Kilchoman is an interesting beast in the landscape of peated scotch whisky. Often, peated drams from Islay tend to be more similar than they are distinct. Give me glasses containing Bowmore, Caol Ila, and Ardbeg and I have about a 30% chance of identifying each. In fact, I’ll probably second-guess myself into the wrong answer. Put Kilchoman into a fourth glass, and I’ll probably guess it right. Nobody else makes such clean, crisp, restrained, elegant peated malt.
That’s not always a good thing, mind. Sometimes when you want a glass of peated whisky you want it to punch you in the face (as it were). You want to feel the brutal winds of the Sound and taste the rugged, rocky shoreline. Kilchoman doesn’t do any of those things… it’s too impressively refined.
Let’s turn to the USA Small Batch releases. Kilchoman is no stranger to sherry or wine-cask aging, and their dizzying array of limited and not-limited releases makes it infeasible to catalog. Suffice it to say that Kilchoman has a series (6 editions long, as of this recording) of Small Batch limited-release bottlings destined for the US market, and they all have some proportion of sherry, port, and/or madeira casks in the batch.
A quick aside: This practice of distilleries producing US-only editions because they have to get separate label approval and run separate bottling lines to meet the 750ml requirement of the US market may soon come to an end. Last year in 2021, the TTB (The US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) updated guidelines that now allow the import and sale of 700ml aka European bottle sizes. It remains to be seen whether this new regulation will cause a flood of previously Europe-only bottles to arrive on US shelves or not. Just because those bottles CAN be imported doesn’t mean importers will bother. Still, more choice is always better and I applaud the change.
Before we get to the review, let me tell you a brief story about this bottle. I tasted through it, writing my notes like I usually do (they are below, unchanged despite the upcoming revelation), wrote nothing at all about fruit or wine flavors, and then I happened to do a Google search to find a few details. It was at this point that I discovered that this contains 30% Madeira-matured Kilchoman.
Let this be a lesson to you (and me), that the mention of an interesting cask finish on the label should NOT lead you to assume that the flavors implied by that cask will be present in the final bottle. I tasted entirely through my Flaviar sample and didn’t encounter a single aroma or flavor note that made me think about madeira, sherry, or any other kind of grape-related liquid. I don’t think I even mentioned any kind of fruit. The distillery must have used the most anemic madeira cask in existence, and it shouldn’t be surprising that 5% sherry didn’t move the needle. In hindsight, that note of “coffee bean” is probably the only note that originated in those fortified wine casks. End rant.
For these releases, Kilchoman actually takes a batch of Machir Bay and vats it with a wine-matured cask (port, Madeira, etc.). The fourth batch of Kilchoman’s USA Small Batch was vatted from casks at a proportion of 5% oloroso sherry, 30% Madeira, and the remainder (65%) ex-bourbon. This release was bottled in 2021 at 48.1% ABV. My sample is from a Flaviar Tasting Box, but note that they might change the batch number depending on supply.
Nose: Fairly standard Kilchoman profile: Lots of vanilla, restrained but obvious peat, mild grassiness, and just enough bare sweetness to avoid being called dry.
Palate: Medium bodied. Some oaky bitterness up front (odd), plus a hearty dose of dusty charcoal. Vanilla, of course, cut grass, plain cereal, and that austere brand of Kilchoman peat.
Finish: Long. A nice note of coffee bean creeps in. There’s surprisingly little bitterness, some agreeable charcoal, and a dry thread of peat throughout. Fades slowly, adding only a mouth-cooling minty note.
Water: A few drops of water have no detectable effect on this whisky. I wouldn’t bother with water here.
Overall: Eh. I mean, I like Kilchoman, and this tastes like Kilchoman… but it doesn’t taste like anything /extra/. I cannot think of a reason to suggest someone drink this over the $55 Machir Bay, which at least delivers on the promise of fruit flavors from sherry maturation.