Kilchoman do more than their fair share of playing around with cask maturation and finishing, most commonly in their annual releases such as the recent Port cask and Sauternes Cask Finish, and their single cask bottlings. Their Feis Ile bottlings are often more experimental, and of course are much harder to find. These one-off bottlings (for the annual Islay festival) are some of the hardest to source of all the Islay distilleries, which is largely down to the small number of bottles released and the ever-increasing popularity of this brilliant little distillery. This Feis Ile bottling from 2014 would have to be one of the most unusual cask finishes that they've released to date, where two ex-bourbon casks at around 4.5 years of age were then filled into a single Fino sherry butt (500-litre cask) for three months. A three month finishing may not sound like much, particularly in a 500-litre cask, and it isn't really. But with the quality of casks that Kilchoman are using it's bound to have had an effect. Fino sherry casks are still very seldom seen in the Scotch whisky world, particularly in heavily peated whisky, with only a few distilleries dabbling in their use. You could point at Laphroaig's 2018 Cairdeas bottling as the most high-profile Fino finish to date, but Islay's smallest distillery - and its only farm distillery - lead the way four years ago back in early 2014.
Fino, which is Spanish for "refined", is the driest style of sherry with almost zero sugar content (less than 0.5%), and it must be aged for a minimum of two years in wooden casks. The casks are only filled to around 80% to allow the natural 'flor' yeast layer to form on top of the wine, which protects it from oxygen contact and consumes most of the residual sugars and also some of the ethanol in the wine. Fino sherries are pale, dry and delicate fortified wines with a yeasty, salty, nutty flavour, and they are very fragile once bottled since that protective flor layer is filtered out prior to bottling. They also oxidise very quickly once opened. I imagine this would make using the emptied casks a little challenging since they would need to be kept extremely fresh, which is probably part of the reason that we don't see too many Fino casks used in the whisky industry. Which is also why it was seldom shipped in casks traditionally, making those casks much harder to come by in Scotland in comparison with other sherry styles. In 1981 the Spanish regulations were altered and sherry could no longer be shipped in casks, resulting in the scarcity and increased cost of 'traditional' sherry casks that we still deal with today, and also the more recent advent of sherry-seasoned casks that are destined for the whisky industry from day one.
Finding any older Feis Ile bottling is no easy task, let alone a very small-scale bottling from a small-scale but popular distillery. The sample for this review came from a generous fellow-Kilchoman fan who purchased the bottle at overseas auction, and while it wasn't exactly cheap it was definitely on the reasonable side considering its scarcity. Only 525 bottles were released at a cask strength of 58.7%, and of course there's no chill filtration or added colouring since Kilchoman never dabble in those dark arts. One interesting observation here is that they haven't labelled this bottling as a single cask, because it came from two bourbon barrels which were then combined in the single sherry butt for the short finishing. Technically that finishing in a single cask would make this a single cask bottling, and quite a few other distilleries have been known to use the term in such cases, so it's interesting that Kilchoman haven't. I'd assume that's for the sake of extra transparency, which of course is no bad thing! Being a lighter style of sherry means the sherry cask won't have had as much of an effect as an Oloroso or PX cask would, but Kilchoman's sweet, peaty & fruity young spirit should work very well the Fino cask. There's really only one way to find out...
Kilchoman Feis Ile 2014, 4 Year Old, 58.7%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled July 2009, matured for 4.5 years in two ex-bourbon casks, finished in a single Fino sherry butt for 3 months, bottled May 2014. 525 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Colour: Yellow gold.
Nose: Fresh & coastal, but also sweet & creamy. Nose-tingling to start with but settles down quite quickly. Chunky, earth peat with a big pinch of salt, some warm roasted nuts and lightly-sweetened fresh cream. Some meaty fresh seaweed, and a little yeasty tang behind like a slice of crusty sour dough bread. Some lighter tropical fruit in the background.
Texture: Medium-heavy weight, rich & full flavoured. Creamy, peaty and syrupy. A little heat but pleasant.
Taste: Sweet creamy entry, then tropical fruit syrup, milk chocolate and a blast of chunky, earthy peat with a big pinch of hot chilli salt following afterwards. A slight floral sweetness and some fresh bitter lemon around the edges.
Finish: Long, and quite bold. Thick acrid smoke, more chilli salt, some more zesty bitter lemon and melted milk chocolate. More roasted nuts, mostly almond with a few cashews and chalky walnuts thrown in. Smoked chilli salt, brine and some drying bitter oak to finish.
Score: 4 out of 5.
Notes: Delicious! It's not shy, and there is a slight roughness to it, but that only adds to its character. A really excellent texture / mouth feel to this one, it's very rich and syrupy despite that peat and chilli spice. In fact it's one of the weightier Kilchomans that I've tasted, and it carries plenty of flavour along with it. Very much like tropical fruit syrup with some heavily smoked chilli salt mixed through. Those nutty and yeasty notes would be down to the Fino cask, and it's given Kilchoman's usual salty tang a good boost as well, while dampening the usual fruity-ness a touch. Kilchoman really excel at making young peaty whiskies that drink well beyond their years. And more power to them!
This is a fresh and zesty young whisky that won't take any prisoners, but in the company of cask strength Islay fans it won't have any trouble making friends either. I think we need to see more heavily peated whisky that has spent some time in lighter & dryer sherry casks, because it really seems to work brilliantly. Look at Ardbeg Ardbog (partly matured in Manzanilla casks), Laphroaig Cairdeas Fino, Ledaig Amontillado, and now this Feis Ile Kilchoman (if you can find it) for some truly excellent examples.