This year, due to the distinct dynamics of the secular and Jewish calendars, Chanukah is the day before Thanksgiving (the first night of Chanukah is erev Thanksgiving, which means that the first day of Chanukah is also Thanksgiving day; so those who celebrate both will be lighting the second night and then fressing at their Thanksgiving feast).“Thanksgivukah?” “Turkukah”? Whatever. This overlap of American Jewish life has given us turkey-shaped menorahs and mash-up songs that combine lyrics that embody both holidays. It also means that, for many, there is likely to be a similar convergence of menus for the American national holiday meal with latkes appearing side-by-side with turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes. It can be a challenge to find an appropriate wine to match. Over the next several weeks, we will look at various ways to include wine in this year’s celebrations.
Our first suggestion to pair this holiday season with rich dishes is the kosher, Israeli, value-priced Dovev Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, a coffee and berry-scented, medium-bodied, soft and smooth blend featuring red fruit, plum, mild spice and cassis.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d dive back into our exploration of the Scotch whiskies of Islay starting with the newest distillery to hit the island: the Kilchoman Distillery. The name Kilchoman, pronounced “kil-homan,” is taken from the eponymous nearby small settlement (it is Gaelic for “St Comman’s church”).
Founded in 2005, the first new distillery to be built on Islay in 124 years, Kilchoman is a fairly new, tiny, farm-style distillery on the western-most side of Islay. Even before they had any whisky to sell — recall that distilled spirits in Scotland cannot legally be called “whisky” until it has aged in oak barrels for at least three years — their fresh or “new-make” spirit was being sold in limited supply to whet the public’s appetite and bring in some much-needed revenue. Between the excitement of the new distillery and the obviously excellent quality of its new-make spirit, the distillery was essentially an overnight critical success, attracting a massive following among us whisky geeks and aficionados (a euphemism for alcoholics with expensive tastes). Alas, that massive following has only grown, and the whisky can be hard to come by and is always fairly costly when found. Unsurprisingly, the distillery became profitable with its very first bottling in 2009, selling 2,450 cases.
The distillery was the brainchild of entrepreneur Anthony Wills. He decided to establish a modern re-creation of the farmhouse distilleries from which the entire industry began. Construction began in 2002 and finished in 2005 when the stills were fired up. Rockside Farm, where the distillery is located, had been growing barley for many years, so it made sense to use this barley for the distillery. The entire process from malting to bottling takes place on site; they even built a small traditional malting floor with smoky peat fire underneath the floor to malt the barley — making this one of only a handful of distilleries in Scotland that still uses floor malting for a percentage of its malted barley. In this way, the distillery gets about 20 percent of the malted barley needed for total production with the other 80 percent coming from the Port Ellen commercial malting house on Islay.
Kilchoman’s annual output is now up to about 120,000 liters of alcohol. To put this in perspective, all eight distilleries on Islay have a combined annual output of roughly 17 million liters of alcohol (recall that the island has only around 3,500 inhabitants — so we are talking a tremendous amount of booze). Everything about the distillery is compact and fairly tiny by industry norms, so its capacity remains hugely limited and more or less fixed until the owners try to expand (which would require not only a lot more money, equipment and manpower, but also more physical space).
As distillery manager John MacLellan put it while walking us through the distillery, “We can’t really keep up with demand,” and “We are sort of in an awkward position in that we have so little stock on hand and need to sell enough whisky to service our business and meet customer demand, yet we also want to keep it until it gets a bit older, to see how it develops, and get a sense of what we can do. We’ve no history, and so have no idea if our whisky would be better at, say, 15 years or whatever. It’s great young, and folks thankfully wish to buy it now, and we in turn need to generate revenue, pay salaries, etc., but it’d be good to produce enough to explore and play with a bit.”
With over two decades in the industry before joining Kilchoman in 2010, MacLellan helped improve various aspects of the production process, including a tightening of the wood management policy (ensuring that the wood casks they use are of exceptional quality). At the maturation stage, Kilchoman now employs mostly “first fill” used bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky, and “first fill” used oloroso sherry barrels from Miguel Martin in Jerez, Spain. The phrase “first fill” in Scotch industry speak denotes barrels that are being used for the first time for Scotch. Obviously they were previously used by their respective owners for bourbon whiskey or sherry wine.
As MacLellan put it, “We have to make the best of every drop we produce; we’ve no other option; we have to make it work best for the business” and so they spend quite a bit more than most distilleries for their barrels (and many other supplies), all of which further (lamentably) drives up the price. Likewise, they sacrifice efficiency for quality. As John put it, “We are a niche product at the top end of the market and that’s where we intend to be and stay — that means doing things properly, not rushing, and all with quality in the driver’s seat. It’s what we want, and it’s what consumers expect from Kilchoman.”
Kilchoman’s refusal to put economy over quality has paid off, though when compared to the sleek and often corporate feel of most distilleries in the industry, one gets the impression that the on-hand cash flow of this tiny enterprise ebbs and flows a bit. Hopefully, given the fantastic quality and character of the whisky, Kilchoman will continue to grow and prosper for many, many years to come. Here is its latest U.S. release:
Kilchoman 100% Islay, 3rd Edition (50 percent abv; $90): this is the latest of its special limited edition “100% Islay” range, produced from barley that is grown, malted, distilled and bottled entirely on-site at the distillery. This release is a vatting of four and five-year-old first-fill bourbon barrels; only 10,000 bottles available worldwide. This absorbing and rewarding whisky opens with delicate smoke, fruit (citrus, apples and pears), vanilla cream, and floral notes on the nose, with the fruits leading the charge on the palate, supported by some brief spicy elements, all of which quickly cedes ground to beautiful yet still delicate peat smoke, initiating a delightful up-tempo waltz in the mouth between the various elements, with each having a chance to go toe-to-toe with the peat, without overcrowding, missing a beat or falling flat. The lengthy finish is of lovely slightly softer lingering peat. Dazzling, complex, and delicious whisky. L’Chaim!