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Get to Know Kilchoman

This September 2-9, we’re co-sponsoring a whisky-themed trip to Scotland with Customized Journeys, a boutique travel agency specializing in amazing trips to destinations with rich cultural and culinary qualities. We’ll be visiting a bunch of distilleries while we’re there, including this one!

Most Scotch distilleries are quick to point to their decades – or centuries – of history. But not Kilchoman. The first distillery built on Islay in almost 125 years, Kilchoman (pronounced Kil-HO-man) is younger than its neighbors by a serious margin.

But don’t dismiss this young producer as an upstart. Kilchoman might be new, but they’re doing things the old-fashioned way, and the results speak for themselves – in 2016, Kilchoman was voted the best Islay single malt at the International Whisky Competition, beating out venerable producers hundreds of years its senior like Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg.

new Scottish distilleries
The grounds of the Kilchoman distillery (image via Kilchoman)

So what makes Kilchoman so different? In a word: farming. Kilchoman is a true farm distillery, managing every single part of the distilling process – from growing barley all the way through to bottling and labeling – right onsite. It’s the only Islay distillery (and, in fact, one of the only distilleries in the whole world) that takes this vertically integrated approach, giving it control over every single aspect that might influence the flavor of its whisky.

Kilchoman is sited on Machir Bay, on the rugged, ocean-facing west coast of Islay, on a 2,300-acre farm. Just 160 acres of that farm are suitable for growing barley (the rest, among other things, supports a herd of cattle fed on spent grain from whisky mashes). To meet its grain needs, Kilchoman supplements its own barley with malt from the nearby Port Charlotte maltings, which supply many of the other Islay distilleries.

That barley is harvested in the fall, which marks the beginning of another very labor-intensive process: floor malting. Kilchoman is one of a very small handful of Scottish distilleries still practicing this traditional art. Floor malting is extremely labor intensive, but many believe that the end product has more flavor than commercially malted grain.

After their malt is dried (some with peat smoke), milled, mashed, and fermented, Kilchoman distills its new-make whisky using a specially designed still, one of the smallest used by any distillery in Scotland. A tall, thin neck and reflux bulb results in a light, clean, lively spirit that allows the grain character to shine with fruity, complex flavors.

Kilchoman ages much of its distillate in ex-bourbon barrels, specifically barrels from Buffalo Trace. However, some of its whisky is aged in oloroso sherry casks, as well as a handful of specialty casks like port, Madeira, sauternes, and others. A fair number of Kilchoman releases are NAS (not surprising, given its young age) but they do occasionally release age-stated expressions, and many of Kilchoman’s whiskies are bottled at cask strength

Margarett Waterbury

Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is the former managing editor of Edible Portland, as well as a cofounder and former managing editor of The Whiskey Wash. In 2017, Margarett won the Alan Lodge Young Drinks Writer of the Year award. She received a fellowship for the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in 2017 and 2019.

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