This is the fifth installment of my 10-4-10 series of interviews with people who are swirling winningly in the wide world of whisk(e)y. Up this time is James Wills, son of Kilchoman’s founder Anthony Wills.
I had the extreme pleasure recently to partake in tasting a selection of Kilchoman whiskies at Federal Wine and Spirits in Boston during Kilchoman’s Land Rover driven East Coast Tour. Two expressions found their way home with me…the wallet does have, unfortunately, its limits.
Thanks again to James for taking the time to provide detailed and thoughtful answers to my ten questions, and here goes..
1. For those who are unfamiliar with Kilchoman, tell me about its history and what sets you apart from other distilleries.
Kilchoman was the first new distillery to be built on Islay for over 124 years when my father established it in 2005. We call ourselves Islay’s Farm Distillery, the idea behind Kilchoman was to mirror the grass root traditions of Scotch whisky production, we do that by producing some of our whisky from barley grown and malted here at the distillery, producing our ‘100% Islay’ single malt at Kilchoman, from Barley to Bottle. We are a family run operation, my entire family is employed by the distillery, myself and my two brothers are the sales and marketing team, my mother works in the admin department and my father is the founder/Managing Director. We are the smallest distillery on Islay, we produce about 180,000 litres each year. At the moment, all of our expressions are peated.
2. How would you characterize the Kilchoman whisky style?
I would say our style of single malt falls between the big heavily peated Islay associated with the likes of Laphroaig and Ardbeg whiskies and the lighter styles such as Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain.
3. Where do you see Kilchoman in five years?
That is a very hard question to answer, so much as changed over the previous five years it’s impossible to say what will happen next but I hope our whiskies will continue to grow in popularity….and I’m still in the job.
4. You are currently on the September-October East Coast Tour. How much time do you spend on the road promoting Kilchoman whiskies?
I have never tallied up the number of days spent on the road but getting out and about, meeting people and promoting Kilchoman face-to-face is a big part of the job and we enjoy it. The whisky industry is full of interesting people and when I tell my friends I’m off on a promotional tour of the US East Coast I don’t think they feel sorry for me!
5. 2017 is not far away, do you have any specific festivals or events that you will be attending in the United States during the year?
2017 is still quite far away in our book, this is the busiest time of year for us, once we hit the end of November we will start to finalize plans for next year. The best thing to do is check our website, all our tasting tours and events are published well ahead of time.
6. Since the release of your inaugural bottle in 2009, what has surprised you most about the whisky business?
How friendly and welcoming the industry is, people often expect there is a fierce rivalry between distilleries and there is to a certain degree but no one lets that get in the way of a good time.
7. When I tasted the inaugural bottle while on Islay in 2009, new distilleries seemed far and few between. Since then there has been an explosion of new distilleries across the globe. How has this explosion impacted, if at all, Kilchoman?
I think it has certainly made people more willing to try single malt from new or different distilleries than those they have tasted in the past. I don’t think that any of the new distilleries have detracted from Kilchoman, that is probably because we are the only new Islay distillery. That looks likely to change and when it does perhaps my answer would change as well but I shouldn’t think so. The real boom in new distilleries has only really been in the last 2-3 years.
8. I have five (actually now seven) different Kilchoman expressions and enjoy them all. Is there one that you are especially proud of? Why?
It’s very hard to pick one, it would probably be either the Inaugural Release (our first ever) or the Inaugural 100% Islay (our first 100% Islay.) There was such a build up to these, all the time, effort and investment had done into getting to that point and it was very rewarding to see the positive reaction.
9. Beyond Kilchoman, do you have a go-to bottle in your personal whisky cabinet?
My go-to is always Kilchoman, of course I drink other whisky but the association I have with Kilchoman makes the drinking of it all the more enjoyable!
10. Pairing whisky with cheese, chocolate or special meals is an interesting way to introduce whisky to newcomers and fans alike. Do you have at recommendations for pairings with any of your varied expressions?
I would recommend pairing lighter flavours such as citrus, seafood, tropical fruits, herbs and soft cheeses for the Machir Bay, 100% Islay and any of our other bourbon cask matured expressions. for our sherry cask expressions of Kilchoman I would lean towards richer flavours such as dried or cooked fruits, cured meats, game, spices, dark chocolate and mature cheeses.
Bits and pieces shared by Founder Anthony Wills during the East Coast Tour:
- The Land Rover was designed by Mrs. Wills’ family in 1948, based on Jeep and tested on Islay.
- Kilchoman does not sell any whisky to blenders.
- Kilchoman purchases its bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace because of their consistency.
- Kilchoman is now in 40 different markets around the world.
- The distillery produced 50,000 litres in 2006 and will produce 200,000 in 2016.
- Machir Bay is the biggest volume seller.
My two new Kilchoman bottles are:
- The Tour bottling – a vatting of Machir Bay at 58.9% cask strength. This is a 2008 Vintage with hints of butterscotch. No water need be added to this bottle. $80 price range. I rank it a 4 out of 4.
- The 100% Islay, 6th edition – there is peat on the nose, an earthy finish with a lovely fruity and lightly peated palate. $120 price range. I rank it a 3 out of 3.
Many thanks again to James Wills for participating in my 10-4-10 series. I raise a glass to all that is Kilchoman!