dozen retailers worldwide
Pricing - around $70 in the US, similar price internationally without shipping rate
Rating - 86

Bottling: 2007
Special Release: Whisky Import Nederland
Age: five years (Nov 2007 - Nov 2012)
Maturation: first fill sherry hogshead
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 58.4%
Cask: 456/2007

Now, we jump to something big.  This one is older, cask strength, and full-on sherried.  The other Kilchoman sherry cask I've tried, the K&L exclusive from last year, was darned scrumptious.  This one is also on the tough-to-find side of things, but I thought it would represent the sherry single casks well, as there are a number of single sherry casks out there to be found, released in every country.

The color is dark gold.

The first thing I find in the nose is, *sniff*, charred nose hair.  Just kidding.  Maybe.  Roasted peat, dark dried fruit, cinnamon and molasses arrive in a group.  Then there's a scotchy butterscotch and a hint of chlorine.  Vanilla beans (wrong oak!), caramel sauce, walnuts, honey, and a tiny bit of (good) sulfur.

The palate leads with toffee and butterscotch.  A brief hammy moment is suddenly covered by an enormous smoke cloud.  Gorgeous sherry highlights mingle with peat very well and for a moment it's like a big Lagavulin 16.  Though it is barely five years old.

It finishes on hay, burnt toast, and a candied peat that lingers on and on.  It's a beach bonfire that's just been snuffed.

The nose is still very dense, though it's a bit farty.  There's still toasty peat, honeys and sugars, and dried apricots.

The palate and finish are full of very vegetal peat, salty meat, and soot (think Ardbeg 10's chimney sweep).

My goodness, do this neat.  A little water is fine, but if you're dropping this sort of cash you'll want the whisky where it shines.  Let it roar, big and beautiful.  That's two for two with Kilchoman's single sherry casks, for me.  Add the Machir Bay into the equation and we're seeing this baby malt playing very well with oak.  That's a good sign so far.  What's it going to be like when it hits eight years old next year...?

Availability - Netherlands :-\
Pricing - $100-$130 before shipping
Rating - 91


  1. The latest Dramming post about wood was, I feel like, pretty spot-on. Age may be becoming more important because so many distillers have been focusing on getting the most alcohol out of their barley, which means that they skimp on flavor, kind like how distilling to higher proofs tends to cut out flavor as well. Kilchoman, and a few other small distillers, are showing that with care, you can make very good whisky that's half as old as the standard releases from bigger distilleries. It'll be interesting to see if they keep it up or shift towards new make that needs more time in oak to shine.

    1. That Dramming article is fantastic. It's been a great week on the big blog front.

      It's curious that Kilchoman seems to be the only distillery at the moment making stellar young product (though I really like the Kilkerrans too). I hope that's the direction that other distilleries start going, needing tasty stuff that they'll need/want to move earlier. Probably not though since companies have decided that playing with wood is better for their bottom lines than moving back to less productive barley.

      Oliver pointed out that single malts used to be bottled much younger, yet at a much higher quality, without our current technology. So this can still happen, but the narrowing of the whisky business won't allow it until someone figures out how to make it highly profitable. I can still hope. But I'll be increasingly taking my business elsewhere in the meantime.

    2. Oliver has a point there. Bruichladdich Bere might be young but it has a lot of flavor. It now makes sense that a lot of that flavor is coming from the other parts of the barley.

    3. Yeah, that's what I really liked about his article. The cynic in me is certain that we'll be seeing some special barley varietal releases in the near future from other companies and they'll be priced at an exorbitant premium.