Our first distillery business meeting was at Kilchoman, Islay’s youngest distillery. Kilchoman describes itself as a Farm Distillery, in that it is smaller in size and production volume than more established distilleries. I suppose the description is apt, as the distillery literally sits on a farm. Distillery Manager, John MacLellan, met us bright and early to give us a tour of his facility. He is the prior manager at Bunnahabhain on the northeast coast of Islay. John explained that the mash tun and washbacks are fortuitously 1/10th the size of the corresponding equipment at the much larger Bunnahabhain distillery, making it easy for him to calculate the volumes of ingredients going into mash and wash.
We were fortunate to get to spend time with Tony and Robin, a couple of local guys who work the stillroom. They offered some deep insight into how and why Kilchoman is distilled and aged as it is. They also let us sample some of the new make spirit. It was moderately sweet, thick and had a great, oily mouthfeel. It was every bit the spectacular backbone of a true Islay whisky. The heart of the run is collected for casking, and the feints and tails are redirected to the spirit still for further distillation. John led us to the malting floor, where some of the annual maltings are handled in-house. Kilchoman offers a local bottling that uses all local ingredients, including the barley, which they malt in-house. Kilchoman sends part of its spent barley husk meal (known as “draff”) to farmers for cattle feed, and the rest gets shipped off to Bruichladdich to be fed to the biomass furnace to generate renewable energy. Before concluding our time at the distillery, we met with Managing Director Anthony Wills for some business conversation in the clean, well-appointed decorum of the Visitor Centre.
We left Kilchoman in time to grab a cheese and cracker lunch in the car on the way to Bruichladdich. We each chugged down an Irn-Bru to bolster us for our next experience. If you’ve never been to Scotland, then a quick tutorial is in order. Irn-Bru is an orange-colored, mildly citrus-flavored, lightly effervescent soft drink that delivers carbs and a kick of caffeine. It is prolific, available in many package styles across the countryside, and it is a great pick-me-up for jetlagged travelers. Think Red Bull with a Scottish accent.
As a side note about Islay: the flora and fauna are truly unique in this special corner of our globe. Not only do sheep graze wild everywhere you look, but every field contains astonishing samples of game fowl, like ring-necked pheasant and grouse. In the hunting days of my youth (spent largely in New Jersey), I would have felt as if I'd died and went to heaven with the number of pheasant roaming about like little, fat, feathered targets. And the harsh, windblown Atlantic-facing landscape produces a phenomenon I have only seen in one other place. Some of the short, thick-branched trees of Islay grow with their bows arrayed eastward on a horizontal plane, having been trained by stiff offshore breezes like the divi-divi trees of Aruba, an ocean away.