What to Expect from a Kilchoman Distillery TourOctober 8, 2018
Islay’s distilleries each have their own unique history, vibrant layers woven deep into the fabric of the Island. If you’re lucky enough to ever find yourself stood on the golden sand of Machir bay on a rare sunny day, you might even detect the warm scent of peat smoke rolling over the sand dunes from Kilchoman’s Kiln. Follow that scent and you’ll walk past golden fields of barley, right up to the gates of the distillery itself. Unlike other whisky distilleries on Islay, that grain is the one that ends up in the bottle – forming our 100% Islay single malt whisky. In fact, every step of its production, from barley to bottle, takes place on-site. It’s the way whisky was meant to be made, and if you’d be so kind as to join us on the Kilchoman distillery tour, we’ll show you just how.
After arriving at Kilchoman, you’ll get a chance to meet fellow tour goers and have a look around our visitors centre. Adorned with traditional low beams and mementos of life on Islay, it’s the perfect space to mingle and absorb some of our history before the main event begins.
The tour starts with an induction by one of our tour guides. With encyclopedic knowledge of the distillery’s inner workings, they’ll guide you through the history of Kilchoman; from the ambitious vision of founder Anthony Wills to the bottles of whisky being produced today and hear what the future holds for Kilchoman. As the smallest distillery on the island there’s a family feel to affairs, questions are encouraged, and anyone is welcome to photograph throughout the tour. In fact, there’s a good chance you might bump into Anthony himself, or his wife Kathy, or any of their three sons checking the production – all of whom have been known to happily stop for a chat. Like we said, it’s a family affair.
Stop one of the tour is the malting floor. Here four tons of barley are soaked for 48 hours before being spread evenly across the malt floor. This step begins the germination process, where natural enzymes begin to break down the starches in the grain. As the grains are turned and raked by the production team, the sweet nutty aroma of the sugars are released into the surrounding air. Visitors are welcome to pick-up and feel the barley for themselves, noticing how it runs between the fingers and varies from grain to grain. It’s hard to imagine that whisky could ever be produced from these tiny seeds but soon the picture starts to come together.
Islay is famous for its peat, with its distilleries using the natural sources for centuries to produce peated single malts renowned the world over. The kiln at Kilchoman is no different, sitting our barley three metres above a gentle smoldering peat fire for 8 hours allowing the rich smoke to pass through the barley, before we then start to dry the barley – stopping germination at just the right point. The smoke from this fire is one part of what gives Kilchoman its unique, complex taste, quite literally absorbing the flavours of Islay.
While looking around you’ll be able to see that all the equipment has been custom-made to produce the exact flavours desired by our stillmen. Every piece but the Mill that is. Used to expose the sugars from within the tough outer husk of the barley grains, the Porteus mill we use has been running consistently for eighty years, predating the distillery and all of those that work within it.
Over the continuous rumble you’ll be told the bittersweet story behind the mill, the constantly beating heart of the distillery. You’ll also be able to see how the barley ends up as grist, a mix of husk, grit and fine flour. You can actually use the grist to produce traditional scottish cakes, but more about those later.
Our Still House is also home to our Mash Tun you’ll be able to witness the process used to extract the sugars from the grist, 1.2 tones to be precise, is put in to our small but perfectly formed mash tun. Here the sugars dissolve into hot water creating a naturally sweet, nectar-like water known as ‘wort’. You will also be told why there are bent spoons over the sprinklers… Some people describe drinking wort like eating raw cake batter, some quite enjoy a sample but we prefer it as whisky. Of course, you can judge for yourself and you’re more than welcome to try some, comparing it to the wash created in the next step. Speaking of…
As you enter our Tun Room you will see our 6 wash backs. These contain cooled down wort and just the right amount of yeast to break down the sugars within, producing the all important alcohol and carbon dioxide. This might sound familiar to some. We call it ‘wash’ but others will know it better as beer, a strong one admittedly (8%), that you can sample fresh from the production line.
Not only are Kilchoman wash backs smaller than the other distilleries on Islay, they also keep the wash inside for around a day longer than most other distilleries, 82 hours in total. This extra time is what gives Kilchoman its light, fruity and slightly dryer wash which once distilled produces our unique floral and sweet spirit.
If the mill is the heart of distillery then the two pot stills we use are its hands, taking the wash and carefully moulding it into the pure Kilchoman spirit. You’ll be able to examine both the wash still, used to produce 1000 litres of 19% ‘low wines’, and the spirit still, which refines this further into 300 litres of pure spirit.
Each distillation lasts around three and a half hours, during which the production team makes sure only the ‘heart’ of the spirit ends up being sealed into our selected casks. The science of pot stills is incredibly intricate, and our spirit still has been hand-crafted to make the most of it. Our stills are the smallest on Islay and amongst the smallest throughout the whole of Scotland. This, alongside an elegant copper neck and reflux bulb, helps to achieve the distinct character Anthony Wills set out to achieve almost 13 years ago.
For the keen whisky enthusiast on the premium tour, you’ll be welcomed into the warehouse – where the spirit spends years interacting with the oak casks that give the whisky its depth of flavour. No cask is the same as the last and our expert team are on hand to share their secrets, as well as a dram or two.
We are one of only two distilleries to bottle our whisky on Islay and at the distillery. In the Bottling Hall you’ll find our hard-working team, taking care to bottle and seal each bottle, before finally adding the kilchoman coin. Over recent years the bottling hall has been expanded to keep up with the increasing demand for our range of Single Malts. Although all our single cask releases are still hand labelled and numbered.
What’s a whisky tour without a taste? During the tasting session you’ll be able to compare notes with other members and your guide, raising a dram unlike any other. For those unlucky enough to be designated drivers (or who just don’t fancy it) you also have the option of taking your samples home as a miniature, perfect for sampling later.
For those on the premium tour there’s a longer tasting session of five drams in total. Between each sample the palette is cleansed with a homemade grist biscuit (told you they’d return) and a discussion of the flavours that form each sample. Every member of every tour is also welcome to keep a branded Kilchoman tasting glass as a souvenir, lovingly boxed for safe transit – though why you’d want to leave is another matter.
Smooth and with a warm afterglow, but enough about the whisky. After your tour has come to a close you’re welcome to come have a chat with anyone here at the distillery, learning about all that makes Islay so much more than the whisky we make. You can also have a look around the Kilchoman shop, everything from whiskies to traditional Scottish tweeds – designed by Kathy Wills. It’s a family affair and we’d love it if you joined.
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