Four weeks ago, I attended a casual evening with James Wills of Kilchoman Distillery and Louisa Young of Arran Distillery. It was hosted by Los Angeles's own Whisky Redhead and attended by LA whisky folks (like Josh Peters and Linh Do) as well as a handful of people in the spirits and bartending scene. Arran and Kilchoman are relatively new to the Scotch world, having opened in 1995 and 2005, respectively. Though I usually write about how much better things used to be compared to how they are now, when it comes to quality these two baby distilleries are currently beating the snot out of distilleries 100-200 years their senior.
There was a lot of whisky available to be sampled on this occasion:
When one is confronted by a bevy of bottles, one MUST make a plan. Otherwise no perspective is gained and everything becomes a blur. Some pleasures are to have structure or we're rendered useless. I've been doing my best not to be useless recently (unless I'm drinking Florin's whisky stash), so I created a strategy for this event and then stuck to it.
Because it's unpeated, Isle of Arran is where I elected to begin sampling. Where better to start than with Arran's new make? Yes, I began with 68.4%abv. I done plan good.
Color - Clear
Nose - Lots of coriander and grapefruit up front. Then cardamom, lemon, and floral soap. After ten minutes or so there are some apple skins, mint leaves, and orange peel.
Palate - All fruit. See the nose's fruits, then add pineapple and (curiously) lots of raisins. A whisper of mushrooms. And NONE of the floral soap.
Finish - Mostly cinnamon and coriander
Thoughts and things: This was one of my favorite sips of the night. Very pretty and drinkable at its full strength. Arran does reduce their new make to 63.5%abv before pouring it into barrels.
Then it was time to compare Arran's 16 year old with their upcoming 18 year old.
Color - Light gold
Nose - Vanilla, butterscotch, brown sugar, and cherry candies.
Palate - Starts off sweet and sugary. Mint and cherry candies. Lots of sherry at the beginning too. Picks up some pepper and bitterness with time.
Finish - Sweet and sugary here too, with a mild nutty note.
Thoughts and things: An easy pleaser, this is a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry barrels. It's all very clean and enjoyable.
Color - Light gold
Nose - Much more citric than the 16. A touch of sulphur. A bunch of roses. Picks up a nice herbal zip with time.
Palate - Mild sherry. Lightly sweet and savoury. A bit tannic. Wee bite of sulphur again.
Finish - Tannic, mild. Much less sweet than the 16.
Thoughts and things: This one, 100% ex-sherry, hits the US market soon. I was told it was to be around $150, though that seems weird because it's $100 in Europe. Whisky-wise it's a little rougher than the 16, which is the reverse of what I'd expected. While I prefer a challenge, I'd go with the 16 over this one. I don't mind the sulphur but the tannins were more than my palate prefers.
Even after trying the 16 and 18, my favorite of Arran's line remains the 14 year old. And......the 14 year old now has a new label. When talking to Louisa, I brought up the fact that every time a whisky geek sees a new label on a whisky, he or she (rightly or wrongly) assumes there has been a change in the whisky itself. *cough Talisker cough* And in fact the 14 year old's makeup has changed.
As Arran's annual production has more than doubled since the distillery opened, there was a decision made to alter the cask management to manage the output. The original 14 year old was from approximately 80% first fill bourbon casks, the rest from ex-sherries. As per what I was told, James McTaggart (their master distiller) has elected to often use refill sherry casks for primary maturation and then later transfer that whisky into first-fill bourbon casks. So that makes up a large part of the new 14 year old. Also, I was told there are some older casks in the new 14 (and 10) to keep the whisky similar. Again, that's hearsay, but official hearsay. I lined up the the two 14s side by side to suss out the differences...
Then it was time to go to Islay's young distillery...
As you may already know, Kilchoman uses two different types of malted barley which results in two different branches of products. They have their highly-peated malt that's purchased from the Port Ellen maltings, and has the Ardbeg specs (peated at 50ppm). This malt is used in the majority of their whiskies. They also utilize a 100% Islay malt which is grown on the nearby farm and malted on site. This stuff is peated around 15-20ppm and is the malt used in the "100% Islay" products.
Fun fact: Another difference between the two malted barleys is the peat itself. The peat used by PE is bulk purchased and loses its tiny roots during transport. The 100% Islay malt's peat still has its roots intact. Thus it's possible that the two peats burn differently and provide different characteristics.
I gave James Wills brief grief about the ages of their whiskies. The distillery has been open for nearly ten years and yet almost all of their whiskies are still 3-5 years old. Where the heck is the eight year old whisky? The world wants to drink it! Here's the answer. In 2005 they didn't start casking their whisky until December. In 2006 they only produced 40K liters. They did have a 2006 Vintage release (a 5yo) and also sold many many single barrels to European retailers and individuals to get some revenue going. In 2007, their production was 75K liters. Again, they had a 2007 Vintage release, plus they started using some of the 2007 stuff in the 2012 edition of Machir Bay. By 2008, they were up to full capacity. And, according to their website, there will be a 7 year old 2008 vintage released this year. So we'll have to wait until at least late 2016 to try an eight year old Kilchoman.
Fun fact: While the 2012 and 2013 editions of Machir Bay were briefly finished in sherry casks, the distillery changed things up for the 2014 release by removing the finish altogether and instead including sherry casks in 10% of the mix.
To the whisky:
Color - Clear
Nose - Sugary mescal, rotting veg (but in a good way), soil-covered roots, ham, and tar.
Palate - Richly smoky. Very creamy in texture and content. Almost tastes aged already. Red Hots candy.
Finish - Ham and sugar.
Thoughts and things: Another good new make. Lovely texture on the palate. I'd buy a bottle of this if the price was right.
Color - Amber
Nose - (Neat) Take the new make then add vanilla, tangerines, pears, and a hint of manure. (With water) More vanilla, more farm. Band-aids and Peychaud's bitters. Anise.
Palate - (Neat) Anise, sugar, honey, salt, green peat, and pineapple. (With water) Gets woodier, but also more herbal.
Finish - Sweet + peat, mescal
Thoughts and things: This ex-bourbon matured new addition to Kilchoman's range is certainly young, but it also works in that curious way that many Kilchomans do. The nose is the best part by far, with or without water. While its price is high considering the whisky's age, it could be a good alternative to the single casks which cost even more.
Kilchoman Single Cask 394/2009 5 year old PX Finish, 59.2%abv
Color - Gold
Nose - Sugary raisins and nuts. Mothballs. Not much peat.
Palate - Sweet from the start and gets sweeter as it goes. Sugary frosting.
Finish - A bit cloying. Grape jam.
Thoughts and things: Kilchoman's regular single sherry casks are consistently excellent. But this PX finish (after an ex-bourbon barrel maturation) does not work for me. It is aggressive sugary and the PX finish covers up every element of its Kilchoman-ness. The cask strength release is better than this by a leap.
As you may have noticed, I didn't sample any of their "100% Islay" products. While the 100% Islay range sounds like the hipper craftier whisky, I don't really care for it. I've tried two single casks and two of the annual releases in that range and found them all to be half-baked, three year old whisky that tastes like three year old whisky. Some people adore it, and that's great. More for them. I'll stick to the PE malt for now.
Many thank yous to the Whisky Redhead, James Wills, and Louisa Young for their time and their whisky.
While Kilchoman is still, in my opinion, one of the top ten distilleries in Scotland, it is getting tough for me to recommend their single casks wholeheartedly since it is difficult to reconcile a $100-$120 price for 4-5 year old whisky. Still, many of those casks show off some of the best whisky being made on Islay right now. I do recommend their vintage releases (the 2007 is a cracker) and the very reliable Machir Bay.
While Arran continues to make very good whisky, I find myself always preferring their official 10 and 14 year olds over their older stuff and the (many) single casks coming from the indies. Aw hell, I think I'm going to have to review some Arran whisky next week.