Back in 2014, the Kilchoman distillery released what remains to this day, one of my favorite whiskies every bottled. It is, or I should say, was, a 3-year-old single malt matured exclusively in Port wine casks. It was the first iteration of Kilchoman’s annual release of 100% wine cask-matured whiskies. In a word, it was a thrilling spirit that offered about as much fun as I’ve ever had with a whisky.
The 2014 Port Cask Matured was eventually followed by the 2015 Madeira Cask Matured, which was then followed by another stunner, the 2016 Sauternes Cask Matured. While unique in their own way, each of these whiskies displayed a brilliant balance between the earthiness of Islay peat smoke and the sweetness of Western European wine. This is a combination that I have personally come to love over the years. I also happen to think that the Kilchoman spirit, heavily peated but with a lesser degree of medicinally, is perfectly primed for wine cask maturation more so than any other from Islay. It’s a beautiful marriage that Kilchoman has made to look effortless at times.
And now, after what felt like an eternity of waiting, we finally have the brand new 2017 Kilchoman Red Wine Cask Matured! This new release is a 5-year-old matured single malt matured exclusively in red wine casks from the Douro Valley of Portugal. Like all whisky produced at Kilchoman, it’s naturally colored and non-chillfiltered. This particular expression is bottled at 50% ABV.
When it comes to aging Scotch whisky, Portuguese red wine casks are rarely used for maturation. In fact, all of the cask types previously used by Kilchoman (Port, Madeira and Sauternes) are rarely used for full-term aging at all. With just a few exceptions, most of these wine casks are used for “finishing” whisky previously aged in American Oak ex-Bourbon casks. Portuguese red wine is undoubtedly the rarer of cask types and come to think of it, this may just be the first time I have ever tasted a peated Islay malt matured in this type of wood. Let’s get into it shall we?
On the nose: now here we go! An explosive wave of freshly cracked pepper and seafoam smacks the nostrils like a brick to the face. The initial wave is trailed by a dense layer of cold, earthy peat smoke that states, very bluntly, “I am young Islay, hear me roar!”. Daring to press further, I am quickly rewarded with a beautiful entanglement of barbecued pork fresh off the grill and juicy red grapes fermenting in a vat of yeast. What an experience this is! A crazy one, yes, but an experience nonetheless. I don’t have any hair on my back but I can assure you that if I did, they would all be standing at full attention. I simply cannot stop grinning right now.
On the palate, what was first a very cold, coastal experience quickly becomes a very rich, warming whisky whose thick, oily body clings to the entirety of my mouth. Oh but there is so much here! Charred meat, white pepper, cracked sea salt, warm cereal grains and cool bonfire ash. It’s earthy, it’s fruity, it’s tannic, it’s malty. It’s all of the things a great wine-matured, peated whisky should have but its delivered in a way I have never before experienced.
Why so unique? I suppose it has to do with the nature of this Portuguese red wine itself. Wine casks that previously held fortified wines such as Sherry, Port or Madeira (more common in Scotch whisky) have a funny way of taming peat smoke. Their candied sweetness can calm or even mask phenols in ways that other cask types cannot. Traditional red wine is not as sweet I think this difference allows the peated Kilchoman spirit to flourish in a way that it hasn’t been able to in the distillery’s previous wine-matured releases.
At 50% ABV, the bottling strength seems to be just right. The 2014 Port Cask Matured was bottled at 55% and I must admit I was initially disappointed when I learned of this slight decrease. But you know what? After tasting it I’m not sure I would want it higher than 50%. It’s brilliant as-is with enough room to play for those who care to.
I’ll conclude with something I shared earlier: as long as this whisky is in my glass, I will not stop grinning. It’s such an intense, vibrant and fun whisky experience unlike any other out there. If peated whisky is not yet your thing, don’t force it with this one. Don’t hold back from trying it of course but it may be somewhat difficult to appreciate just yet. But if you enjoy peated whisky as I do, especially whisky produced by Kilchoman, this is a must. Simple as that.