It seems I rarely enter a conversation about whisky these days without mentioning Kilchoman. It is to me, one of the more enchanting distilleries in Scotland, the type of distillery that (to be quite frank) many claim to be when they use the word “craft”. It’s currently the youngest distillery on the island of Islay and as it stands, the smallest. What Kilchoman produces in 1 year, Cool Ila produces in just 1 week. It really is a true craft distillery and one of the few independently owned and operated today.
But what I find most exciting about Kilchoman is not its size but what is has become, or rather, what it is just now becoming. Established 12 years ago in 2005, all of the whisky bottled by Kilchoman has been relatively young. Now don’t get me wrong, I happen to love a young, peated Islay malt. In fact, Kilchoman’s own 2014 Port Cask Matured, a 3-year-old, has been a personal favorite of mine for some time now. But at 12 years old, the distillery is entering an exciting time in its evolution and it seems that even greater things are just beginning to happen.
The 2009 Vintage is one of two brand new releases from the Kilchoman distillery. At 8 years old, it is the oldest whisky Kilchoman has bottled to date. Now some of you, many of you, may be thinking, “8 years, that’s not very old!”. You’re right, it’s not. But when you mature a heavily peated spirit in oak casks, a lot can happen between 3 to 5 to 8 years. And when you’re an independent distillery unwilling to compromise on the quality of the actual casks and the ingredients that go into the spirit, 8 years is more than enough of time to produce something truly special.
While the previous releases were exclusively matured in American oak ex-Bourbon casks, 2009 Vintage is made using both American oak and Spanish oak ex-Sherry butts. It’s bottled at 46% ABV and like all Kilchoman expressions before it, it’s non-chillfiltered and naturally colored.
Those of you already familiar with the distillery’s portfolio may note that on paper, this whisky sounds like an older version of their flagship ‘Machir Bay’. Well it so happens that I have have an opened bottle of Machir Bay right here with me! Let’s get into this one and then we can compare the two at the end.
Starting on the nose, an instantly familiar but richer aroma of sea salt, lemon oil, freshly cracked black pepper and a thin but very present layer of peat smoke. This is classic Kilchoman as we know it. It’s a very strong, breezy aroma but it’s slightly more earthy than medicinal. The small proportion of Sherry casks provide added warmth to what would otherwise be a very cold, coastal whisky. Beautiful really.
On the palate, the initial delivery is soft and malty with a thick, oily mouth feel. Freshly cut grass, burnt citrus peel, a hint of ginger and peat smoke. The smoke is not as faint as detected on the nose and it really begins to develop halfway into it. Wow! It’s a big, bold whisky but not quite as vibrant as previous vintage releases. This one has settled down a bit and my there is a lot going on I this glass. The rich, fruity flavors of the Sherry Oak are present but exist only to accentuate the core flavors of the American oak.
Now compared to the flagship Machir Bay, 2009 Vintage is less visceral on the nose but warmer and all-in-all more thought provoking on the palate. It’s possible 2009 Vintage is made with a higher proportion of Sherry casks, it’s a bit warmer, but I suspect that the real differences, as experienced in the glass, are the result of additional maturation. In other words, it’s an older whisky and there’s no hiding that fact. Both whiskies are heavily peated, which I realize may take a while for some to appreciate, but this Vintage is arguably the more approachable of the two. Take that for what it’s worth.
Personally, I find this to be the most enjoyable of all the American oak-matured whiskies produced by Kilchoman. Keep in mind I’m a big fan of peated whisky and Islay spirits in general and if you’re like me, There’s a good chance you’ll agree. Above all, it’s a true testament to the direction that the distillery is headed and a brilliant stop along the way. It’s a bit more expensive than Machir Bay but if you’re looking for a complete whisky experience in a limited edition package, I find that it’s well worth it.