Kilchoman. I was skeptical. After a year of overpriced, underaged malt that I referred to as “new distillery charity”, my local champion of all things Kilchoman (David D. at K&L) managed to sell out an entire shipment of Machir Bay, Kilchoman’s new NAS and first “permanent” bottling… in one day. OK, I thought, maybe there’s something to this Kilchoman business. I took the plunge and bought a bottle of Machir Bay when David got his second shipment. He was kind enough to also let me sample some of the newly-arrived K&L Exclusive 5 year-old Kilchoman single-cask (from a Sherry butt). According to the distillery, Machir Bay is a vatting of 3-, 4- and 5 year-old peated malt (aged in ex-bourbon) which has finished for just 8 weeks in sherry butts. In accordance with Kilchoman’s craft attitudes, Machir Bay is bottled at 46% ABV, without coloring or chill-filtration. Score one for the little guys – this stuff is exactly as good as it was cracked up to be, and totally worth the $54 price tag (at last!).
Color: Very light straw.
Nose: The first impression is of unmistakably Islay peat and white chocolate. Faint florals -lavender?- twine with the lemony, slightly acidic peat. Not particularly smoky or earthy, but ethereal and vegetal. Like a pile of freshly-mown hay and flowers just starting to smoulder. The heat of its 46% ABV is detectable, but not offensive. Decidedly subtle, for a fully peated malt. After a rest in the glass, I can detect juicy peach, which might come from the ever-so-brief sherry finish.
Palate: Thin body. Lemon in waves upfront, with a background of vanilla frosting. After the slight (very slight!) burn subsides, there are ample waves of grain (hehehe), a faint layer of fresh strawberries and fruit punch, and a continuous high note of (hay) peat.
Finish: Long. Somehow avoids being bitter, despite all the phenol. A moment of lavender honey, followed by dry bark, lemon peel oil, and spent charcoal.
With Water: A few drops of water cause the peat to begin smoking. Tobacco, freshly-squeezed lemon juice, and crushed mint. The palate is much sweeter, with crumbly snickerdoodle cookies, vanilla extract, and banana cream pie. This malt is undeniably improved by the addition of water!
Overall: Subtle and accomplished, if light. The peat is masterfully understated, and plays beautifully with the naturally sweet lemon, honey, and floral elements. Don’t let the ‘light’ moniker distract from the fact that this is very highly peated malt, with far more subtlety than, say, Laphroaig, but a lot more power and sinus-burning peat than Highland Park. It does very much stand alone among the Islay malts, though, being light and playful, but also masterful and persuasive. Very impressive for a malt with an average age significantly under 5 years. I’ve made this a “Must Have” whisky for peat-lovers: you can’t miss the revolution in Islay whiskies, and now you don’t have to pay charity prices for it!
For what it’s worth, K&L’s 5 year-old sherry cask is a different animal entirely. At cask-strength and with a pungent, resinous personality, it’s some big whisky. Candle wax, burning balsamic reduction, dried cranberries and smoggy, industrially earthy peat. It tastes somewhat like elegant, masterful cask-strength Islay peated malt stored in a volatile sherry cask – somehow dark, resinous and fungal, and also acidic and brightly fruity. In places, the sherry overwhelms the peat. This is definitely not mainstream whisky, and its internal contradictions take some analysis to appreciate. For fun, I splashed a bit into my glass of Machir Bay and was rewarded with an elevated level of fruitiness that played very nicely with the peat. There’s a whisky cocktail for you – 3 parts Kilchoman Machir Bay to 1 part K&L Sherry Cask Kilchoman, neat. Too bad K&L’s cask runs $110 a bottle. Too rich for my blood, in more ways than one!