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Kilchoman’s lessons for whisky start-ups

  • In December 2005, when spirit first ran from the stills at Kilchoman, it became Islay’s eighth working distillery, and the first new one in about 120 years. Now there are plans, at various stages of development, for at least three more.

    It’s a picture repeated across Scotland, around the world. We live in an era of whisky renaissance, where anyone with a dream and a beneficent investor can become a distiller. Exciting – but risky – times.

    Anthony Wills had a dream when he drew up plans for Kilchoman soon after the millennium. Fast-forward to the distillery’s open day at this year’s Fèis Ìle, when long queues for the superb festival bottling snaked out of the shop and into the grounds, and you might think that the previous decade or so had been one long upward curve. Far from it.

    ‘I never imagined that within 10 years of starting this distillery we would be where we are now,’ an emotional Wills told a Fèis masterclass audience. ‘My dream was to start a distillery and put [the whisky] on the market at a relatively young age.’

    Events conspired to fuel his early doubts. The need to raise more cash, the falling-out with the adjacent landowner, the fire that put the maltings out of commission for a year… The burst pipes, the temperamental boilers… Things go wrong at distilleries, particularly new distilleries, and they’re generally not cheap or easy to fix.

    All valuable lessons for any wannabe whisky-maker. Wills has previously said that, if you think you need £5m in funding, you really need £10m. But things can go right, as well as wrong.

    Kilchoman stoppers

    Uniquely Islay: Kilchoman has had its ups and downs over the past decade and more

    Kilchoman bought the adjacent farm in November last year, ending those rows over the garden fence. Controlling the land means the business can plant more barley for its flagship 100% Islay product – 150 tons this year, up from 100 tons previously – and there are plans for a new malting floor and kiln to be operational by next spring. Total production will be close to 200,000 litres this year; in 2006, it was just 50,000 litres.

    Through all of these ups and downs, the central message of the spirit – created and reinforced by Jim Swan and the late John MacLellan – has remained constant. Small stills, narrow neck to the spirit still, ploughing cash into cask sourcing and letting top-quality wood work its magic.

    And it’s paid off. That exuberant young spirit has shaken off its puppy fat and become something richer and more complex, even in less than a decade: this year’s outstanding Fèis bottling is well under nine years old, and cask samples suggest it is no one-off.

    That, in turn, has given Wills a dilemma: what to release and what to hold on to. ‘We will keep stock back for older bottlings,’ he promises. ‘That’s crucial to the long-term future of the distillery.’

    That said, he doesn’t see Kilchoman releasing a 25- or 30-year-old bottling in the 2030s, reckoning that sweet, floral spirit will hit its peak somewhere between eight and 14 years. I’m not so sure he’s right, but it’ll be fun finding out.

    Wills reckons he could write a book on what not to do when building a distillery which, by its nature, would also be a valuable guide on how to do it right. Part cautionary tale and part inspiration, the Kilchoman self-help manual ought be a best-seller among the emerging new generation of whisky-makers.

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