December 4, 2013

Review: Kilchoman Machir Bay, The "It" Beast

"As fearfully as doth a gallèd rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit"


Once more unto the breach our friends, we find ourselves on the island of Islay.  The home of the mythical Hebridean beasts that lived in peat bogs as thick as the Amazon and breathed smoke from their nostrils that would kill a mere mortal man by scent alone.

Map of Islay by Jason Hicklin

To the east:

Coal Ila, founded 1846
Bowmore, founded 1779
Bunnahabhain, founded 1881  

To the south:

Ardbeg, founded 1815
Laphroaig, founded 1815
Lagavulin, founded 1742

Big boys.  

So big in fact that no one dared to build a new distillery on Islay for over a hundred and twenty years. But then, in 2005, tucked into the northwest peninsula of the island, a new beast was born.  Free from the corporate domesticity that had tamed its elders, this young, wild, and ferocious creature drank freely from the local springs, grazed on the thick of its native barley, and grew to breathe a smoke so dense and dark that its fire was rumored to burn the earth and boil the oceans.  

or something like that...


We're speaking, or course, about Kilchoman.  And if you follow scotch, you're already talking about it too.  There's something going on with this distillery that's got people going nuts.  It's that intangible "It" factor, that nod and raise of the eyebrow among whiskyphiles that makes a brand blow up.  And when you're at a whisky show where the average scotch is twelve to twenty-five years old but there's a line of people waiting to taste a five year old spirit, you know something unique is happening.  

Family Business

Anthony Wills founded Kilchoman in 2005.  We met his son James, who currently runs sales & marketing for the distillery, at a whisky event in New York a couple of months ago.  James grew up living and breathing in the world of single malt and has a great perspective on where the industry is today.  Below is part one our conversation with James along with a review of Kilchoman Machir Bay, their core bottling.  Stay tuned for the rest of the interview and reviews of their other offerings: Loch Gorm Sherry Cask, and 100% Islay.

Son, we've got something to talk to you about...

What was it like when your father decided to open a distillery?

I can remember when my father actually sat us down and said, ‘Now we’ve got something to talk to you about.’ And it was me and my two brothers. And maybe a year or two earlier my uncle had had a similar discussion and he’d told us that they were going to have another baby after having a ten year gap. And so immediately my mind though 'My God, what is this going to be about?'  And then it wasn’t that my mother was pregnant, but that we were moving to Islay and dad was going to set up the distillery. And I had no idea what that was going to involve.

What were the early days like?

I claim to have done every job in the distillery. When the stills first arrived, I was the one up on a stepladder polishing them. I worked in the still house for six months. During university holidays I worked in the café. And I have to say the hardest working people in all of the distillery are the guys that work in the café and the visitors center. The guys have got it easy in the still house.

It’s been a very interesting and rewarding experience. Well I can say rewarding now because things are beginning to move in the right direction. There was a big period of time where my father was in a constant battle for more funding and just trying to going to keep it going. It’s by no means been all positive, it’s been a real struggle to get where we are now. But things are beginning to come together.

Were there any lessons you learned through those early times?
James Wills

Throughout all the periods of time where we have been short of cash one thing that has now proved to be massively important is that we have never compromised on how we produce the spirit. So there were lots of ways that we could have produced something that was more cost effective, but we wanted to produce something that was first and foremost a good whisky.  I guess we realized that if you’re going to sell scotch whisky to scotch whisky enthusiasts, there’s no pulling the wool over people’s eyes. You’re judged on the contents of the bottle rather than the packaging when you’re talking about that area of the market. 

Tell us about some of those choices...

In terms of raw ingredients, we don’t make as much whiskey per ton of barley when we’re using the malt that we grow ourselves.  And in terms of how we run the equipment, we’ve got a very long fermentation time which takes up a lot of capacity.  And the way that we run our stills, we only take a small cut, which means that we produce a clean spirit which means that it's faster maturing.  And then with the casks, we source all our bourbon casks from Buffalo Trace. 

How are things different today?

Certainly this year we’ve seen a big change.  Last year we had these limited editions like the Loch Gorm and the 100% [Islay] which we only released about 10,000 bottles of worldwide. Last year they were taking perhaps 6 months to sell through from the distillery, and this year they sold on allocation. So this time we’ve been telling distributors how much we can send them which is a nice position to be in.

To be continued...  Now on to the tasting!

Machir Bay

Nose:  Salted white chocolate floating on a sea of peat.  Very strong smoke, but beautifully balanced with the sweetness and ocean breeze saltiness.

Palate:  Ok the nose was BIG smoke, so we're getting ready for some Laphroaig-
style fire.  A hearty burn on the back of the throat, some sandpaper and raw pepper.  How close are we?  One hundred and eighty degrees wrong!  The palate is completely clean.  It's light... olive oil and lemon on the tongue.  Some sweet tangerines and a little bit of candied nuts.

Finish:  The peat comes back for a little heat right on the swallow.  Then it's a long and round finish with wet campfire stones smoldering smoke up the back of the throat and across the roof of the mouth.  All the sweetness, chocolate and citrus come back, with the addition of a little white oak and green grapes.

Review:  This is a really unique dram.  The nose is awesome: huge smoke, sea brine, rock salt chocolate.  The palate is superbly clean and fresh.  The finish is a great balance between those two.  Rarely have we found these characteristics together in a scotch.  Perhaps this could only happen in a young spirit that retains its rawness but is superbly handled for a clean and sweet result.  A must try for peat lovers!

Click here for part two of our interview with James Wills and review of the rest of the Kilchoman line!


1 comment :

  1. I picked up a bottle at Costco, a new addition to their inventory. The sales rep spoke very highly of it, as to be expected. I reluctantly purchased a bottle, mainly based on no age statement and a new distillery. My first impression was of this dram was, mmm, not bad but quite young tasting. However, after not touching it for a month or so, the complexities and full flavor of this single malt shone through. I cannot better describe this islay than this reviewer. But what I can most assuredly say is this whisky is by far one of my favorite, islay or other region! The peat, smoke, salty sweetness is unlike any other islay I’ve tried, simply awesome! Pick up a bottle if you can find one, in my area, not so easy. I guarantee you’ll not be disappointed, cheers!