I’ve been dancing around Kilchoman expressions for a couple of years, ever since they made a splash in South Africa and were finally made available for tasting at whisky shows.
Kilchoman is the independent and optimistic newcomer to the island of Islay, a fresh face among the 8 distilleries that have been there since the world was new. They spent little time fannying about before they were consistently producing seriously high quality stuff, their single casks releases in particular never failing to impress despite their relative youth. Their core expressions cover a range of maturations, but all moderately to heavily peated in true Islay style.
They are also gloriously transparent, humble as hell and the next best thing to Bruichladdich for a chilled out trip to Islay. In addition, their website doesn’t nag you to enter your age – a real breath of fresh air!
So let’s talk STR – Shaved, Toasted and Roasted (or “re-charred”). Essentially, Kilchoman STR is the product of taking some of their delicious, heavily peated whisky and allowing it to mature in about 40 drippy red wine casks which have undergone their STR process:
The liquid sat in those reactive casks for full 7 years. Woah.
What’s unclear is whether Kilchoman STR is the product of exclusive maturation in these casks or if they were used as an additional treatment after the spirit was initially matured in some standard bourbon wood or the like. Regardless, and while the process they put those casks through is not entirely unique, I’m immediately getting some Compass Box Spice Tree vibes with their emphasis (and honesty) about getting highly experimental with a specific batch of barrels.
My “drippy cask radar” was on high alert. However, we get it served up in true Islay style – a sweet 50% ABV and all natural. Onward, towards destiny:
Yoh. Okay. Right. Let’s run through a couple of things I noticed about myself from the first whiff onwards:
- Involuntary eye closure
- Broad, dumb grin
- Eyebrows raised in wonderment
- Mild, whispered swearing
As for the whisky? Islay peat smoke, heavy and dense. But not too grassy – more seaside and salty, tickling some fond Talisker memories. In fact plenty of salt all around, if you include the tears that made it into the glass. A strong nose of maple syrup, cherries. A little banana. Marmalade. Almonds. Perfume – a kind of jasmine potpourri thing going on (do they still make that stuff?) Some leather, cracked pepper, paprika.
It took me a little while to realise that the ringing in my ears was not, in fact, the second coming of the Messiah and was just my brain being turned to sensory mush. Go figure. They should probably warn people about this on the label alongside the pregnancy stuff.
Kilchoman STR is unlike any other whisky you’ve ever tasted. Of course it’s an almost classic Islay dram at its core. Of course there’s some drippy sherry/wine stuff happening here. Of course it’s hot, at 50%. But the whole combination produces flavours I have simply never experienced in well over 400 sampled whiskies. As such, it’s fiendishly difficult to describe.
It goes without saying that it’s absolutely, ridiculously, insanely tasty. The peat is heavy, but doesn’t present like a peat monster… In the exact same way that Octomore is super peated on paper but relatively soft on the palate. Feels lighter than Caol Ila, particularly because there’s a lot of other… stuff… that balances it out.
It’s helluva meaty – pork! – and really does taste a little like marinade, kebabs, braai meat. Chewy as heck. Spicy as well, reminds me of The Macallan Edition 2 – a kind of spicy “heat”, chillis and curry powder. Nothing that screams “sherry” immediately – there are definitely some of those darker, fruitier flavours, but so carefully blended in that it doesn’t pop out (for contrast, see my recent review of Talisker Distiller’s Edition). Not paricularly sweet, but just enough to offset the malt bitterness.
Speaking of which, despite the peat and the casks and the… and the everything, you can still taste the Kilchoman – oily, cereal malt made so distinct in both Machir Bay and Sanaig. It’s just…
Woah, scary – the fear of putting water in this was very real. This is my only bottle of STR, which sold out hauntingly fast here in South Africa. Every drop counts. Nevertheless…
SMASH IT ON ICE, BABY! Our boy STR is a championship swimmer, and gives you the flexibility to go either way. The peat takes the first hit, but the experience doesn’t suffer – it’s more fruity, floral and even more oily with the ABV taken down a little. Versatility abounds.
Hoooooly moly. The texture, the taste… it’s just… Sigh. Words. Words fail. Kilchoman STR stays on the palate all evening, a heavy smoky, salted pork.
As I sit here typing I find myself struggling between keeping it cool – chilled out, pretending to be some experienced whisky snob to whom drinking world class whisky ain’t a thing – and shouting it from the rooftops, perhaps some flowery prose to describe the whisky in intricate detail, some clever analogy to make my feelings well understood.
I think back to Highland Park 25 – a miniature I cracked open on a birthday years ago. For the longest time I thought nothing could beat that experience. I was sitting on my balcony without a care in the world, eyes closed, slowly soaking up the glass while feeling just so incredibly lucky that I got to try a whisky that brilliant. It was a profound moment in my whisky journey. I remember thinking I’d give it a score of 9.5 “just in case” – but more than likely, would have to bump it up to 10 if a successor couldn’t be found.
The setting in which I tried Kilchoman STR for the first time was far less romantic. It was at the tail end of a heavy whisky tasting session, the bottle produced by a fellow whisky nerd and promptly cracked open with clumsy fingers and passed around with slurred thanks and red noses. There’s a good chance plenty of it was spilled while pouring. The silence that descended over those of us who raised Glencairn glasses that evening was deafening. Then all of a sudden, it got very, very loud – tipsy whisky buddies desperate to share the revelation.
My suspicions were later repeatedly confirmed, after a few more drams (and a little more sobriety!) the conclusion was obvious.
Kilchoman STR is the best whisky I’ve ever had. Kilchoman STR is likely the best whisky ever made. On every level. The most expertly crafted, most unique, the most indescribably delicious and at a price that should make most other top-tier whiskies ashamed.
If you enjoy whisky, if you’re the kind of person who likes trying new expressions, if you buy a bottle from time to time – you owe it to yourself to add Kilchoman STR to your bucket list. If you can’t get a bottle where you live, then add “a trip to Islay to try Kilchoman STR” to your bucket list instead 🙂 Buy, buy, buy – and try before you die!