Kilchoman…the history so far (2016)

This is a text I wrote for r/scotch early last year, since I hope to find the time to write about our visit at the distillery, I thought it makes sense to repost it before.

Standing on what is known as Granny’s Rock to the Ileach, you breathe in, you breathe out. You’re on Islay, standing in the far western part of a landscape called the Rhinns. Standing ashore the wind ruffles your hair, you smell the sea, the salt, sand, screaming seagulls tell stories of another day. While right now the fresh breeze fondles your face its inherent power lies beneath your feet. You open your eyes and see the sea seemingly sleeping at the shores of Machir Bay, but underneath the surface lay the remains of the Otranto, once a majestic ship commanded by Captian Ernest Davidson, carrying 665 American Soldiers beside 362 men of its crew, but ever after the worst convoy disaster of the First World War on the 6th October 1918 it’s only one of many shipwrecks along the shores of Machir Bay and Saligo Bay. A small cemetery is reminiscent of the blood toll the sea demands from us from time to time.

Six centuries earlier another man gave his life. In every end lays a start as well and so while Guy O’Cathan of Ulster, also known as Cu-Maige Nan Gall O Cathian, one of the great barons of Ulster was laying on his deathbed, where not even his most skilled physicians couldn’t delay his end any lfurther, another process started. His daughter Agness O’Cahan, promised her dying father that she’ll marry Agnes Og, also known as Angus Og MacDonald of the Isles. In return Guy gave his daughter his best physicians of the Clan MacBeatha, being among the most skillful of their trade. They had provided the dying lord with uisge beatha which in turn provided him with happiness, good health and a long life. Which was now about to end. But those skilled monks were to follow Agness to her new home across the Irish sea. Islay. Almost as close to Ireland as to the Scottish mainland. Here the Lord of the Isles, Angus Og, had a nice fort on Eilean Mór, a small Island on an inland loch called Loch Gorm.
Of course that was well before Friar John Cor and his eight boll of malt. And, of course it’s just speculative and based on just one of many theories of how and when whisky came to Scotland. Nevertheless it links Islay with the birth of Scotch and that is quite a charming idea.

Even for todays standard the Rhinns on Islay are quite remote to most of us. But in, let say, 1644 this beautiful landscape was very far from Edinburgh. Which actually held some enormous advantages. And so, even after the Excise Act of said year, it took awhile until the first Gauger set foot on Islay in 1797. Twenty years earlier, Reverend John McLeish of Kilchoman Parish (complained) that, “we have not an excise officer on the whole island. The quantity therefore, of whisky made here is very great and the evil that follows drinking to excess of this liquor, is very visible on the island” ( With the (re-)opening of several distilleries on Islay this quantity reemerged so we too can drink to excess! Hooray!

Being remote surely helped but it was not the only reason the Rhinns were very prosperous: “for this place (which is called Kilchoman) was once part of one of the most prosperous and productive parishes on Islay. In 1844, for example, the Rhinns was home to just under 5000 people, and produced in that year 53 tonnes of barley, 61 tonnes of oats, 50000 barrels of potatoes, 254 tonnes of rye grass hay, 76 tonnes of meadow hay and 2540 tonnes of turnips, as well as being home to over 2000 cows and 2700 sheep. Rockside Farm which lies just inland from the bay has some of the best land on the island, but even so this level of productivity and human activity is hard to imagine today. (…) Behind Machir Bay is Islay’s largest inland loch, Loch Gorm.” (Andrew Jefferson – Peat Smoke and Spirit. London: Headline 2004. p.37)

Peter Wills (one third of Kilchoman’s sales and marketing team) once said that they’ll soon run out of names for their expressions and I guess now you can see why! I actually smell a Kilchoman “You know that old tree behind the rock where the old goat once was stuck” coming up some time soon, if they don’t change their naming scheme! And before you ask, yes Saligo Bay, Coull Point and Sanaig (from Sanaigmore Bay) are also Kilchoman expressions as well as places near the distillery.

Another time, another end. 1983, 65 years after the sinking of the Otranto, Grant Carmichael had to tell the workers of the Port Ellen distillery that their distillery would be closed. Twenty years later, after the stills were removed from Islay in the 1990s, in 2003 the last remains of the Port Ellen Distillery were broken down. If anyone has information on where the stills ended up, please let me know!
In every end lays a start as well and even though these two events are solely linked by coincidence, it makes a nice transition. In the same year the last stones of Port Ellen Distillery were crushed, the first small seeds of a new distillery were seeded. Mark French, then the owner of the Rockside Farm, tried to actually get some of the old pagoda roofs of Port Ellen for the new distillery on Rockside Farm: Kichoman.
On his side were Anthony Wills the “father”, founder of and mastermind behind the idea “Kilchoman” and listed as their director since November 2001. It took him four more years to collect the money to build and run the distillery. The distillery was designed by Jim Swan, who served as a “Whisky Consultant” for the distillery until 2011 (if I’m not mistaken – feel free to correct me but I think Winter 2010 is one of the last editions with his name on), and Ron Gibson.
In combination with a fermentation of 80 – 120 hours, the stills designed by them produce a light, floral and fruity spirit which will hence mature quickly. Money has to be earned, no matter how high your standard is.
French’s and Wills’ ways soon parted. I couldn’t really find out why and how and, frankly, it doesn’t matter I guess…

Inauguration took place in June 2005. The Kilchoman Distillery was more or less a three man operation in the first years consisting of of Anthony Wills, Malcom Rennie as the Distilling Manager and one of Anthony’s three sons. His family had and likely will continue to play a big role in the history of the distillery. Also on a side note, it was not purely by chance that Wills, an English man!, ended up on Islay. Well, of course you would say, eh it’s Islay, so chances are what ever whisky comes from there will sell well. But that’s just part of the story. Even though, as Wills also admits a very important one. But funny enough, family also played a big role in this as Wills’ wife Kathy is the connection to Islay. Her grandfather Spencer Wilks invented and developed the original Land Rover on, you already know it, Islay. The Laggan Estate to be more precise. Ha! No wonder the boys do their European Tours in the [Kilchoman Land Rover!]( Speaking of them, George, Peter and James Wills, sons of Anthony and Kathy, also work for the distillery by now. And with by now I mean that now they get paid for it as they probably always worked there whenever they were available and a hand was needed. Today James and Peter happily tell you that they got the jobs as the sales and marketing team so that they can be send (preferably far) away from the distillery as often as possible! Listening to them laughingly telling stories about how (and why!) the Kiln burned down in February 2007 or about their cask or bottle-filling stories it is hard not to believe them! If you ever have the chance to see them, do that as it is very entertaining and highly recommended!

In 2010 John MacLellan became the general manger of the distillery and replaced Malcom Rennie who went on to work with Annandale. Before working for Kilchoman, John worked for Bunnahabhain for 21 years, being their manager from 1997 on.

Kilchoman calls and indeed prides itself for being a Farm Distillery. Why and how and all are nicely explained in this video and you find all the nerdy details on their page. So I don’t have to repeat them here!

Ok, now that you know that Kilchoman is a farm distillery, I have to talk about malt for a wee bit. Since you’ve read this far, I can safely assume you know what malt is, so I’ll skip that. Even though the original plan was to produce all malt needed for their expressions on Rockside Farm, it pretty soon cleared that that was impossible. There might have been a snarky comment or two about that from one of the Wills sons stating that their father was indeed very good with whisky but not that good with numbers 🙂 Now “only” 30% of the annually barley needed is grown on and around Rockside Farm and malted on the distillery’s own traditional malting floor (about 100 tonnes of malting barley). They are one of only six distilleries in Scotland still doing this. And they are the only distillery where everything, including the growing of the barley, is done onsite (at least for the 100% Islay releases), since 2011 even the bottling happens at Rockside Farm. They used “optic” barley initially but lately changed to “publican”. During the drying in the kiln the malt reaches a phenol content of 20-25ppm. Therefore, the 100% Islay releases are less peaty then the rest of the releases. Talking about Farm Distillery, in June 2015 Kilchoman bought Rockside Farm from Mark and Rohaise French.
The other 70% of the annual malt needed is purchased from the Port Ellen Maltings on Islay. Since it was (is still?) not economic to have their own specifications of malt, the malt Kilchoman obtains from PE has the exact specifications as the Ardbeg malt and thus contains about 45-55ppm.

Kilchoman receives its soft water from the Allt Gleann Osamail Burn.

Kilchoman today receives their Bourbon Casks from Buffalo Trace and the Sherry Casks come from Miguel Martinez from Jerez, Spain.
In the early years they got their Casks from the Speyside Copperage and only in late 2006 Anthony Wells stated that they are in negotiation with BT. The first time I’ve seen the specification of “Miguel Martinez” Casks is on the bottle of first release of the Loch Gorm (2012), which was matured in Olorosso Butts for 4.5 years. So, 2007 might have been the first time Miguel Martinez Casks were used, or maybe they were used the whole time but Kilchoman never cared to include that on their labels as of 2012. Who knows? You? Then please let me know and I’ll update this 🙂

Older number/statements say that 80% of the annual production went into a combination of fresh bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace and refill casks and 20% went into fresh Olorosso Sherry Butts. I think I overheard/read somewhere that the Sherry casks held the Olorosso for three years. I have to admit I don’t know much about Sherry, Sherry production and live cycles of Sherry Butts in their pre-Scotch life…so please correct me if I’m wrong or that’s the minimum/standard age of Sherry.
More recent numbers given by James during the 2015 European Tour were 80% Bourbon, 15% Olorosso and as much as 5% “other” casks, which would be Madeira, Sauternes, PX-Sherry, Fino-Sherry, Port and who knows, Herrings? Though 5% seems a bit much to me, so the numbers might have been simplified for the presentation.
The casks they use are wet casks (at least the Bourbon ones are, not sure about the others), meaning that once the bourbon is emptied, the bung goes back in, casks stay intact and are shipped as, well, casks and are not disassembled for transportation. Once they arrive at the distillery, bung goes back out, Kilchoman spirit (reduced to 63.5%) goes in, followed by bung. And then stored in one of their warehouses.

14thDecember 2005, so ten years ago today, „about“ seven casks were filled including „Cask No 1“!

Production was then interrupted until the end of March 2006. During that time there was a fire which burned down the Kiln. Word on the street is that the Wills boys as well as rugby match between England and Scotland might have been intertwined with this event. But who knows if that’s not just another urban Islay legend…

On the 28th May, during Feis Ile 2009, the very first bottle out of Cask No 1, reaching the legal age of three years, was auctioned for £5400.

Six years later, the first bottle of Kilchoman Ten Year Old is sold for the winning bid of £7000 and if the introductory story of Agness O’Cahan marrying Agnes Og and bringing the distilling physicians in her wake is true, then whisky truly came home to Islay when the first new make was casked into cask #1 exactly 10 years ago today…

And as every end is a start as well, the end of Kilchoman – the History so far… is the beginning of Kilchoman – The Expressions so far…(which will include all bottlings of Kilchoman so far (but the Single Casks/Small Batches that is) I’ll upload that tomorrow and link to from here…)

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