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As part of our ‘Soil to Shelf’ series, focussing on the individual wineries and distilleries that Pol Roger Portfolio represent in the UK, we are delighted to present the latest in the series, highlighting the unique challenges faced by Kilchoman producing Single Malt Whisky on the island of Islay.

Established in 2005 by the Wills family, Kilchoman (pronounced Kilho-man) is one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland.  Based on a farm on the rugged west coast of Islay, Kilchoman is the first distillery to be built on the Island for 125 years.  Kilchoman gives everyone the chance to see what is best about the grass-roots traditions of malt distilling.

As one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland (with an annual production of approximately 120,000 litres of alcohol) Kilchoman is one of only six distilleries to carry out traditional floor maltings. However, the key difference at Kilchoman is that they produce a Malt, 100% Islay, made using barley which is all grown on their farm.

 April is well known as a time of fluctuating weather, from torrential rain to the first glimmer of sunshine and the promise of summer on the horizon.  Nowhere is this better felt than on the west coast of Scotland; the unforgiving climate can dash hopes just as much as it can surprise with its bright days and longer evenings.  Irrespective of the weather, visitors cannot fail to be stunned by the elemental beauty of the island; stretches of picture-perfect beaches remain one of Islay’s closely guarded secrets, with Kilchoman’s famous ‘Machir bay’ duly named after one of these special hideaways.

The Wills family oversee farming of 2,322 acres at Rockside Farm, of which only some 160 acres are suitable for growing barley and 1,738 is hill ground; working the natural environment for a commercial return is not for the faint hearted nor ‘soft of hand’.

This year they are planting c. 100 acres of barley, however due to the very wet winter and consequent poor ground conditions, coupled with the colder weather which inhibits seed germination, they have not started ploughing yet. They hope to start within the next week and complete the planting within the next 10 – 14 days, which ought to coincide with the geese leaving the island.

Islay Heads, the family’s Estate/Farm Manager, is not only the bearer of a remarkably apt name, but also keenly aware of his homeland and how it needs to be managed, remaining in tune with all of the surprises nature throws its way, as well as the migratory patterns of some of their annual visitors.  

 “Islay is an important wintering ground for the Greenland barnacle goose and the Greenland white-fronted goose. Every year, in October/ November around 45,000 geese flock to the island and remain here until mid-April. The geese graze on grass and cause a large amount of damage as they tend to pull the root of the grass out and they “puddle” in any wet areas which can create a lot of muddy areas within fields, which take time to recover. This results in several problems. Firstly, the grass that should be there for the for sheep lambing in March and April, is not as good as it could be due to the pressure caused by grazing geese. Therefore, at Rockside Farm, we do not start lambing until c. 17th April to ensure that the geese have gone and the sheep get all the available grass which they need to produce milk for the lambs and to put condition back on after lambing. Secondly, the presence of the geese also stops us from planting barley much before mid-April as the geese will eat the shoots that emerge, and will also eat the barley seed out of the ground. This delay in planting usually results in a later harvest than we would like, typically falling around late August to early September, when the days are starting to draw in and therefore the window for harvest is short; when an opportunity presents itself, it needs to be taken. The financial risks for growing barley are considerable, because all costs are paid at the time of planting, and there is a total reliance on the weather for the crop. Which begs the question, why bother putting everyone under such pressure? Just taste a dram of Kilchoman 100% Islay and it makes all the worry and risk worthwhile!”

Kilchoman is no ordinary distillery; it is a farm distillery. What it lacks in age, it more than makes up in blood, sweat, anticipation and toil in order to make a truly special Single Malt, from barley to bottle, Soil to Shelf.