Kilchoman's 'Original Cask Strength' series first launched in 2014, with a limited release of 9,000 bottles of 4-5 year old ex-bourbon cask whisky, weighing in at a cask strength (duh) of 59.2% ABV. This is the second release in the series, with 12,000 bottles released in 2016, and it's a 6-year old ex-bourbon cask whisky, weighing in at 56.9% ABV. But the crucial difference here is the size of those ex-bourbon casks. Rather than being the usual 200-litre ex-bourbon barrels, this expression was fully matured in 125-litre 'quarter casks'. The name refers to them being a quarter of the size of a traditional 500-litre sherry butt. Made famous by Laphroaig's aptly named 'Quarter Cask' expression, what these 125-litre casks do is give the maturing spirit more wood contact, so there's more oak and cask influence imparted in a shorter amount of time than what you would get from full-sized casks.
Note however that Laphroaig's Quarter Cask is only finished in the smaller casks for around 7 months after previous maturation in full-sized casks, whereas this Kilchoman has been fully-matured in the smaller casks, which is still quite an uncommon practice in Scotch whisky. The reason for this is that full-term maturation in the smaller casks can give a little too much oak influence, which is not always desirable, and it can also reduce the level of peaty intensity that is left in the finished whisky. But with Kilchoman generally bottling at a younger age than most, and since they've bottled this expression at cask strength, that shouldn't be much of an issue here. The barley in this release came from Port Ellen Maltings, not the distillery's own floor-maltings (only the 100% Islay bottlings are distilled from the in-house barley), so it was peated to an Ardbeg-spec 55 ppm, which should mean that there's plenty of peat left in this 6-year old whisky.
Relatively tiny Kilchoman (more details here) aren't at all afraid of trying something different, and since becoming the "new kid on the block" on Islay in 2005 they've been kicking some serious goals. From bottling a 3-year old whisky that was fully-matured in Port casks (which was absolutely delicious), to full-term maturation in Sauternes and Madeira wine casks, the distillery is certainly open to new ideas. Of course being the young up-start on the island that is Scotland's whisky mecca probably necessitates doing things a little differently, rather than just sticking to the status quo. Which includes everything being bottled without chill filtration or added colouring, and often with both the year of distillation and the year of bottling printed on the labels. Great stuff Kilchoman!
Kilchoman Original Cask Strength 2016, 56.9%. Islay, Scotland.
Distilled 2010, bottled 2016. Fully matured in 125-litre ex-bourbon quarter casks. 12,000 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Colour: Medium gold.
Nose: Fresh & light, quite sweet and fruity, and a little spirit-y. Quite coastal as well, salty sea air and dry old driftwood. Lots of sweet citrus - sweet lemon drops and a little lime juice. Some vanilla bean too, and something a little vegetal, almost sweet potato chips.
Texture: Medium-heavy weight, thick & voluptuous, but a little hot as well.
Taste: Sweet caramel and earthy, dry peat. Some natural licorice and some warm sweet oak. A little alcohol heat here, but it's on the edges and isn't dominant. Vanilla icing with a hint of lemon.
Finish: Medium length. A little more smoke here but it's still quite subtle compared to other Kilchoman expressions. More licorice, but it's turned bitter now, and the oak is leaning that way too. A little earthy peat and vanilla finishes things off.
Score: 3 out of 5.
Notes: A nice drop that improves with more time in the glass, but it's a little hot, not particularly complex or different, and the peat is a little muted. I expected the latter from the smaller quarter cask maturation, but not so much the former. There's a great texture on this one though despite that surprising touch of spirit-y heat.
I applaud Kilchoman for doing something different with this bottling, but I have to say I preferred the original cask strength bottling from 2014 that was matured in full-sized casks. It was a young beast as well, but somehow it seemed a little more tame and a little more engaging. Nonetheless, you can't really go wrong with any cask strength Kilchoman. They're such a great distillery that are producing vibrant young whiskies that easily compete with much older fellow Islays.
Kilchoman have recently announced some expansion plans as well, looking to double production by the end of 2018. There's a new larger malt floor and kiln that is due to be fired up soon, if it hasn't already, which will work in tandem with the existing malt floor and will double the amount of floor-malted barley that the distillery can produce. There'll also be a new still house, with a new pair of stills, a new mash tun and six new wooden washbacks, all to the same specifications of the existing equipment, and there'll be more warehouses constructed as well. Which can only be a good thing, and is a good sign of the distillery's success and their confidence in the future.