There is a 1970s film called Charley Varrick where Walter Matthau play a small time crop duster who struggles to make a living and augments his income with crime. A bank job goes horribly wrong and he steals more money than as small town bank could possibly hold and he realises he has actually stolen from the Mob and has to try to escape from their retribution. Now I know there is no connection between bank robberies, murder, mayhem and the mob and the making of single malts but the slogan for Charley Varrick’s crop dusting business was ‘The Last of the Independents’ and I think of that phrase when I think of Kilchoman. Up until the end of 2012 there were two Islay distillers that stood alone and were not part of an international group but now Bruichladdich has been sold to Rémy Cointreau, Kilchoman stands alone.
There is however another big difference between them and Charley Varrick – they are not grizzled and worn down – they are young, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and filling the trendy, small scale, craft niche. Proving that it is not necessary to have economies of scale andcit is possible to survive on 140,000 litres a year. It has cleverly been designed as a farmyard operation and thus links back to the roots of distilling in Scotland. As such it is very compact and the stills are tiny (well everything is really, the malt floor is no bigger than an empty barn) and they do everything themselves from malting to bottling.
The other thing they realised was that tourism would be a significant income stream and the shop and café occupy a fair chunk of the site. I really don’t understand why more distilleries don’t have cafés. They allow you to linger longer and then spend more time looking at the branded merchandise. It has certainly worked for Ardbeg who have provided a place you go to just for the food and its also good at Kilchoman I can thoroughly recommend the cullen skink.
Anyway back to the most important thing: the whisky. Kilchoman was the distillery that dashed one of my prejudices. I used to think that you had to wait at least 10 years for a whisky to develop and that in most cases further maturation increased richness and complexity. I was not as crude as ‘the older the better’ but I did think 10 was the starting mark. Not any more prix viagra 100. I now know that if something is done with enough care and forethought a young whisky can be every bit as tasty and satisfying. It might not have the mellowness but it can have balance and a richness of flavours – as Kilchoman proves
P.S. The photo at the head shows the paper owl that overlooks proceedings and the one at the foot shows the distillery is a little cramped.