Kilchoman USA Small Batch No. 4

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.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

Kilchoman is the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years. Construction finished in 2005 and the distillery began producing spirit for an Islay-craving world. Unfortunately as is the case with any Scotch distillery, that whisky won’t be able to compete with its peers until it has aged sufficiently. In order to stay in business, Kilchoman began producing very young “preview” bottlings to attract interest, showcase distillery potential, and raise funds. The first, in 2009, was aged 3 years and 3 months. Producing only 100,000 liters annually, the small distillery is attempting to stick to its “craft” roots – growing barley on its own farm (the upcoming “100% Islay” release will contain whisky made exclusively from this barley), using its own floor maltings, and eschewing chill-filtration and the addition of coloring agents. Kilchoman promises to be one of the best craft single malt Scotches when it reaches a competitive age.
Kilchoman USA Small Batch No. 4
48.1% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $80 - $100
Acquired: (50ml sample bottle) From a Flaviar Tasting Box

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    • They have a dizzying array of products and I haven’t sampled very many of them, so I can’t give you an absolute answer. I’m a fan of Machir Bay because it’s a good price-quality ratio and quite reliable. The “100% Islay” expressions are more expensive, but I can’t say they’re all worth the bottle price, as I’ve only had a few of them. They’re good, but I’m not sure they’re $125 good. Loch Gorm is supposed to be the “step up” from Machir Bay, but I haven’t tried it yet. Cheers!

  • Islay whisky is a funny thing in that it everyone seems to respond to it differently. I’m relatively sure I can pick out Ardbeg or Laphroaig, but I can’t distinguish Lagavulin from Caol Ila. That being said I’ve never had Kilchoman for some reason. In your opinion which is the best expression to start out with?

    • I would say Machir Bay, because it’s the most available and (maybe?) the cheapest. Some of the ex-bourbon releases would be more “pure” Kilchoman, but Machir Bay is perhaps the best introduction.

      • Thanks I will give it a try. I can pretty much get Machir Bay and Sanaig at any time. I feel like every distillery has an introductory expression. That is always where I like to start, and that is what I’m looking for here.

  • Sorry to hear about letting 700ml bottles in the USA, same price less product, like Tide and other consumer products. won’t take long.

    • I understand the sentiment, but I’d much rather have access to hundreds more products than I had access to before, than 50ml of liquid. Note that it’s not like bottles started out at 750ml in Europe and then got downsized to 700ml to save money… the US invented the 750ml bottle size despite nobody else on the planet using it, and then for decades insisted that the rest of the world conform if they wanted to sell bottles here. Most companies do so by running separate bottling lines and making US-only labels… but they don’t bother for a lot of the lower-volume (single barrel, limited edition, etc.) stuff. Look at Diageo’s Flora and Fauna releases, as well as many of their limited editions. Now, we can import them. I call that a win.

      • I’m with you on this Mr. Noob. One of my favorite splurge purchases every year is Springbank 12 year cask strength. They release two batches a year, but only the second one is ever put into 750ml bottles and shipped here. I would be thrilled to get my hands on both batches every year if they choose to do so, as well as countless other special editions that could be made available. I would even venture to guess that this could make many core distillery expressions more available. I consider this a huge win that should have happened years ago. In my opinion 500ml bottles should be next.

  • I can state from experience that the USA Small Batch No 2 (which is 70% bourbon 25% madeira, 5% sherry) also has almost no madeira or sherry influence whatsoever. With a little water, you get hints and glints of it, perhaps, but mostly it tastes like Machir Bay with more citrus and some brown sugar tossed in. I was baffled. Glad to see another review that agrees with me! Definitely not recommended over the normal Machir Bay.