Kilchoman Distillery – An Idea That Turned into RealityJanuary 28, 2019
Kilchoman Distillery has a unique story, founded in 2005, it was the first distillery to be built on Islay in over 124 years and the only farm distillery on the island. Known for our traditional approach to whisky making, from barley to bottle, there are many questions that come our way, however there is one question that is asked so often – ‘how did you do it?’. So, I decided to have a chat with the man who knows exactly how it was done, Anthony Wills – Managing Director and Founder of Kilchoman Distillery, who turned many whisky drinkers dreams into a reality…
Anthony Wills has worked in the drinks industry for 40 years, over 20 of which have been spent plying his trade in the single malt whisky industry. Before dreams of Kilchoman were flowing through Anthony’s mind, he entered the whisky industry as an Independent bottler in the mid 1990’s, bottling casks from many of Scotland’s fine distilleries, learning his craft in wood management and cask maturation, something very important to Kilchoman today.
As a relative newcomer to the world of independent bottling in the early 2000’s, Anthony was unable to source many of the high-quality casks he was searching for. As the demand and intrigue at the premium end of the market was starting to grow, a lot of the distilleries he worked with began to hold onto their stock rather than releasing it into the open market. This is when the seed was first planted in Anthony’s mind, if he couldn’t get his hands on the whisky he was searching for, then he would go ahead and make it himself!
With the idea of making his own single malt whisky now firmly locked in his mind, the long journey to establishing Kilchoman Distillery began. Anthony understood the market by now and knew there was a thirst for something different, an opening for a new distillery, although many questions were still unanswered; The location, the style, the size, and of course, to raise the funds to build this new distillery. “There was no doubt that I had the confidence I could take a new single malt to market, there was a demand out there for a premium non-aged single malt but getting there was a hugely difficult task. The finance alone was daunting, not really being able to know for sure how much we needed… Most people thought I was completely mad!”
Anthony had always felt there had to be a point of difference, a unique way of producing a whisky like no other. “There was no point in building a distillery like every other in Scotland… and I had always been fascinated by the history of farm distilling in Scotland”. From this came the long planning and building of Islay’s only farm distillery, where barley could be grown and the whole whisky-making process could be shown on one site. “To me, that is what Kilchoman is all about, we are telling a completely different story to the mainstream distillery’s, something special”.
To many outside the whisky industry it’s a mystery how a small island on the west coast of Scotland has so many distilleries famous throughout the world. Islay is an iconic brand for single malt whisky, with the island’s reputation and the family’s historic connection to the island (a story for another time), it was the obvious choice for Anthony and his family to locate the distillery on Islay, a decision he is still very thankful for today. “There is no doubt in my mind that the single most important decision we took was to locate the distillery here because of Islay’s unique brand image around the world”.
It was then time for the next big decision – where on the island to build this distillery? Knowing Islay well already, it soon became clear there was only one place suited for this farm distillery. 5 miles down a single-track road you reach a small farm yard, nestled below the cliffs, surrounded by some of the most fertile land on Islay and the historic Kilchoman church just next door. “We knew we could grow good quality malting barley from these fields.”
Changes over time
Fast forward 13 years and Kilchoman is thriving, the distillery is currently expanding to allow for an increase in production to satisfy demand. “Where we are now is unbelievable, I would never have imagined we would ever have been where we are now – I just had an idea that this type of distillery would have an appeal with a wider audience around the world; a small bespoke, farm, family run distillery had a place in the market”.
The industry has changed hugely in recent years, 25 years ago, only 3-4% of all scotch whisky (blends included) sold around the world was single malt, now it’s over 10%, which is a huge increase. “timing in this world is everything and we got that absolutely spot on in terms of the market and enthusiasm for experimentation in single malt”.
Kilchoman Distillery may have struggled to survive 20 – 25 years ago, there wasn’t the same enthusiasm for a non-aged single malt or a new brand that there is today. Three, four, five-year-old whisky was not being released and would have been branded ridiculous to do so. However, as a distillery (we like to think) we have proved this can be done and does work. “The spirit character and the whisky character has been very well received and people’s first thoughts are often that it’s character is older than it really is.”
No one could have predicted that the single malt whisky market would be where it is now, “the advent of all these new distilleries is extraordinary, not only in Scotland but all over the world.”
The future for Kilchoman…
Now established for over 13 years, the decision was made to double production to allow the distillery to satisfy demand around the world. This was a big decision to make and necessary to avoid running out of stock in four- or five-years’ time. Anthony may have had to start limiting all Kilchoman releases and this was something he didn’t want to happen. “This [the expansion] will provide us with plenty of whisky going forward, we can carry on growing the brand and hopefully build a successful single malt whisky. That is what’s driving me forward, having my boys in the business means that I am more driven to take Kilchoman to the next level”.
“There is no doubt we have a lot of confidence that we can keep building significantly on the success we have already – we can continue this journey and grow the brand around the world, we have people here that can make that happen and I believe we have a very bright future”(Anthony Wills, MD and founder of Kilchoman, January 2019)
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