Terrior is a French term to describe the climate, soil condition and other fine details that affect the final product of wine. But does it matter as much when it’s barley, which is ground up and distilled?
Kilchoman was the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years when it opened in 2005. From the beginning, it focused on being a small, family-run operation that endeavored to produce a whisky that is 100% sourced from the island. Its 100% Islay is a yearly release celebrating “Islay’s Farm Distillery.”
Decades ago, the grain used to make Scotch whisky came from local farmers and was malted on-site. Malting is the process of wetting grain to get it to germinate, which releases the starch in the grain. Mixed with water and yeast, this forms the mash that becomes whisky when you distill it. (Or beer when you brew it. Same stuff in the beginning.) But rise in demand for whisky coupled with industrialization made traditional malting floors obsolete.
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Kilchoman is one of the few still using their malting floor. Bowmore, Balvenie and a few others still use this time- and labor-intensive process on a small scale for boutique bottlings. Manually turning the grain on the malting floor so that it doesn’t spoil also caused a repetitive motion injury to generations of distillery workers. You might recognize the term for this injury, monkey shoulder, from a bottle commonly found on the shelf.
Kilchoman believes that you can taste the terrior in its whisky. The farm and distillery is quite isolated on the western side of the island, over the spine of Islay from Bruichladdich. We visited there in 2017, and the road is one lane with pull-offs for oncoming traffic. I recall having to back our rental into one to let another vehicle pass. There’s a great cafe on-site, so we enjoyed lunch and a sampling of Kilchman’s whiskies. At that time, I found its whisky quite young and uninteresting. But Kilchoman certainly has a following, and I have since found an appreciation for all its products.
Kilchoman produces mainly peated whisky, in the Islay tradition. Its signature whisky is called Machir Bay, named after a local beach. It’s mostly bourbon barrel-aged, with loads of citrus and just the right amount of smoke. Not overpowering at all, it’s nicely balanced with the fruit and floral notes. Vanilla, barley and salt on the nose with that smoke. Then a sip, with some pepper and more barley. This dram finishes long and sweet.
I’m writing this in August, so I even tried it with a small ice cube just to see. Not bad, but I prefer it neat. Kilchoman Machir Bay is bottled at 46% and is available for around $75 at most local stores with a respectable Scotch whisky selection, including Wine, Beer, and Spirits; Wall to Wall Wine; and The Still.
In the January issue, I’ll share details of my upcoming small group whisky trip to Scotland. Slainté!
The author, Mark Feit, is a Certified Whisky Ambassador and has visited 57 distilleries in Scotland with his father, Bob. You can reach Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.