Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Not feeling the love - Kilchoman

The Kilchoman line up
Anthony Wills was out here again in Aus discussing the virtues of Kilchoman. I attended a small tasting at The Wild Rover to get the low down on where this younger distillery is heading.

As D.T.W.C. members may recall some of us did a tasting at the Oak Barrel, Sydney, about 2 years ago when Anthony Wills was also out (read a review of the evening by The Converted). At that point I had a real keen interest is finding out more about Islay's youngest distillery at the time. We had heard many good things about the distillery including awards it had started to be accumulating. Unfortunately as some members would remember our experience of the whiskies and the presentation were not great. Since then a disinterest from our club pretty much left Kilchoman off out tasting board so to speak.

The Wild Rover in Surry Hills, Sydney, has recently started its own whisky tasting club called the Campbell Corner Whisky Cooperative, and this evening (though I did not know at the time) was its second hosted event. As I was not there investigating the club I will not going to go into extensive detail so saving that review for another time.

Complimentary whisky sour
On arrival we gathered in the main bottom floor bar to hang for a while until things were setup on next level. While waiting we were offered a complimentary Whisky Sour cocktail made with Kilchoman 100% Islay and a dash of almond syrup. Not too bad really with the peat smoke was not overly intense for its appearance in the cocktail. Really though for the price you pay for Kilchoman, cocktails are not the way to be experiencing the whiskies.

Moving upstairs we took our seats and set to work on preparing for what was to come. The Wild Rover have a good casual setup with ample tasting glassware, comfy seating, and interesting decor. The space has great airflow so it never gets stuffy with all the bodies, though a small amount of street noise will persist at a constant level and even the smallest amount of chatter amongst the crowd tends to drown out the speakers voice. Oysters were served during the tasting but they had no actual place nor did they fit the whiskies profiles but I am not one to pass up on quality seafood. After the event additional foods were served downstairs but the oily bar food does not mix well with whisky so a few tweaks needed there but if I was dropping a pint or 2 = perfect. The Wild Rover are yet to develop a good format but it is only their second session so things will come in time.

Setting the scene at The Wild Rover
To get started I have said it before and I will say it again, Anthony Wills is a bit of whisky cowboy and his nature in presentation has not change since last we saw and spoke with him. Unfortunately this time round I did not get the opportunity to speak directly with Anthony outside of the tasting. Still my opinion stands as previous that maybe Anthony is not the best face to be presenting the companies whiskies regardless if he is the distilleries founder. Anthony is very direct, to the point, and business mater of factuality. If Anthony has a real passion for whisky outside of business it does not shine, leaving a feeling the distillery to be cold, moody, and sales focused. Anthony knows his stuff no question, but there is just no warmth or passion emanating that draws me in and get involved. A personal viewpoint of course.

Just about the entire presentation was business focused towing a very similar PR line to the last time I saw Anthony. I did get to field a few questions during the presentation with what I felt were questionable results. Firstly I had asked about how the still sizes (smallest on Islay) were part of the reason for Kilchomans unique flavour profile and did they know the stills would be so successful when they set them up. Anthony responded saying that no he did not realise how successful they would be, especially in getting a young whisky to market, and if he did he "would have ordered more stills at the time".

Anthony Wills in action
The second question I had then gone onto ask about how their stills have been the focus of replication of other new distilleries and I had heard that even one Australia's distilleries had taken the lead from Kilchoman. Anthony somewhat grimaced at the question and had said "Well, I should be taking that as a compliment" but darkened on the matter and quickly gave an example of another distillery in Europe copying their setup while finishing with "I wish they would bloody well just get on with making whisky". It was really hard to take the context as I was asking these questions in a complimentary explorative way but somehow it all just turned on it's head unexpectedly. I was not inclined to ask anything else at that point.

So looking at the whiskies themselves we had a lineup of 3 expressions to try: 100% Islay; Machir Bay; Loch Gorm. This was a really good spectrum of where Kilchoman are going and nice to see 3 very unique styles. There is something for everyone just in these 3 expressions alone.

100% Islay - This is a 3 to 4 year old whisky from 1st fill bourbon casks. At 50% ABV, like most whiskies of this age, the alcohol did not seem too intense at all so it was very drinkable. Colour was sparking straw with a nose of cut grass, mild toasted oaks, peat smoke and fresh cereals. Taste was silky sweet, lots of caramel toasted oaks, and ripe bananas. The finish was long, spicy and had the obvious ash finish I have come to expect of Kilchoman. My favourite expression out of all 3 sampled.

Machir Bay - The flagship whisky of Kilchoman being an expression aged in 1st fill bourboncasks for  3 to 4 years then finished for 2 months in sherry casks with a final bottling at 46% ABV. A nose of citrus oranges and pineapple, vanillas, and fresh peat smoke expressing youthful feistiness. On tasting it moves through the mouth a bit like water before a hit of vibrant oranges and honey cream followed by a shot of tangy spices. Finish is long but is ruined by a harsh mouthful of ash and spice burn in the upper throat.

Loch Gorm - Aged for 5 years in 20 year old Oloroso sherry casks it is bottled at 46% ABV. This is not the intense sherry hit you may be expecting. A nutty nose and mild peat, almonds and citrus stood out the most. On tasting it was super smooth on the tongue with sweet stewed fruits and light peat smoke in the background that then delivered a medium finish with spices returning to the palate. Not quite a fruity christmas cake as one might expect and the typical ash finish appeared at the end. Very easy drinking. An enjoyable whisky for being 100% sherry cask aged. Despite this release and Anthony confirming a port cask expression coming soon he says he "believes bourbon casks will be the better bet for Kilchoman" for future bottlings.

The whiskies quality and I think will get only better as time goes on. My observation is that Kilchoman, as a distillery, needs to dust that chip off its shoulder it is carrying about being a young distillery making young whiskies, put the cold business stance aside, embrace its uniqueness, while becoming more warm and loving to its prospective audience. I would like to love a distillery as much as a whisky. I am not sure I am getting the love as much from Kilchoman yet. When I have spoken with Anthony on the side outside of presentations, though business is defined, he is much more comfortable speaking directly in his experiences in building the distillery. These personal experiences I think build the character of a distillery and not the numbers that go into it.

The Baron

D.T.W.C. was invited as a guest this event. All views and opinions are our own unless otherwise stated.