Kilchoman

Scotland 2018: The Ultimate Whisky Adventure – Part Three

Posted by: Nick

In July 2018 I realised the ultimate Waffler’s dream and spent nine days travelling whisky’s motherland. I did not waste a moment.

9 days: 20 distilleries.

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PART THREE: Islay – the western half

I had been through sunny Speyside and the spectacular Highlands (and Islands) and my whisky journey was nearly at an end. Of course, there was one crucial destination I had not yet covered. In fact, you could argue I’d left the best until last.

It is almost compulsory for any whisky fanatic to make the pilgrimage to the Isle of Islay. Nowhere in the world is there a higher concentration of top-quality distilleries within a short drive (or, in some cases, a short walk). I could not contain my excitement. The ferry took us into the beautiful seaside town of Port Ellen, sailing past some limewashed buildings where I could just make out the giant letters painted on their side, spelling Ardbeg, Lagavulin and finally Laphroaig.

However, the Port Ellen big three would have to wait. I had only two and a half days in this whisky-wonderland and not a moment to lose.

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I began with the oldest distillery on the Island, Bowmore. I’ve been impressed with several bottles from this distillery but more often than not have been left underwhelmed and slightly confused. The tour satisfied the latter complaint – revealing the future core range to consist of a NAS, a 12 Year Old, a 15 and an 18 (don’t panic fellow ‘Darkest’ fans – this particular favourite is simply becoming THE 15 Year Old). The highlight of the visit however was the special release, the Warehouseman’s 17 Year Old. 51.3%, matured in bourbon, sherry and red wine, it was balanced and oozed sophistication like anyone wearing a pearl necklace, including David Bowie. In fact, like Bowie it was a bit psychedelic, a bit folky, a bit glam and a bit disco. It was the real star… man.

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Breakfast whisky out of the way it was time for the next course. And lunch was the one and only Bruichladdich. If there was just one distillery I could recommend to visit for tastings it would be this one – if only for of the variety… and quantity! Their self-titled range is full of vibrant spicy malted barley notes, the Port Charlotte releases are smoky and bacony and the Octomores… Don’t expect them to smash you around the face with peat, peat and more peat. They are nuanced, balanced and complex – and packing enough fire to make Arthur Brown happy. They’re Audrey Hepburn with her cigarette holder in one hand… and a cigar in the other… at a bbq… under a volcano. Bruichladdich are such an exciting, progressive distillery. They have absolutely struck the right balance between NAS and integrity. You’ll find no mention of “flavour-led” here”, just bloody good drops – and plenty of them.

Remarkably, the destination I was most excited for was yet to come. Being a Tassie boy, there was one distillery that appealed above all others. Small-scale, paddock to bottle, on a working farm? It was like coming home. My final stop of the day was Kilchoman Distillery.

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It was everything I’d hoped for: a tour that felt more like being shown around than hearing a rehearsed script, a peek at the entire production process from malting right through to bottling and a tasting packed with vibrant youthful whiskies that satisfied and intrigued me in equal measure. I had a chat with founder Anthony Wills and we bonded over how his own distillery’s paddock-to-bottle ethos compared to one back in my home state of Tasmania.

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A trip to Islay’s west wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the beautiful Port Nahaven

I returned to my tiny eco-hut in Port Ellen pleased as punch. It had been an amazing start to my Islay visit and I was still buzzing… yet I retired to bed (reasonably) early. You see, there was one day I had been waiting the whole trip for. And that was tomorrow…

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Home sweet home

Kilchoman Machir Bay

Reviewed by: Nick

kilchoman-machir-bay

2012 edition

Kilchoman is (was?) the first new distillery built on Islay in 120 years. The drawback of this is that it comes without centuries of tradition. But the positive – it comes without centuries of tradition! Meaning it can do whatever the hell it likes! This perspective can’t help but bring to mind a few producers closer to home which claim to be slices of Scotland in Tasmania. Well, I’m going to make a big call: Kilchoman Distillery is a slice of Tasmania – in Scotland!

Like Tasmanian distilleries such as Redlands, it attempts to keep the entire whisky making process on the one site, paddock-to-bottle style. While this is hard to achieve across their whole range, their lightly peated ‘100% Islay’ expression is created exactly as it sounds: entirely on Rockside Farm, home of Kilchoman.

Also like Tassie, Kilchoman can’t be bothered waiting for 12 years to release their product, so bottles its range under titles of various landmarks: heavily sherried Sanaig, entirely sherried Loch Gorm and the subject of today’s review, the Machir Bay, which is a marriage of some oloroso matured whisky with a greater amount of ex-bourbon whisky.

Often drinking younger whisky from Scotland can be likened to snuggling with a Pitt Bull, but for peated whisky it just seems to work. The smoke tames the beast and compliments its occasional snarling. The Machir Bay is no exception.

The smoke is clearly apparent on the nose, however there are also sweeter creamier notes of hazelnut and coffee. On the palate the Machir Bay takes a while to get going – initially gentle before building into a fiery roar, a clear sign of its young age. Flavours of vanilla and green grapes can be found, shrouded in huge gusts of smoke.

While this is a tremendously exciting dram, I get the impression that it’s still a work in progress and that when I check back on a later release in a few years time that it will have come on in leaps and bounds. However, just like Tasmanian whisky, it is one step on a journey – and one I’m very happy to have checked out.

★★★

#IslayWeek

#LetsGetPeaty

Reflections on a visit to Islay

Posted by: Nick

nick-port-ellen-lighthouse

It is no exaggeration when I say that the isle of Islay is, without a doubt, my favourite place that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. The quaint lime washed houses of Port Ellen, the spectacular coastline and beaches, the stark peat bogs and the friendly locals waving as you drive by all combine to create a coastal utopia. And then there’s the whisky. Ah… the whisky…

There is a reason that drams made on this Hebridean isle are famous the world over: they taste like nothing else on earth. Smoky, salty, oily and fiery as hell itself. On my first (gloriously sunny!) day upon the island I visited Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig: the worlds’ ultimate pub crawl. In the evening I lay down on the sand at Kintra Beach and watched the sun go down with a belly full of South-Ileach whisky. There  was not a more content man on the planet.

The next day I stood beneath the distinctive Port Ellen lighthouse, looked across the bay and felt more connected to a place than I have ever experienced in my life. I would go back today. I would drop everything. Just for one more whiff of that peaty air. Just for one drop of that liquid aptly described as the water of life.

nick-content

#IslayWeek

#LetsGetPeaty

The Top 5 Islay Distilleries

Posted by: Nick

Streets of Bowmore whisky waffle

If I were to take four flights, one lengthy bus ride and a ferry crossing, as well as being broke and jetlagged, I would also be in my favourite place in the world, the mythical Isle of Islay. While my own home state of Tasmania contains many fantastic distilleries, I know that this Hebridean island will forever be: The Whisky Isle.

Islay is currently home to eight distilleries, which is not bad for a tiny island with a population that would fit into the MCG thirty times over. I do of course only speak hypothetically, because in real life the people of Islay would not deign to leave this most wonderful island – not even to attend the Boxing Day Test Match.

All eight Ileach distilleries make fascinating, varied and outstanding whiskies. But today I count down my top five favourites, those establishments that have helped shape the Whisky Waffler I am today.

5 Kilchoman

Kilchoman is the relative new kid on the block, only in operation since 2005, however the standard of whisky they are creating is astonishing. They take an old familiar flavour and reinvent it, producing something refreshingly new, and yet at the same time distinctly Islay.

One sip reflects the traditional Islay flavours that so perfectly accompany winter storms as they roll in off the Atlantic, testing the water proofing of the local cottages, and yet their whiskies are also bright, young, and energetic. They are surprisingly complex, and, most importantly of all, they are improving all the time. Kilchoman is that annoying combination of athleticism and brains: it is the top football star with the chiselled good looks that goes on to become a neurosurgeon. So with this in mind there is no doubt that Kilchoman is a distillery to watch out for in the future.

4 Bruichladdich

4 bruichladdich

Jim McEwan took over the then derelict Bruichladdich Distillery in 2001 and, after initially being called crazy, has seen it go from strength to strength. Known for its innovation, the distillery creates not one, not two, but three different series of bottlings, all with their unique style. Firstly and foremost are the lightly peated drams produced under their own name, Bruichladdich. Secondly, the more traditional and heavier-peated Port Charlotte, named after the long-since shut distillery that was once based a few miles away. Finally the famous (or infamous) Octomore range, marketed, correctly, as the most heavily peated whiskies in the world.

If I were to work at a distillery on Islay, this would have to be it. It combines traditional methods (the may-as-well-be-antique mashtuns) with experimentation (I heard rumour of a tequila cask hidden away in the bond store somewhere). Most of all, Bruichladdich are a community-focused distillery. Jim McEwan has achieved many great things across his career, but he claims the number of Ileach people he employs is the one that fills him with the most pride.

3 Laphroaig

3 Laphroaig whisky waffle

When you think Islay whiskies, you think peat – and no distillery on earth does peat like Laphroaig. The whisky produced here may not be to everyone’s taste, but it sure is to mine. One sniff transports me to bonfires, seaside camping trips and, as I discovered later, the sensation of getting out of the car on Islay and inhaling the peat-thick fresh air. The whisky made by Laphroaig is iconic and rightfully among the most famous made on the island.

Whiskies made at Laphroaig are unapologetic. If you don’t like your drams peated, run for the hills (if you can actually find any on Islay) as the manufacturers don’t care. I find this attitude appealing however. I know what I’m going to get from Laphroaig and I know that it will comfort me after a tough day at work or celebrate with me as I raise a toast with my friends.

While they have the second biggest output of any distillery on Islay, they still conduct traditional floor maltings and fire up their own peat kilns for a percentage of their product. I’ve been lucky enough to stand in the large kilns, and even luckier that this occurred while they were not operating! Laphroaig is Islay to a tee and an unmissable stop if you visit the island.

2 Lagavulin

2 Laga whisky waffle

First trying the Lagavulin 16 Year Old was a revelation in my whisky-drinking life. What was this spirit that burned like a roaring bonfire in my mouth? What were these charred-fruit flavours that followed? I’d certainly never tasted anything like it and I’ve certainly never looked back.

Several years later I have tried a range of peated whiskies and loved most of them. But the Lagavulin 16 is still up there amongst the best.

What separates Lagavulin from the rest is a sense of class. While other distilleries, rightfully, let the wild peat-monster roam free, Lagavulin has it well trained, even walking to heel. With some of the Distillers’ Editions it will even sit and roll over! This allows a magnificent balance between peat and sherry flavours which really sets it up as the classiest of Islay’s whiskies.

1 Ardbeg

1 Ardbeg whisky waffle

While all distilleries on Islay offer many brilliant and varied drams, it is Ardbeg that I believe captures the ‘spirit’ of the island the best. With a slab of peat, a splash of history and a smattering of actual magic, you cannot help but fall in love with the drams, the atmosphere and the portrait on the wall of Shortie the Dog, the Ardbeg mascot.

Ardbeg are famous for once a year releasing a frustratingly small amount of limited edition bottles which seem destined to sit unopened on wealthy collectors’ shelves. But on the rare occasion you get to try one, you will see what the hype is about: Alligator, Galileo and of course Supernova are all enticingly titled as well as deliciously flavoured.

Their regular bottles cannot be forgotten, either. In Uigeadail they have produced a strong candidate for worlds best peated whisky, the Coryvrekkan has one of the longest finishes going around (and around and around!) and as for their ‘entry level’ – is there a finer 10 year old bottle in world whisky? Possibly not.

Ardbeg is many people’s favourite distillery. And it is not hard to figure out why. Put simply, it is because it is among the best.

Nick at Port Ellen lighthouse whisky waffle

This list, of course, is only my (somewhat subjective) opinion. It is by no means definitive. What are your top five favourite Islay distilleries? Let us know in the comments and we will slam you for being wrong! Er… I mean, we will respect your opinion greatly! That’s the one!