Distillery Focus

A new flame (Kilchorman)

Gavin Smith takes a stroll by Kilchorman, the first new distillery of the millennium-and the first on Islay since 1883
By Gavin D. Smith
The timetable is tight, but if all goes to plan, visitors to the Islay Whisky Festival in May 2002 will be able to witness spirit flowing at Scotland’s first new distillery of the 21st century.Kilchoman Distillery, as it is to be known, is situated on the western coast of the Hebridean island, close to the celebrated beach of Machir Bay, and just a couple of miles west as the wild goose flies from the rejuvenated Bruichladdich Distillery, near the village of Port Charlotte. Until now, Kilchoman has been best known for its splendid Celtic cross, which dates from around AD1400 and regularly attracts historians and pilgrims.Pilgrims of a rather different sort can be expected at Kilchoman in future, and the innovative micro-distillery will be the eighth in production on Islay. It is the first to be constructed since Bruichladdich in 1883, but whereas Bruichladdich was structurally innovative as it was built from a relatively new material called concrete, Kilchoman is being designed to blend into the landscape as much as possible. It is also intended to be the most traditional distillery in terms of operation in the entire country.It is situated in redundant buildings on the French family’s Rockside Farm, where Mark French is in the process of diversifying from traditional agriculture. Prior to the distillery venture, he had already launched a gourmet range of smoked beef and lamb, under the Islay Fine Food label, while his wife Rohaise runs a trekking centre from the farm.French has farmed on Islay for some 25 years, and the distillery development is taking whisky-making back to its roots, when distilling was part and parcel of the agricultural year, and many distilleries the length and breadth of Scotland were farm-based. French is growing the barley that will be malted at Kilchoman distillery, and at the other end of the whisky-making process, he is going to take the draff and feed it to his stock, completing the cycle of ‘farm distillery’ practice.The new distillery is being developed at Rockside Farm due to the long-standing friendship between French and the project’s prime mover, whisky entrepreneur Anthony Wills, who has a 20-year-long association with Islay. He is based in Argyllshire and runs Liquid Gold Enterprises, a whisky company specialising in single-cask bottlings – including a single-cask rum!Wills currently offers three ranges of whiskies, namely Caledonian Selection, Spirit of the Isles and Celtic Legends, so it is not difficult to see that an new Islay single malt will sit nicely alongside the existing product range. “There’s obviously a west coast theme to our whiskies,” he says.According to Wills, “I believe there is more and more interest in niche Scotch whisky products, and I think there’s definitely room for a micro-distillery going right back to Scotch whisky’s farming roots, with everything taking place on one site, from the growing of the barley to the maturing of the spirit. “We have a number of private parties and whisky lovers from all over the world who have expressed an interest in investing in the project. Obviously, it’s not a short-term investment, and Liquid Gold Enterprises will generate income to help offset a lot of the costs during the first seven years, before we have any whisky to sell. Kilchoman will be the most unique distillery in Scotland when it’s up and running. All the output will be sold as single-cask bottlings, and nobody else is doing that.”The Kilchoman venture came about after Wills considered purchasing Glen Scotia distillery in Campbeltown, but discovered that such a move would be prohibitively expensive. “This project requires much less money and is far more feasible,” he says. Islay was chosen partly because of the obvious international cachet attached to its whiskies, partly because it meshed well with Liquid Gold’s existing product ranges, but also because Wills’ great friend Mark French had a promising location for it on the island. The highly experienced distiller and whisky consultant John McDougall has been charged with turning Anthony Wills’ vision into reality “I asked John to be the Operations Consultant and make the project happen because I’ve had business dealings with him for a while,” says Wills, “and his wide experience of whisky production is obviously invaluable. He had the time to devote to the project and was very enthusiastic about it.”Kilchoman is the 19th malt whisky distillery with which John McDougall has been involved, and it is appropriate that the first new distillery of the 21st century is being set up by a man who managed the first totally new distillery of the last century. Tormore, near Grantown-on-Spey, was constructed in 1958-60, and McDougall ran it for a spell during the mid 70s.This is McDougall’s 39th year in the distilling business, but his involvement with barley and malting predates his recruitment to the old Distillers Company Ltd in 1963. “My father was a grain merchant,” he recalls fondly, “and Kilchoman takes me right back to going into fields as a very young man with my father, looking at barley before he made farmers offers to buy it. He would then sell it on to maltsters and distillers.”McDougall’s ‘whisky CV’ makes fascinating reading, and includes managing Laphroaig Distillery from 1970 to 1974. His time at Laphroaig gave him an insight into Islay life and distilling that is standing him in good stead now, and his decade in charge of Springbank in Campbeltown from 1986 gave him invaluable experience of running a quirky, small-scale, old-fashioned distillery.Anthony Wills approached McDougall with a clear notion of the type of distillery he wanted and the traditional Islay style of spirit he wanted it to produce. Ron Gibson, a chemical engineer who runs Carrick Technical Services Ltd in Girvan, Ayrshire, was recruited to deal with the business of helping McDougall turn the notion into plans on paper, pieces of equipment, and ultimately pieces of equipment in place and making whisky. Ron Gibson formerly worked for William Grant & Sons Ltd, and was responsible for the design and construction of their Kininvie Distillery in Dufftown.According to John McDougall, “The main building we are converting is an old mill, and this will contain the mash and still houses. Obviously we are very concerned to preserve the existing environment, and the kiln when built will be clad in grey slate to blend with the rest of the structures. Building conversion work is currently well advanced, and all specifications for equipment have now been agreed, and some of the contracts have been placed. All the equipment is due to arrive and be fitted before the end of March. “We’ll malt Mark French’s barley in our own floor maltings, which we are incorporating into the project”, he explains. “Peat cut on the farm will be used in the maltings. We’ll have a live flame for the wash still in order to produce and seal in the roasted toffee-type historic flavours, having first fermented the wort in traditional wooden washbacks. The spirit still will be heated with a steam coil, as it’s not necessary to have a live flame at that point in the process.”Contrary to the widespread belief that all Hebridean islands are like Taransay, which featured in television’s Castaway series, McDougall notes: “Rockside Farm has several hundred acres of good, fertile land, and we already have a crop of Optic variety barley which Mark French has grown for us ready to begin malting.”The distillery water source rises in the hills behind Bruichladdich and runs over mossy, peaty ground through French’s land. “It’s good peaty water that has analysed very well,” says McDougall. “The peat is of excellent quality, and should be compatible with that which influences more traditional whiskies of Islay.“I’ll have my sleeves rolled up until we get everything running, then my role will become more consultative once we have a manager in place. We hope to make that appointment around February.”According to Anthony Wills, “Our plan is to have a visitor centre and shop in place by the time the distillery comes on stream, though that side of things will grow as we go along. Certainly there will be distillery tours from the outset.”Clearly relishing the challenges of Kilchoman, John McDougall says: “My love affair with Islay has never ended. It started in 1970 when I was appointed Manager at Laphroaig, and it’s great to get a chance to go back and work there again. I’m renewing old acquaintances, and it’s marvellous to have the opportunity to do something so exciting in a place I love.”Readers keen to keep up with the progress of Kilchoman Distillery as it gets closer to production should visit the web site at www.kilchomandistillery.com. Whisky Magazine will have more inside information and an update on developments at Kilchoman in a second article in Whisky Magazine Issue 23.