Kilchoman Islay Single Malt – STR Cask Matured

STR Cask Matured (2019)

MASH BILL – 100% malted barley

PROOF – 100

AGE – NAS (~7 years)

DISTILLERY – Kilchoman

PRICE – $106 (more commonly ~$120)


Kilchoman is a relative newcomer to Scotland’s ancient isle of Islay. Founded by Anthony and Kathy Wills in 2005, it is the first new distillery to be built on Islay in well over a hundred years, and Islay’s only fully in-house farm distillery, growing their own grains for their wide range of releases. Here is what their website says about their all-in philosophy:

Our 100% Islay philosophy stems from Anthony and Kathy’s desire to resurrect the grass roots tradition of farm distilling.  From the very beginning, the 100% Islay range was our main reason for being. It represents the revival of single malt whisky being cultivated from barley to bottle in a single location. Ours is a distillery where the responsibility for quality and consistency is not outsourced but completed on-site with skill, care and attention to detail.

They also describe their farm:

We farm approximately 2,000 acres surrounding the ruined Kilchoman Church. Our most fertile ground, 250 acres of fields surrounding the distillery, are used for growing our barley whilst the hill ground to the north is home to our flock of black face sheep. Westwards towards Machir Bay is an area of sandy pasture grazed by our herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle. We are passionate about employing modern methods that encourage a wide range of biodiversity, from corncrakes and eagles to wild flowers and native woodland.

The transparency on their website is informative and refreshing. They talk through their whisky making steps in brief, from harvesting the grain to bottling. Key features include: every ingredient originating on their farm; the increasingly rare practice of in-house manual floor malting; a nearly four-day fermenting time (roughly twice the industry standard); as well as bourbon barrels sourced directly from Buffalo Trace in Kentucky, USA, and sherry butts from Bodega Miguel Martin in Spain.

At this point, most of their standard releases are bottled at around 3 to 4 years, with the exact age seldom stated on the label. This post’s 2019 special release combined a total of forty-three STR (shaved, toasted and re-charred) red wine casks that were originally filled in 2012, making the whisky roughly 6 to 7 years old. It is my first Kilchoman experience.

At uncorking it showed a great nose, with gentle but definite peat, earthy clay, and a bundle of dried flowers. The taste followed up with the peat and clay, as well as dark tangy fruits in syrupy textures. It finished as it nosed and tasted, with some added chocolate and thick pastry dough. A winner!

Subsequent tastings, however, though good, were less impressive overall than this initial dive. Something about the peat and clay combination dominating things. So I let it sit for a couple weeks…

…And now here we are. These notes were taken about a month after uncorking and some handful of pours into the bottle, using a traditional Glencairn.

COLOR – a nicely toasted honey-orange amber

NOSE – gentle peat and smoke, rich salted caramel and taffy, faint baked persimmon and grilled lemon peel

TASTE – the peat and smoke, thick toffee in dark chocolate

FINISH – soft but warm and lingering, with a fine peppery tingle that’s almost cooling like an icy mint, and a subtle return of the earthy clay note

OVERALL – gentle, confident, perfect for staying cozy indoors on a cold rainy day

Literally within a second of uncorking the bottle, the aroma of peat and smoke hits my nose. It’s confident in its arrival, yet not overpowering. This is not an in-your-face peat, but a strong and… gentle is the word that keeps coming to me. A kind of gentle giant. It could crush you if it wanted to. But it doesn’t want to do that. It’s content to keep you company.

With a few weeks airing out in the bottle, the whisky has returned to the complexity it had at its uncorking. That clay note remains, though subtler now. And the candy and fruit notes have seemingly soaked back into the smokey foundation of the whisky, more integrated now than distinct, but present and adding a richness to the overall earthy quality of this whisky.

I decided to make use of this rainy day, and held my glass out to catch a few fresh drops. The rain was light, so I let the glass sit out in it for about ten minutes. Not very scientific in that I cannot say how many drops made it in—ten minutes of sprinkling’s worth.

Nosing the glass back indoors, the fresh rain added a clarity around the smoke. Interesting. As if the smoke had been rendered finer in its particles. Tasting the whisky, it was brighter overall, with a nice fresh crisp biscuit note lain into its foundation. The finish was likewise brighter, that minty coolness now sepia toned—if it were a color—a kind of late afternoon Autumn sunlight. (I know whisky is “sunlight in a glass,” but can it taste like sunlight in a glass as well? I guess so!) So other than the biscuit note, rather than bringing out significantly new flavors, the addition of fresh rain brought out new qualities. Very interesting.

This was a one-time 2019 release, so I don’t expect to encounter it again. But I’ll certainly enjoy this bottle. And as an introduction to Kilchoman, I am intrigued to continue following along with their seeming endless annual experiments.

Quality in scotch is often eyeballed via the age stated on the bottle, with 12 years being the generally accepted starting point. It will likely be some time before Kilchoman releases a 12 year old whisky. But they may not need to. They are demonstrating that age isn’t everything. I can imagine them doing perfectly well in perpetuity by focusing solely on single-digit aged whiskies aged in a variety of carefully selected casks, made entirely from their very local, very specific plot of the Islay terroir.

Perhaps the advent of brands like Kilchoman, focused on younger whiskies, will upset the traditional thinking around age and quality. Or, I can imagine if more distilleries start putting out younger whiskies, then older age stated whiskies could become even more prized and expensive.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy another rain-infused glass of this Kilchoman…


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