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Friday, March 19, 2021

Concluding the Kilchoman Cluster

(Kilchoman cluster homepage)

Seventeen Kilchomans, all with scores between 81 and 89, have been ingested, each compelling me to regurgitate words about them. That narrow range of scores may disappoint some and bore others, but there are plenty of tales beyond the scores. Of course there are! Blog content!


As you may have noticed, there were no alternative casks included among these reviews. No STR, madeira or mezcal(?!) casks. Just bourbon and/or sherry casks, or no cask at all. I wanted to get down to the bones of the Kilchoman spirit and see how it moved across an extended sample size. There were pros and cons to my whisky selection:

--A lot of Kilchoman.
--No hyperactive American oak.

--Not enough sherry cask Kilchoman (with the Machir Bays showing nearly no sherry influence).
--A lot of repetition between all the bourbon cask babies.

I didn't realize the sherry cask issue until I got to the end of the seven Machir Bays. It was later painfully confirmed when I tried the two very good sherry cask whiskies side-by-side.


Some of my crunchier hipster readers may have wanted more 100% Islays in the mix, and that's valid. That Islay barley makes up 25% of the malt used for Kilchoman's products, so perhaps I should have had 4¼ 100% Islays out of the 17 selections. The reason for falling 1¼ short is because those annual batches remain (for me) the wobbliest portion the distillery's releases. It was difficult for me to summon the interest to get a sample of just one of the batches.

What did interest me about the two different spirits was that the 100% Islay whiskies took to dilution very well (3-for-3), while the Port Ellen Maltings (PEM) spirit did not. Only the two oldest of the fourteen PEM whiskies didn't crumble under slight dilution, and none of them improved when reduced. Could the Islay barley's spirit be sturdier earlier than that of the PEM? It makes one wonder how this will play out over the next decade.


Within the small band of scores — 81 to 89, or B- to B+ — were some positive surprises. The stellar PEM new make spirit demonstrated how Kilchoman gets off to a solid start even before barreling their spirit. My early Kilchoman adoration was validated by the 2013 Machir Bay bottling, as it firmly swatted my bottle of an 2018 release. The two whiskies with the highest scores were the two I am lusting after, the first Machir Bay CS and the 2020 Loch Gorm. One shows off the quality of the past, the other offers some hope about the future.


In this cluster's introduction, I wondered if the Kilchoman whisky we were enjoying from 2010-2014 was, in its youth, only hinting at the distillery's potential or if we were already seeing the peak. I truly hoped it was not the latter. But after 17 pours, I'm not convinced their whiskies have improved significantly despite higher age statements and seven more years of production experience.

The 2013 Machir Bay read older and more complex than its elder sibling, the 2018. In fact I'm tired of my 2018 bottle, and it's still half full. The 2014 Machir Bay CS was an utter delight, while I may have been charitable in not giving the 2020 a grade in the 70s, as its cheap-tequila palate dragged it down. The 2010/2019 Vintage had a disappointingly flat palate that read less mature than the 2008/2015 Vintage. As with the 2020 Machir Bay CS, the 2010/2019 Vintage was saved only by its nose. How much longer will that be enough?

Some hope does appear for the distillery's present and future whiskies. They DO have a legitimate and unique 14 year old whisky. And their Loch Gorm is getting better, developing into one of the best standard sherry cask releases on the island. Add in the gradual growth of the 100% Islay releases, and the distillery does have a framework for their future.

It's possible the bourbon cask PEM whiskies present the weakest link in this series. Seeing the decline in Ardbeg Ten — which uses the same PEM specs — in my big 2017 Taste Off makes me wonder if the two circumstances are related.


In 2019, Kilchoman Distillery expanded its facilities so that they could double their production. Taken out of context it already looks significant. But consider this: Their capacity was 110,000 liters in 2011; it is now 500,000 liters in 2021. That level of success and commitment means one of two things. Either the Willses are in the game for the long haul, with a standard 10-12 year old queued up for the 2030s, or they're getting the distillery in order for a massive payday from a multinational conglomerate. Either way, what's the price on that 12 year old going to be?

That's not just an idle, snarky question. I honestly don't know if I'll still be wacky for whisky in ten years, but I will be mindful of money. After this cluster, I have no interest in chasing down the next Vintage, 100% Islay, any single cask, nor even another Machir Bay. Perhaps I'll go after a Loch Gorm, especially if The Tariff vaporizes for good. But I'm going to leave the Kilchoman fanperson-ism for the new breed of whisky consumers. Cynicism hasn't yet touched their wallets.