Having grown up on a farm in Canada, there can sometimes be nothing better for me than to escape to the country and breathe in the fresh, mucky, cow-patty strewn landscape.
And so driving up the long, winding, muddy, winter-worn road to Kilchoman distillery, which is set on a farm, was a bit like going back to my childhood home. Soon after I parked up, I noted a tractor drive by while from the barn, cud-chewing cows gazed dopily at me – two sights familiar to me for nearly 16 years living in the country.
Kilchoman was one of the first distilleries I visited on my four day trip to Islay, which I’m featuring on the site this week as part of an Islay special (read my round-up of the island here, a feature on Ardbeg brand ambassador Karen Fullerton here and a piece on Bowmore distillery here).
As the newest and smallest distillery on Islay (it was the first one built on the island for nearly 124 years), I was keen to see how the family-run set-up had been working since it was built at Rockside Farm in 2005. My guide – Leonie – kindly showed me around the teeny (let’s say, boutique) set-up.
Nearly everything is done on-site at Kilchoman and Leonie told me it was an important part since the start. Everything at Kilchoman is also tiny, making me now fondly refer to it as the “Honey I shrunk the kids” distillery.
From the production side, Kilchoman currently get around 100 tonnes of Publican barley from Rockside Farm, on which it’s located, which gives the team about 30% of what they need. The rest comes from commercial maltings but the barley batches are always kept separate so they can do special bottlings with just local barley.
The distillery does its own floor maltings with its local barley, getting through around two tonnes a week. The barley is steeped for 48 hours before being spread on the malting floor for between five and seven days.
For the home malt, the barley spends around 10-12 hours being peated and a further 48 hours being dried by hot air, giving the malt a pettiness level of between 20-25ppm. The commercial malt, in comparison, comes in at around 50ppm, making it much peatier.
When the distillery was founded by Anthony Wills – a former independent whisky bottler – all the equipment brought in was new, bar the good old Porteus Mill, which was 80 years old and came from England. Kilchoman grinds its barley down into slightly different proportions than normal, using a ratio of 18% husk, 70% grist, and 12% flour.
From there, 1.2 tonnes of grist is mixed with hot water in the tiny mashtuns (really, it’s like they’ve been shrunk if you’re used to seeing bigger set ups) and the draff goes to the cows (happy cows!) and the spent ale and lees go on the fields.
The washbacks are stainless steel and the wort goes through an extensive, 100 hour fermentation using Mauri Distiller’s Yeast and creating a fruity wash.
Over in the still room (just the other side of the wall to the washbacks) the two, teeny stills were busy puffing away as I continued my tour. The wash still has a capacity of 3,230 litres (but is filled with 3,000 litres of wash), and produces around 1,000 litres of low wines per run. These are combined with 600 litres of feints from a previous run in the 2,070 litre spirit still.
The goal was to create a lighter spirit but because the team had to work within the confines of the building’s size, they aim to create this through their long fermentations and a fitted reflux bulb, which helps to keep down the heavier alcohols. The cut on the spirit run goes from around 74% – 65.5% and around 300 litres of usable alcohol is taken per run, allowing the distillery to fill around 20 casks per week.
Kilchoman continues to infuse a sweeter, fruitier note by using first fill ex-bourbon casks from Buffalo Trace distillery. There are also some sherry butts in use, but the vast majority come from the former category.
With space at a premium, the distillery built a new warehouse with a capacity to fit 9,000 casks on site. And, of course, bottling is also done on-site.
“Even the corks are put in by hand,” Leonie told me.
The company – while still being young – is already exporting to 38 markets and it was excellent to see how they have managed to bring it all together on this lovely site in the west of Islay.
I didn’t get a chance to try the whiskies on the day, as I was driving, but a review of a few of Kilchoman’s recent releases will be out on the site this week so stay tuned.
As for me, my visit finished with a wee wander around the gift shop and one last moment stood in the mucky grounds, inhaling all that good, fresh farm goodness. Kilchoman is a farm distillery that has integrated itself into its surroundings in a most sympathetic way and my lungs felt better for getting a good whiff of both the farm smells and the distillery smells – two of my favourite memory-laden smells that there are!