December 6, 2013

Kilchoman Part 2 - James Wills on single malts & reviews of Loch Gorm and 100% Islay

Today we're continuing our conversation with James Wills of Kilchoman Distillery and reviewing two more of Kilchoman's whiskies.  To start from the beginning of the interview click here...

More with James Wills

What was your first glass of whisky?

Oh gosh I was probably too young to remember. Most likely something from Islay. The first glass of whiskey I remember drinking was Laphroaig and that got the similar reaction you would expect from a mid-teenage boy drinking whiskey for the first time. So I didn’t particularly enjoy that but since then Laphroaig is one of my go-to’s after Kilchoman.

What’s your favorite Laphroaig expression?

My favorite Laphroaig that I’ve had was a Blackadder Raw Cask 13 Year Old that I had in Sweden in the beginning of the year. I’m not a big fan of particularly old stuff I quite like rawness and the impact from the spirit as well as the cask.

From Blends to Malts

How is whisky-making different today?

If you look at the big distilleries on Islay that are producing now primarily for a single malt. Where previously, as little as 15 or 20 years ago they would have been producing for a blend. The new distilleries coming along, we produce 100% for a single malt.  So we want to produce different flavors for different casks, we want a tight core range but then we also want to experiment off that.

Does that mean a different approach technically?

Yes, especially the ways that you can run your stills now, to produce a much cleaner spirit that doesn't need much maturation. And you put it into higher quality casks then was the case when you were producing 90% for a blend. Now the focus is on creating a full flavored single malt and I think that’s been a big change.

We noticed an incredible balance of flavor in our review of Machir Bay, young and powerful but so smooth!  Was that flavor profile created by design?

We've always set out to produce an Islay style of whisky. I remember the first conversation that we had with Jim Swan who designed our stills and set up a lot of our processes.  We wanted to blend that heavy style that you get from Laphroaig, Lagavulin, or Ardbeg and the lighter style you get from Bunnahabhain.

Age Statements

Well it worked, and it's amazing how well Machir Bay compares to much older whiskies.

You get a similar reaction to a young whiskey as you do to French whiskey: "It’s no good, it’s young!"  or "It’s no good it’s French!"  You get that kind of reaction which has no basis.

I was chatting with a guy from 'Laddie the other day.  They’re now switching to completely non-age statement. I was talking with the guys from Macallan and there’s been a lot of press about them moving. We’ve never had age statements on our bottles, but we’re very open about what’s in them. We don’t say it on the front of the bottle, but on the back of the carton, it says what went into the vatting.

Did we hear a rumor that you'd be releasing a 10-year bottle in the near future?

Well we've got the six year old which just came out, the 2007 vintage which should be over to you guys hopefully before Christmas. But really everything we've made up to this point has been "judge us on the contents of the bottle not on the age". So absolutely at some point we’ll have a ten year old whisky. Whether we’ll make a big song and dance about it I should think not probably. It would just be slightly contradictory.

New Releases

Do you have any other new surprises in store?  Different cask expressions perhaps?

We've had some experimental stuff in the warehouse and I think the most impressive of all the cask finishes is the port, it’s looking very good.  I won’t pretend that my father gives us much freedom in terms of what we’re putting whisky into.  He gives us lots of freedom in other areas, but he’s very clear about what he thinks Kilchoman will work best in and as far as he’s concerned it’s bourbon and sherry.

So you're saying that there’s no suggestion box?

There is a suggestion box, but it doesn't get the warmest responses!  Also I think the times when you could do a glamorous finish, and people would buy it because it’s new and different, I think that time has passed.

Next year we’re going to have a cask strength general release that we’re discussing at the moment. But really our range is based around Machir Bay, 100% Islay, and the Loch Gorm which are kind of staple consistent products that are released as new editions each year. You’re not going to see a lot of new releases from Kilchoman but it will be developments of existing stuff so hopefully if last year you enjoyed the Loch Gorm, this year you’ll enjoy it even more, the theory being that it gets more mature and more complex each time.

Well just in case you would take a suggestion, we had the chance to taste your cask strength sherry barrel at Keen's in New York and it was out of this world, please make more of that!

Well our sherry matured stuff is very popular. We don’t really have enough stock of early years to do much more of the cask strength stuff. So really the only sherry products you’ll see from us in the next couple of years will be the Loch Gorm. We used to do single casks for a couple of customers around the world, big retailers, we were offering them first fill bourbon casks but we don’t have enough sherry cask to offer them sherry-cask matured. The sherry stuff is definitely the most popular. But I think with the 100% the difference between the third edition and the second edition is a really nice progression and in the future I could see that being my favorite from our range. So long as the peat doesn't dampen down too much.

What about a 100% Islay sherry cask??

Yeah well we have got a few of them.  We’ll have to see how they’re coming along… We've built a new warehouse now so we’re filling it at the moment.  We have been maturing our casks around the island, so most of them have been in the old Port Ellen warehouses. But we’re now moving into our own warehouse so that’s a nice step, we've got complete control over everything now.

It’s time for another trip to the warehouse I think.  Another lock-in in the warehouse!

Being locked in the Kilchoman warehouse sounds like our idea of paradise.  Thanks James!

And now on to the tasting...

Reviews: 100% Islay and Loch Gorm

100% Islay Tasting Notes
Loch Gorm and sample of 3rd Edition 100% Islay

Nose:  It's honestly difficult to qualify.  For sure there is sulfur, peat smoke, and sea brine.  A coastal campfire that splashed out when high tide came early.  Brilliant fresh peat, but instead of the bitterness that we'd get from fire-roasted barley, we get a sweet buttered popcorn / cotton candy syrup.  Finally, as the whisky opens up, we get a rich thyme, fennel, and pink peppercorn spice.

Palate:  The mouth is overwhelmingly citrus.  Like a fresh pineapple and honeydew salad drenched in lemon juice with a touch of mint.  The massive peat smoke is all tongue and no throat (that's a GREAT thing).  While the peat bog monster knocks at the door, it offers bee's honey, lemon, and fresh herbs as its gift.

Finish:  From the nose and body, we'd expect this finish to be long, smoky, drying, and to last for a week.  It's actually the opposite.  A medium-length finish floats up into fruits and melon, little splashes of red pepper and smoke, and a lingering honey.

Review:  The farm-to-bottle approach really sets this bottle apart.  The freshness and uniqueness of it are undeniable.  It's difficult to say that it's *better* than the Machir Bay.  They are both unique and worth experiencing.  What is apparent is that this is one of the best craft spirits we've tried.  Often we're trying to like sustainable, local products based on the concept.  In this case the taste stands on its own.

Loch Gorm Tasting Notes

Nose:  What's now recognizable as the signature Kilchoman nose: white chocolate, rock salt, and peat smoke is still there, but plums and prunes, small red grapes and crisp apples mellow the peat even more.

Palate:  The massive citrus remains, but the combination of peat, sweet honey, and grape combines into a radical spice.  Sharp rosemary, lemongrass, menthol, and tarragon dice up into a fresh herb blend.  It's still smoking in the peat, but you forget about it for a moment while it's on your tongue.

Finish:  The sweetness of the sherry on the palate is a mirage.  The smoke comes back to wreak some welcome havoc after that sherry sweetness fades.  It's almost more savage.  Or perhaps that's the difference between the 100% Islay ingredients and the continental barley.  Either way this is more of the traditional long and deeply smoky finish we'd expect from Islay.


We're not going to try to declare a victor between the Kilchoman expressions.  Taste them in order, starting with the Machir Bay, moving on to the 100% Islay, and finishing with the Loch Gorm and let us know what you think.  The Machir Bay is so unique, simply for its expert combination of raw power and finesse.  The 100% Islay is an experience, since you can really taste the difference in the ingredients used.  It has slightly less punch, but more depth of flavor.  The Loch Gorm... well we're just really big fans of sherry cask scotch!  This may well be our favorite, but that's not to say it's the best.  We may have to do our own "lock-in" with a few bottles of Kilchoman and get to the bottom of this!

Tune in next week.  It's almost Christmas which means that our favorite special releases are coming out.  (for a hint, check out last year's favorite!).