AWAS Exclusive Kilchoman Review | By Tim Grant

Two single cask, cask strength Kilchomans that are exclusive to the Australian Whisky Appreciation Society (AWAS); a Sauternes cask finish, and a Mezcal cask finish! Sweet meets smoke!

Islay distillery Kilchoman is now of the island's more reliable makes when it comes to consistent quality. But this small, privately owned & family run distillery doesn't stick to the same tried & true formula for the sake of "tradition" like many of the larger, older Islay brands.

The overall level of quality remains very high in their two core range releases - it wouldn't really be fair to use the words "entry level" here - of Machir Bay and Sanaig, both of which punch above their weight classes and compete with and/or beat any of the Islay stalwarts.

That high level of quality applies to both spirits that Kilchoman produce; the heavily peated spirit - using 50 ppm barley sourced from Port Ellen Maltings - which goes into most of the limited releases, the vintage bottlings and the Loch Gorm sherry cask expression, and the more lightly-peated spirit - using 20 ppm barley grown and malted in-house - used in the 100% Islay releases.

The latter is still the only Islay single malt that is made entirely on the island, from the growing of the barley on the distillery's own farm, to floor malting that barley at the distillery, plus fermentation, distillation, maturation, and bottling. The distillery also releases a huge range of single cask bottlings, where despite the distillery's small production volumes the scope & variety is considerable.

Always presented in their resplendent red packaging (pictured above) and proudly displaying the month & year of distillation and of bottling, this is where Kilchoman comes out to play. The distillery has released a huge range of different cask types in this program, both full cask maturation and cask finishes from various types of sherry through to red wine, port, and more recently cognac, calvados, marsala and even tequila & mezcal.

Some of these single cask releases are available from the distillery's website, but the majority are bottled either for specific distributors and their respective market/s, or for specific retailers or specific customers in those markets. And what we have here are two such single cask bottlings, both exclusive to the Australian Whisky Appreciation Society (AWAS), to be released simultaneously in mid-June (2022). Australia has never seen either of these cask types from Kilchoman before, and we've also never had two single cask Kilchomans released simultaneously!



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Before we get into that, let's take a brief look at how & why Kilchoman are able to set the bar so high at relatively young ages, in terms of both the distillery itself and the whisky it produces.

Having been established in 2005 and celebrating their 17th birthday later this year, Kilchoman is still the youngest Islay distillery with single malt whisky on the market - until newcomer Ardnahoe drops their first release. Without the corporate ownership that the rest of the Islay distilleries have behind them or the 140-240 years of experience that those distilleries have under their belts, when it came time to fire up the stills at Kilchoman the Wills family & their team weren't tied to tradition, nor the need to maintain the status quo for consistency's sake, nor the need to pump out volume destined for a corporate owner's blended whiskies.

Considering the relatively low output of this small, independent operation the variety of whiskies they release and their utmost commitment to quality really is remarkable. Kilchoman has never bottled a whisky below 46% ABV, and has never chill filtered or added caramel colouring to any of their whiskies. And let's not forget that every Kilchoman product is bottled on site, being one of only two distilleries on Islay with a bottling hall - the other being Bruichladdich - while the remaining distilleries all send their whisky to the Scottish mainland for bottling.

Nor does Kilchoman sell any spirit or whisky to blenders, or these days even to independent bottlers or private buyers. Kilchoman's maximum theoretical output has recently doubled after a second still house was commissioned in late 2019 adding two exact copies of the original stills for a total of four, plus a second mash tun and six additional washbacks for a total of ten. But even after that doubling of capacity to a theoretical maximum of 480,000 litres of spirit per year, this is by far the smallest output on Islay. Even Ardnahoe is aiming for over 500,000 litres per year in its infancy, and the next-lowest capacity on Islay is Bruichladdich with over 1.5-million litres.

So despite the recent expansion this really is a small operation.



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One key aspect of Kilchoman's quality-focussed approach is the longest fermentation time on Islay, where the wort is fermented for a minimum of 85-hours, followed by slow distillation in their four small pot stills. For some perspective here, even Laphroaig's much-lauded six small stills (which are supplemented by one much larger still) are almost three times as large as Kilchoman's, while Islay giant Caol Ila's spirit stills are over six times as large. Aside from their small size, Kilchoman's two spirit stills also have relatively tall & narrow necks and reflux bulbs, a.k.a. boil bulbs/onions, all of which contribute to higher levels of reflux, resulting in a lighter, brighter spirit.
 
All of this is crucial to Kilchoman's spirit reaching maturity at a relatively young age - provided the spirit is also filled into the right casks, of course. Much of the distillery's production process was designed & implemented with the help of the late Dr. Jim Swan, and distillery founder Anthony Wills attributes a large part of Kilchoman's success to the work of Dr. Swan and his team, who were also instrumental in setting up the distillery's cask policy.
 
Ex-bourbon casks are sourced almost exclusively from Buffalo Trace Distillery in the US and are kept whole as 200-litre barrels rather than being flat-packed to save on shipping costs and/or recoopered into 250-litre hogsheads in search of higher efficiency. Ex-sherry casks, both 250-litre hogsheads and 500-litre butts, are sourced from Bodegas Miguel Martin in Spain.
 
Right from the very start the distillery has had an absolute commitment to using only exceptional quality casks, and they will only use these casks a maximum of two times, although most releases are from first-fill casks or majority first-fill casks. As I've mentioned above, Kilchoman are advocates of playing around with a huge variety of cask types in search of new & different flavours, and as you'd expect it's in the distillery's extensive single cask releases where this really shines. 
The two AWAS-exclusive single casks that we're looking at today are both great examples of that.
 
What we have here is a 7-year old Sauternes finish single cask, followed by an 8-year old Mezcal finish single cask! These unique Kilchomans will be released in June 2022, with a 24-hour pre-sale offer for AWAS members launching on the 16th of June. During that 24-hour pre-sale offer the asking price is just $369 AUD - for both bottles!
 
You're going to want to sign up for that pre-sale offer, right? Well then click here! Following that 24-hour offer the twin-pack will be $379 AUD and individual bottles will be $199 each until sold out. That's a very, very sharp price for cask strength, single cask exclusive bottlings from exotic cask types, and I wouldn't expect them to last long at all! 
 
Full disclaimer before we get into the reviews themselves. I do some part-time sales work for the Australian importers of Kilchoman, Alba Whisky, but I was not involved with these two bottlings in any capacity at any point for either side, in fact I didn't even know they existed until a friend (who was also not involved) mentioned that they were coming, and they were actually already in the country at that point. AWAS' head honcho Niko Devlin later got in touch and asked if I'd be interested in reviewing them, and he was kind enough to send sample bottles for that purpose. This write-up and the reviews below are 100% my own honest opinion, I have no involvement or motives whatsoever in the sale of these bottles from either the importer's perspective or the seller's perspective. As always this site and all of the reviews and articles within are my own personal opinion. So fear not!
 
If you ask me, along with their Islay neighbour Bruichladdich, Kilchoman are the masters of Sauternes casks. This sweet French white wine seems to work very well with Islay whisky in particular, but only when done well - sometimes the result can be overly sweet and wine-dominated, or at the opposite end of the scale, sometimes the wine influence is almost undetectable.
 
Both the fully-matured Kilchoman Sauternes Cask release from 2016 and the Sauternes Cask Finish release from 2018 were very tasty whiskies, although Anthony Wills himself has said that he much preferred the latter and that he finds sauternes easier to work with and more suited to the Kilchoman spirit when used as a cask finish rather than a full-term maturation. Neither of those previous releases were cask strength or single cask releases, and among the large range of single cask bottlings released by Kilchoman over the years sauternes has only made a few appearances to date. None have ever made it to Australia. Until now! 
Kilchoman Sauternes Finish Single Cask AWAS Exclusive, 7-year old, 55.4%. Islay, Scotland.
 
50 ppm barley from Port Ellen Maltings. Distilled 24/9/2014, bottled 1/12/2021, matured in a bourbon barrel & finished in a Sauternes sweet wine cask for 11-months. Cask number 710/2014. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 
 
Colour: Gold. 
 
Nose: Soft, fruity & buttery. Thick honey, stewed yellow stone fruit (apricot & nectarine), black pepper, and ashy, dry peat smoke. Dried sweet orange slices, soft ashy & earthy peat, sea salt flakes and buttery pastry dough. Dried kelp and more sweet orange around the edges. 
 
Texture: Medium-heavy weight. Lovely mouthfeel, almost chewy. Fruity & buttery, soft peat, no heat at all. 
 
Taste: Thick chewy honey, sweet yellow stone fruit again, but with vanilla-spiked syrup this time. A slight flatness here for a moment, but that's gone in a flash when the soft earthy peat comes in, followed by thick ashy smoke building, and sugar-dusted lemon peel & sweet orange. A little vanilla & black pepper hiding behind. 
 
Finish: Medium length. Creamy vanilla, hints of tropical fruit, more lemon peel and sweet dried orange. Buttery pastry dough, and some more stewed apricot & nectarine with honey. Soft ashy peat and creamy vanilla round things out.
 
Score: 4 out of 5. Just over the line, but it's there! 
 
Notes: Hard to believe this whisky is only 7-years old. But then, that's the magic of Kilchoman! Plenty of depth, balanced sweetness and a lovely soft, ashy, dry, spicy peatiness. The 11-month finishing has been spot on if you ask me, the added sweetness & yellow fruit is there as you'd expect from a sauternes cask, but it works with the spirit and that softer Kilchoman peatiness. That lovely fruity, honeyed & chewy mouthfeel is mouth-watering. So the cask finishing has added extra layers to this whisky rather than stealing the spotlight for itself and dominating - which is exactly what a cask finish / secondary maturation should do! Showing that bright, fruity make nicely. A great Kilchoman for a summer's day!
Next up, the mezcal cask finish. If we can agree on calling a sauternes cask Islay whisky uncommon, then a mezcal cask Islay whisky is the equivalent of unicorn blood in comparison. The use of mezcal casks in Scotch whisky has only been possible, or rather legal, since the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) regulations regarding cask types were updated & amended in 2019. Prior to these changes the permitted cask types were vaguely limited to those where there was "sufficient evidence of traditional use in Scotch whisky", whereas now there are much more explicit regulations.
 
Oak is still the only legally permitted wood type of course, but the previous contents of the casks are now broader, provided that the previous contents is traditionally barrel aged, is not made from stone fruit and has not had flavourings or sweeteners added following fermentation/distillation - all of which could potentially cause issues with some fruit wine, rum & brandy casks in future. Kilchoman were quick to act on these regulations and were among the first to "legally" fill mezcal and tequila casks. 
 
Mezcal is a Mexican spirit made from the agave plant, and the word "mezcal' translates to "roasted agave" in English - tequila is actually a type of mezcal, but it's quite a different spirit to traditional mezcal. In mezcal production the agave is traditionally roasted in fire pits using wood and/or charcoal, which results in many examples having smoky aromas & flavours in the spirit.
 
A growing percentage of mezcal spirit is then barrel aged for periods ranging from a few months to a number of years. Obviously mezcal has a different flavour profile to peated whisky, generally with more "green", vegetal, sometimes mineral and agricultural flavours combined with the wood smoke notes, and it's going to be interesting to see how those flavours work with a peated Islay single malt!
 
To my knowledge, Kilchoman have only bottled around half a dozen mezcal cask finishes to date, all single cask releases for specific customers. So this AWAS-exclusive single cask is quite the rare beast, and like the Sauternes cask above this is the first example of its type to come to Australia. Next stop, smoke town!
Kilchoman Mezcal Finish Single Cask AWAS Exclusive, 8-year old, 54.0%. Islay, Scotland.
50 ppm barley from Port Ellen Maltings. Distilled 14/10/2013, bottled 1/12/2021, matured in a bourbon barrel & finished in a mezcal cask for 11-months. Cask number 728/2013. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 
 
Colour: Very pale gold. 
 
Nose: Ooh we're in very different territory here. Dirty, grassy, almost vegetal smoke. Touch of vanilla & sweet tropical fruit. White chocolate, sharp candied lemon, jalapeno (green chilli) flakes - but without almost all of the spice - and sea salt. A little engine oil, toffee fudge and a touch of cut grass. 
 
Texture: Medium weight. Creamy. Lighter in feel and smokier. No heat at all. 
 
Taste: Beautiful warm, sweet smoke, but it's a dirtier, more vegetal smoke. Creamy vanilla, sweet fruit syrup, juicy white melon. Creamy white chocolate, vegetal, dirty (diesel) smoke but well integrated. A little dried lemon, touch of brine, and a little salty meatiness - marmite? Lovely.  
 
Finish: Medium length. Saltiness and dirty, warm smoke carry through, and that fresh grassy note. Slightly minty, touch of bitter herbs, more juicy white melon & a pinch of jalapeno flakes, and more grassy, vegetal, dirty smoke. 
 
Score: 4 out of 5. Comfortably. 
 
Notes: Delicious. That dirty, grassy & vegetal smoke is just wonderful - it's almost like there was a few litres of young Lagavulin in the cask. That's the mezcal influence showing itself of course, but that dirty style of smoke is very reminiscent of Lagavulin. The mezcal cask finish has again worked very well with the sweet, citrusy Kilchoman spirit, but in a completely different direction from the sauternes cask, giving a very different smoke & peat profile to the "typical" bourbon cask Kilchoman. Sweet, smoky, dirty, but well-balanced. And while it presents as a more youthful whisky to the sauternes finish, particularly in the mouthfeel and length of the finish, maybe with a little less complexity, I certainly wouldn't call it young or immature by any means! In fact it's remarkably easy-drinking - provided you like this dirtier, more spirit-led style of Islay whisky, anyway! 
 
I have to confess that this is not the first mezcal finished Kilchoman that I've tried. The first example was a Royal Mile Whiskies single cask, and - apologies to the owner of that bottle - it was a bit of a mess. Almost like the mezcal cask had clashed with the spirit, rather than working with it, and the result was enjoyable, but very odd. Apologies again to the owner of that bottle, but this AWAS single cask absolutely smashes it. This is a delicious dram!
 
Overall Notes: Two very different Kilchomans here, naturally. Yes, the mezcal cask finish wins it for my palate; I'm a fan of that dirtier, more vegetal and smoky style. But there's not much of a spread between them really, and the sauternes finish is a fruitier, richer, rounder whisky in comparison. Kilchoman always set the bar high when it comes to quality! So, I'm sure you've already seen this coming, but the Islay fans out there are really going to want both. Given that very reasonable - in fact, I would even say cheap - combo price of $379 AUD (or $369 in the pre-sale special - sign up here), frankly you'd be silly not to!
 
Major thanks to Niko Devlin and AWAS for the sample bottles, and for the opportunity to taste & review these lovely little Kilchomans! Happy hunting folks!
 
Cheers!