Monday, September 17, 2012

Kilchoman 2006 Turns 5 And Gives Me "Vertigo"

Kilchoman distillery is famous for being the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years. It's also famous for being a "field to bottle" operation where some batches at least are made with barley grown on the local farm and malted on site - the traditional and time honored way. (Other batches are made from Port Ellen maltings). This produces a product, so it is said, with a richness and complexity hard to achieve any other way. Furthermore the blogosphere has been awash in loving praise for Kilchoman. So, when I just had my first taste of Kilchoman at NYC's fabulous Brandy Library, I was expecting it to be good. I wasn't, however, prepared for the emotional response.

Why did I wait so long? I admit I suffer from a touch of "ageism". Kilchoman is a new distillery and as such they have been selling new make and plenty of whisky from the earliest time it could legally be labelled "Scotch Whisky" (by law 3 years). Even though response had been positive, I had the ageist sense that it was probably being bottled too young, in order to satisfy people's curiosity and to provide needed cash flow. Furthermore, the cost of these young bottlings was high. It seemed easy to skip.  But it's more than that. The Kilchoman project has so many attributes that I hold dear that I was secretly afraid to try it so young, afraid that if I didn't like it I would be disappointed in more than just the whisky.

The 2006 vintage bottling The Brandy Library was pouring tonight is the first of Kilchoman's bottlings to be aged 5 years. In my mind that turns a corner. I already drink and greatly enjoy some Islay whiskies at this age - for example Bruichladdich's astounding Octomore series. I grant It's not entirely a rational viewpoint (particularly in light of my last post's celebration of Balcones Distillery's ability to make amazing whisky younger than 3 years old. But Islay isn't baking in the Gulf heat like Waco is). After this experience with Kilchoman I'll suck it up and try the younger expressions. The 2006 vintage bottling uses Optic barley peated to 50ppm (I'm pretty sure that means it's Port Ellen maltings. The home made floor maltings are apparently peated to levels less than half that: 10-20ppm). It's pretty hard to find in the US. It goes $75-80 in the UK. In the US it would be a bit more - but I haven't seen in here.

Kilchoman 2006 46% 5 years old.

Color: Pale gold

Nose: lemon curd, unctuous warm and earthy peat with putty, clay, baked lemon pie with caramelized merangue. Underneath are some farmyard notes of manure, straw and mud.

The palate entry is creamy with floral meadow, lemon cream, and some candy sparkles. The mouth feel is suprisingly rich and full given the color. Not quite "rich and oily", but definitely trending in that direction. The mid palate expansion has some oyster, lightly tanned hide (like chamois) and some tidal flat seaweed notes, but is dominated by the peat, which waxes full with tar and earthy burn. What's special here, for me, is that the creamy lemon sweet carries into, and indeed through, the peat bringing a harmonious integration that's pretty tasty and pretty special. I have to say, this reminds me a lot of a really nice Port Ellen. Maybe a bit less tar and a little more sweet but the combination of unctuous mouth feel, lemon fruit, chamois, and sweet driving into peat with tar and tang on the finish is all hauntingly reminiscent of the vanished treasure that was the Port Ellen Distillery and each sip fills me with a nameless joy that this flavor signature might not be vanished from the world after all.

A few drops of water and some time ups the cream pretty dramatically. Whipped cream now heaped on the caramelized lemon pie and pitch pots. This creamy sweetness is taking things beyond the Port Ellen resemblance into a unique Kilchoman flavor signature. But the fact remains, this tastes a lot like a Port Ellen to me. I have come to really enjoy Port Ellens - but they are going going almost gone. This Kilchoman 5 year old seems to feel a lot like her. I start having fantasies like the Jimmy Stewart character in Vertigo when he meets a woman who looks just the woman, Madeleine who died earlier in the film. He wants to dress her up and make her into his dead Madeleine. I'm wondering if Kilchoman at 8 years, and 10 years and 12 years will come to resemble Port Ellens even more. But, that thought seems ghoulish - just like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.

To make another metaphor, Madelyn Peyroux sounds like Billy Holiday to me. It's not cool, however, to make too much of that. She is her own artist and she arrives in the vicinity of the great Holiday by an honest creative process and her art has it's own merit. And so it is with Kilchoman. No one set out to make a Port Ellen replica here. The fact that Kilchoman 2006 tastes so very much like a really nice unsherried young Port Ellen of the first rank to me comes out of common details of production, materials, and environment (or is simply a delusion on my part). Not everyone is going to get lemons and chamois out of this. Maybe no one will. Indeed, I haven't heard anyone else out there saying so. This appears to be, very much, my personal illusion. Maybe I'm having this illusion because I want it to be her - and it smells like Port Ellen and when the light catches her just right...

No matter. This is just brilliant Islay whisky. It is really astoundingly delicious and makes me tremendously happy on a host of levels. It constitutes an imperative for me to investigate this project's whiskies further. I need to find out how big a role this extra maturation plays in the magic going on here.



  1. Coop, I totally get that lemon. I even mentioned "A lemon runs through it" in my own tasting notes. The chamois gets bundled up in that meaty feel that i noted as well.

    good post, with interesting parallels!

    1. Brilliant tasting notes:

      We really have to dram together one of these days... NYC or Montreal. I'm looking forward to it.

  2. Thanks Jean Francois. I'm glad I'm not going insane here... like "Gaslight" or ... "Vertigo". If you gave me Kilchoman 2006 blind I would unhesitatingly say "Port Ellen - and a good one"... She looks so nice in that gray dress... with her hair up... no like this... let me? ...

  3. Once again, OR is a weird place and I could actually pick up a bottle from my local liquor store for a hair under $80. However, I went with the much cheaper (a bit under $60) Machir Bay, so I'll see how I like that before springing for the more expensive 2006 vintage or Sherry Cask releases. This does give me hope that it'll be a tasty dram.

    1. All the reviews of Machir Bay are positive. Every single one I read. It's younger juice - but that may be of no matter. I look forward to reading your comments (as always, Jordan - you are an extremely interesting blogger to follow) and plan to follow you down that road soon myself.

  4. You seem to have forgotten one major detail about Vertigo.

    The woman Jimmy Stewart's character molds into Madeleine is the same woman who was impersonating the Madeleine he falls in love with. So your movie comparison only works if someone was giving you Kilchoman in a Port Ellen bottle and you fall in love with the Port Ellen and not realizing it's really Kilchoman.

    Hmm, that's not such a bad situation now that I think about it. It's certainly easier on the wallet to keep drinking Kilchoman.

    1. That's hilarious - and true. When I drain my current bottle of Port Ellen I'll re-fill it with Kilchoman 2006 (or the most PE-like Kilchoman available) and then "Vertigo" people. At the very least I could fool virtually everyone and impress many by easy pouring priceless drams.

      Now I have to figure out how to do a whisky analogy of "Gaslight"!