Kilchoman Sanaig Islay Single Malt Whisky

KILCHOMAN SANAIG
early 2022 release

MASH BILL – 100% malted barley

PROOF – 92

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – Kilchoman

PRICE – $68 (more typically ~$76)

WORTH BUYING? – Yes

Peated whiskies are famously divisive. Hardcore ashy and medicinal flavor profiles like Laphroaig and Caol Ila, for example, can turn someone off or win them over—for life, in either case. Intensity begets an intense response. Softer, sweeter peated whiskies like Highland Park may be more likely to have wider appeal, and yet even these can be too much for some.

Though peated whiskies are produced across Scotland, Islay is the region most associated with them, so much so that the word “Islay” is often used synonymously with “peated.” Longtime Islay distillery stalwarts like Lagavulin tend to set the standard, being stocked regularly in bars and thus well established in the popular scotch whisky consciousness. Kilchoman, on the other hand, established in 2005, is a relative newcomer to Islay, and yet it is among the region’s more unique operations.

Founded by Anthony and Kathy Wills, Kilchoman is the first new distillery to be built on Islay in well over a hundred years, and Islay’s only fully in-house farm-to-bottle distillery. Theirs is a 100% Islay whisky, with every aspect of the process done on the distillery’s Islay farm. Releases are often named after specific geographical features that surround the property, honoring the land they actively nurture with the biodiverse farming practices they employ. Their peat has a particular earthiness to it, with prominent clay and stone notes that remind me of certain artisanal Mezcals and Tequilas.

While they don’t offer bottlings aged in the teens and twenties like their more established neighbors do, Kilchoman’s relative youth allows a different emphasis. Small farm practices meet experimentation with a wide variety of used casks—e.g. Madeira, Sauternes, Buffalo Trace Weller Bourbon—always blended in relatively small batches. Though some special releases are bottled close to the 10-year mark, most are non-age-stated blends of roughly 4-year whiskies. The depth and complexity achieved in just a handful of years is remarkable, belying the prevailing assumption that older is better.

I’d been eyeing the Sanaig release for a while. When I saw this 2022 batch, I noticed it was darker than past batches I’d seen on shelves. Nothing on the label indicated a special reason, whether due to a higher age or the particular sherry casks used. But I thought it would make a good intro to this Kilchoman standard release.

At uncorking, those comforting clay and stone notes were right there, sweetened by dark plum from the sherry casks. I was trying it late one dark night, drinking rather than formally tasting, and it hit the spot perfectly well. That the flavors were slightly unintegrated out of the gate, I didn’t mind. It was good whisky doing something good whisky does—slowing me down at the end of a very long day.

So here we are, two weeks after uncorking and a good handful of pours into the bottle. These brief notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.

COLOR – a shifting spectrum of mahogany, walnut, and burnt oranges

NOSE – soft but ample peat, clay, honey, dried ginger, dry long grasses, fresh cut Fuji apple slices, a faint vanilla-caramel note

TASTE – that soft peat, campfire smoke and briquettes, cream, caramel, a texture both creamy and granular

FINISH – warm, with a fruity tang at the edges adding a ray of brightness to the overcast peat and clay notes

OVERALL – a solid, simple, earthy dram

Today I’m missing those dark fruit notes that showed themselves at uncorking. Perhaps they’ll come and go. This is the paradox of putting tasting notes into print—print gives the impression of finality, whereas the taste of the whisky is forever in motion, responding to one’s own body and mood on a given day, while one’s body and mood in turn respond to the whisky. Really, there is no scientific control factor. Like life. The experience of a whisky evolves moment to moment.

So, today, this Sanaig is peat served up in a clay pot and glazed with honey. That fruity tang at the edges is a touch acrid, tempting a dry saccharine bitterness—a contradiction, but there it is. Today I’m not terribly excited by this whisky, feeling no need to reach for a second glass. At uncorking that second pour came quickly.

Maybe time of day is the issue. Until now I’ve only had this whisky at night, and not first in the flight. There’s a Famille Dupont Apple Brandy, finished in Islay whisky casks, similarly proofed, that I’ve been using as an opener. Perhaps the brandy’s sweetness has flavored the Sanaig.

So I poured a glass of the brandy. Nosed side by side, the brandy of course leans into its sweet apples, while the Sanaig sticks to its peat and clay. No surprise there. A sip of the brandy brings on its nice blend of syrupy sweet apple and a bright but earthy peat. Then on a sip of the Sanaig, with no water in between to clear my palate, the caramel comes across more forwardly than before, as well as a dark milk chocolate note, adding a candy sweetness. Neither spirit is wowing. Both are solid, enjoyable drinks.

Kilchoman is a curious brand. There is the unique farm-to-bottle element. And there’s the fact that, for me, the two bottles I’ve experienced so far have not been amazing, but good and of notable quality. They taste natural and layered, yet simple to comprehend in one take, like a wild field of grasses and flowers. They don’t demand my attention. It’s interesting that when I just drink Kilchoman whiskies, I enjoy them more than when I taste them. That’s not at all a bad thing, given the vast majority of the time I’m drinking and not formally tasting…

That’s something to consider as my whisky journey continues its meandering path. Despite this blog filled with tasting notes, I gotta remember to stop and drink the whiskies.

Cheers!

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