Kilchoman Distillery Tour and Machir Bay

The current Kilchoman range

I thought I’d give you a virtual tour of Kilchoman distillery first of all and then follow this up with a review of the Kilchoman 100% 5th Limited Edition expression.

As mentioned in Part 1, my wife and I took a tour around the south west of Islay visiting Portnahaven. We got back to our flat and had a quick lunch and then it was off to our Kilchoman tour scheduled for 2:00pm.

Kilchoman is (for the moment at least) the newest and smallest distillery on the Islay. It is owned by husband and wife team, Kathy and Anthony Wills who founded the distillery in 2005. To give you an idea of the scale of production, Kilchoman distills the same amount of new spirit in a year that Caol Ila produces in a single week.

From our rented accommodation in Port Charlotte, we drove a few minutes up the A847 passing through Bruichladdich and turned left onto the tiny B8018 road. 
You follow the winding road a few miles until you see the little signpost in blue reading “Rockside Farm Kilchoman Distillery” on your left. A minutes’ drive and you arrive in the farm and distillery car park.

A word of advice. When visiting Kilchoman, please leave enough daylight time to visit Machir Bay on your way back (or go there for a lunch picnic beforehand). It is simply “a must”! From the distillery, you head back to the B8018 but make a left and carry on going until you reach a tiny beach road full of potholes. Drive slowly right to the end where there is a car park.

Machir Bay Left
Machir Bay Middle
Machir Bay Right
Kathy and Anthony named their main bottling (made up of 80% Ex-Bourbon, 20% Ex-Sherry casks) “Machir Bay”. I got chatting with her and she told us that we just had to visit the beach there before we headed back. She said that she often walks her dog across Machir Bay to relax. I can well understand why.
We took some biscuits and a flask of coffee from the car and headed for a wooden bridge over the sand dunes and out onto the beach. We were all alone. The water was bright blue. We sat there with our cups of coffee in silence, soaking up the scenery until it started getting dark. A perfect end to a perfect day.
Anyway,  back to the distillery tour:
The Farm Entrance
We had booked the Premium tour for 2:00pm.
From their Site:

Premium Tour - An in depth tour with one of our senior tour guides, which includes a tutored tasting in our tasting room of the full range of Kilchoman expressions available at the time of your visit (90 minutes).

I can tell you that without doubt, it was the by far the best distillery tour I have ever been on and worth every penny. Even if you are not that keen on Kilchoman whisky, it is a must do tour. The way the tour is organised, the knowledge and patience of the tour guides, the physical layout of the distillery itself which will give you the best introduction as to how single malt whisky is produced and the tasting room tutorial at the end, all add up to a magnificent experience.

Incidentally, Kilchoman has produced the most ingenious video explaining in really clear but accurate terms how the complicated procedure of producing single malt whisky is carried out.
For those who want to understand the complete process in a nutshell need look no further than this Video:

The Reception area and Distillery shop is to the right.

We had actually arrived a few minutes early so we sat outside enjoying the heavy sweet smells of new distilled spirit and peat smoke.

We entered the reception area through the farm, surrounded by casks of various sizes and a huge metal tank of peat on the left. In fact, there were chunks of peat everywhere including all over the floor.

From the store, our guide led us first to the very impressive malting floor where the barley, fresh from the fields surrounding the farm, was neatly laid out.

Our guide for today was Leah. (On Islay, Biblical names are very popular).

The barley in placed in the Steeping tank (left) where it soaks for a couple of days. The soaked barley is then laid out on the malting floor.

The barley sits and is malted on the malting floor (above) for 5 days, being raked and turned every day.

The malting barley has grown shoots and is slowly germinating, breaking down all the starches and proteins and turning the grain into sweet malt. At this stage it is called "green malt".

The green malt tastes similar to a soggy chewy breakfast cereal. It is quite pleasant.
Next the barley is laid out on the drying floor, directly above the kiln oven. (See photo below). The kiln at Kilchoman is heated by Kilchoman peat. The peat, cut from the nearby peat bog, close to Machir Bay, has been carefully dried out over a period of months and stored until it is used. However, just before it is actually used they soak the peat in water for a few hours in order to produce lots of peat smoke. The oven is filled with the wet peat and lit.

The rising hot air and smoke slowly dries the barley above. This will stop the malting process and seal in all those sugars and starches. While this is going on, the barley is being impregnated by the peat smoke. This peat flavour and smell is carried through to the final product to produce that peaty whisky style we all know and love.

The oven kiln
Kilchoman Peat

After drying, the barley is brought to the still house where it is poured into the Mill to be grounded up. Some of the barley is ground up into granules, known as the grist. The rest is put through the mill to make malted flour.

We walked up the stairs passing the stills to our right (more about later), turning left past the Mash Tun (more on this below) to first be shown the Flour Mill.

The malted barley is fed into the Mill which produces both grist and flour. Grist has the consistency of granules or oat flakes.

A combination of grist and flour is poured into the Mash tun.

Hot water is added in three stages to produce a porridge concoction called "mash".
First at 68 degrees celsius, then more water at a temperature of 80 degrees is added and lastly water at almost boiling point (90 degrees celsius) is added.
By the way, it is at this point where the PPM figure is calculated.  How many "parts per million" of peat particles are contained in the Mash Tun "porridge" determines the whisky's final PPM value. Depending upon the expression, Kilchoman produce whiskies with between 30 PPM (similar to Bowmore or Caol Ila) and up to 50 PPM (slightly more than Ardbeg).

The mash is stirred in the mashing tun for around 70 hours until it is transferred to the Washbacks.

Sticking your head in the The Mash Tun is similer to sticking your head in a huge hot porridge bowl or a large mug of Horlicks drink.

After 2-3 days, the mash is transferred to the stainless steel washbacks. It is at this stage that the yeast is added. A 20kg bag of Mauri Distillers Yeast per wash back is poured into the mash and the mixture is left to cool and ferment. Fermentation time is around 100 hours. Eventually you end up with a sweet frothy peaty barley beer at an alcohol level of around 7% abv, known as "Wort".

Leah dipped a long metal container into the wash backs and brought out some wort for us to try. I had already tasted wort at quite a few other distilleries such as Laphroaig and Lagavulin which were all warm in temperature. To my surprise, Kilchoman's wort is cold!

After around four days, the wash is transferred through pipes to the Wash Still to begin the process of distillation.

The Kilchoman Wash Still
A look inside:

The pipes you see in the photo below are the heating elements like a large Shabbat kettle. Originally the stills were heated by direct peat or coal fire below. Today, most stills have these inside heating elements.

The wash is heated to such a temperature that it eventually evaperates up the copper still as steam. It runs down the lyne arm and through the condensers.

The Wash Still showing the lyne arm above which connects to the condenser below.
The condensers at Kilchoman are of the "Shell and Tube" type which consist of a copper tube with cold flowing water.  This acts to cool down the vapours, turning them back into liquid. This produces around a 1000 litres of "first distilled" malted barley called the "low wines" or first feints. This has an alcohol level of 20% ABV.

The low wines, now in liquid form, flow from the condenser into the spirit safe where they are sampled. The spirit safe funnels the feints into the second still called the "Spirit Still" where the liquid is distilled a second time.

The Spirit Still

The steam vapours flow up to the spirit still's lyne arm where they pour down into the spirit still's condenser where the vapours are cooled again back into liquid and pours back into the spirit safe as pure clear new spirit.

The two copper condensers

The Spirit Safe

The clear new spirit is now at about 70% abv!!! We got to taste this straight out of the Safe. Surprisingly it was very tasty. Obviously it needed a bit of water to dilute it but it had a lovely fresh oily citrus fruity taste which reminded me very much of  Israeli Jonathan Tishbi Brandy we bought once for Pesach.

The new clear spirit is pumped across the courtyard through an underground pipe and into the filling room where it is reduced to 63.4% abv and filled into the casks. The casks are then transferred to their traditional "three stack" dunnage warehouse for maturation. It is here, sitting in the wood, where the whisky will gain its yellow honey colour. Actually, the colour is transferred to the spirit after only a few months if the casks are of a good quality.

As mentioned earlier, Kilchoman want to do everything themselves including bottling and distribution, all on site. This is their impressive bottling and packing plant, right next to the still house.

Leah informed me that this was in fact the only computer they had at the distillery, used to run a stock/delivery system.

No one could fail to be impressed by Kilchoman distillery and as mentioned earlier, it is the very best place to quickly learn how distilling is done at every stage and grasp all the basic concepts as Kilchoman do everything on site from the barley in the fields to the distillation to the maturation in the warehouses to the packing of the bottles. A truly remarkable feet. The big question is, does all this translate into descent whisky? See my next blog - a review of their five year old "100% Islay".


  1. fascinating photos and story. I love Kilchoman product. It is a bit pricey but they are putting out excellent whisky. Thanks for transporting me to Islay even if it was virtually. Cheers - Greg

    1. You are very very welcome Greg. Thank you for your kind words. Of course this was written a few years ago now. Kilchoman is a bit different today with a new second still house and other expansions. I think the price depends on where you live. Here in Israel where almost all single malt prices are around 50% more than they are in London, Kilchoman is slightly cheaper here than the UK. Go figure?


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