Exploring Kilchoman, Islay’s farm distillery
It’s one of Scotland’s oldest ‘new’ distilleries: we recall what it was like to discover Kilchoman Distillery for the first time.
A lot can happen in 15-and-a-bit years. But for Anthony Wills, the man who founded Kilchoman, I can imagine it’s been more of a rollercoaster of journey than for most.
I think it was eight years ago when I first visited Islay’s farm distillery. It was a glorious June day; while the midges might have been out in force, the sun was shining and the fields surrounding the distillery – which I’d later learn were growing barley – were lushly green. The road down to the distillery, on the west side of the island, was better described as a track. The vehicle we were in complained and groaned at the patchy surface; we were in opposite spirits. Discovering Kilchoman, at the time a new kid on the whisky block, felt like unearthing hard-to-find treasure.
Founded in 2005, Kilchoman was the first new distillery on Islay for 124 years. Yes, Ardnahoe has now come along, and planning permission has been granted for more. But back then, whisky wasn’t mid-boom like it is today. New distilleries weren’t springing up. Kilchoman’s arrival on the scene was a big deal. And so too was its philosophy.
For the Wills family, it’s always been about Islay. The island, its incredible landscape, how its sense of place shines through its flavour. It produces 100% Islay whisky, made from the grain grown on the same farm that houses a malting floor, washbacks and stills. Production on that first visit barely touched 100,000-litres a year. In 2019 it expanded to almost 500,000.
But back to that first trip. What I remember most starkly was the smell of the production space; the washbacks and the gleaming pair of stills all in the same room. The cereal, the fruitiness, the hints of smoke from the peat. It’s genuine ‘craft’ production, a word that has since been co-opted to mean all kinds of things. But back then it resonated with what was going on in those stone buildings, the tiny production scale, the almost painstaking attention to detail. The heartfelt care and the passion from the entire team. This was (and remains to this day) an independent family business that puts flavour and the island itself first.
After the distillery tour (it didn’t take long) we took a walk from the distillery. Instead of turning right, back down that bumpy track, we headed left. The track became muddier and reached a parking area before narrowing to become more of a footpath. Scrubby bushes gradually became sand dunes, which then almost abruptly gave way to a stunning expanse of diamond-white sand and the azure of the North Atlantic. This is Machir Bay, one of the island’s most untamedly beautiful beaches, and a name that adorns one of Kilchoman’s most loved bottlings. In fact, there’s a cask-strength Machir Bay expression in this month’s box!
My most recent visit to Kilchoman was in May 2019, as part of the Fèis Ìle Islay festival week. I got to interview Anthony again, get news of the distillery expansion, and look back at the journey he’d been on. We stood in the visitor centre, complete with expanded cafe (I highly recommended stopping in for hearty fayre once travel is on again). Yes, production was bigger. Yes, the blue signs gleamed glossy. And yes, there were a load more people making the Kilchoman discovery. But do you know what hasn’t changed? The distillery spirit, the passion for flavour, and the family’s love of both whisky and the island.
Enjoy the dram!