Monday, December 9, 2013

Scotland 2013: Bruichladdich and Kilchoman Distillery Tours & Ballygrant

What was supposed to be one of the best days of my trip instead turned into one of the worst.

I'm not exactly sure what happened, but I think I got some kind of food poisoning. This resulted in a miserable, mostly sleepless night as my GI tract twisted itself in knots. By morning, I felt terrible and could barely get myself to eat anything for breakfast.

However, I was just well enough to wander a few hundred meters down the road to the Bruichladdich distillery for the tour I had scheduled.

I was just holding it together by the time the tour started. Becky led us off to the building where Bruichladdich's malt is stored and processed. As with most distilleries, Bruichladdich buys most of its malt from a commercial malster, in this case Bairds in Inverness. Smaller quantities of organic malt are purchased from Orkney and even smaller quantities are purchased from local farms for their Islay Barley series.

After milling the barley in a fairly standard fashion, Bruichladdich adds the grist to their cast iron mash tun. It is one of the few left in operation and has some wicked looking rakes inside.

The mash is then fermented in Oregon pine washbacks for a fairly long 72 hours to give wash at ~7% ABV, a little under the usual strength. They use two different strains of yeast, K and M, which have shorter and longer fermentation times, respectively. Bruichladdich doesn't fill its washbacks very high - only 36K liters of the 45K liter capacity is used, which means that they don't need switchers since there is little threat of them bubbling over during fermentation. Somewhat like Bowmore, the washback room smelled kind of like maple syrup.

Bruichladdich has two pairs of stills. Each washback contains enough liquid for three wash still charges, filling each still to 69% of its capacity. The wash stills are fairly plain, with slightly descending lyne arms, which should give a moderately neutral profile, though their height will increase the lightness of the spirit a bit. The low wines are then transferred to the spirit stills, which are roughly the same height but have much more narrow necks, which should increase reflux significantly.

Wash stills on the left, spirit stills on the right, stillman in the middle for scale
The wash still spirit safe with temperature and pressure gauges 
The underside of the wash still, which would have contained a coal-fired burner before the advent of steam coils
One peculiar feature of the still room was the gin still off in the corner. Named "Ugly Betty", it's an old Lomond still that has been repurposed for making Bruichladdich's Botanist gin. However, it's only been fired up four times since it was installed - each run produces enough spirit for a quarter of a million bottles of gin.

From the still room we went into one of the bonded warehouses. The ground floor was dunnage, with more storage up on a second floor. It was fascinating to see the variety of casks Bruichladdich keeps on site.
Spanish wine barrels below tiny experimental casks
Basic ex-bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace
Biodynamic wine casks
Bordeaux wine casks 
Port Charlotte casks
Sadly I had to pass up a sample of Octomore aged in ex-sauternes casks that was handed down from the floor above - my stomach just wasn't up to it at that point. This was a shame, since I had been hankering to try Bruichladdich's Octomore Comus release, which was the same idea - heavily peated whisky aged in ex-sauternes casks.

We passed briefly back outside before heading over to the bottling hall. Bruichladdich is one of two distilleries on Islay that does its own bottling. It's a fairly labor-intensive process, though 'Laddie appears to be a bit up the scale compared to Springbank and Kilchoman.

The tour ended back in the visitor center, where we were offered samples of a few different whiskies. I tried a bit of the Laddie 10, to see how it compared to my bottle. It had the same acrid peat reek, but I was also not in top form that day, so it wasn't definitive either.

What really chaffed about being sick was that I had scheduled myself for a warehouse tasting after the tour. However, my stomach still wasn't feeling right, so I decided that it was better to be safe than sorry.

I stumbled back out into the sunshine around a bit before noon and walked to the B&B. It was really frustrating to feel so miserable on such a glorious day.

At this point I was faced with a dilemma. I had a tour at Kilchoman scheduled for 3 PM, which meant that there was theoretically more than enough time to pack up and ride there. However, I still wasn't feeling up to food at that point, so I'd have to push myself pretty hard just to get there. Complicating matters, I also needed to get to Ballygrant by the end of the day, as I was only staying in Bruichladdich for one night. So the question was whether I wanted to soldier on and see Kilchoman or play it safe and head straight for Ballygrant.

Being the stubborn person that I am, I decided to go to Kilchman and hope for the best. So I packed up, settled my bill, and (slowly) set off down the road.

It was only a few miles along Loch Indaal before I hung a left turn onto the B road heading west towards Kilchoman and Loch Gorm. While the road wasn't too bad and the traffic was surprisingly light, the terrain was rolling, which made it relatively hard going. Thankfully I only had a handful of miles to cover and the scenery was absolutely gorgeous.

To complicate matters, the last stretch to get to Kilchoman is actually a rocky dirt road. I was actually able to ride it instead of having to walk, but it was a close-run thing. By the time I finally rolled up to the visitors center, I was at whatever stage comes after running on fumes - it was a wonder I didn't actually pass out.

I had made fairly good time, so I actually had more than an hour wait before the tour started. Thankfully Kilchoman also has a decent cafe in their visitor center, which meant that I had time to refuel before the tour. My stomach had finally settled down enough that the prospect of food was finally attractive again. However, I had also reached the point where I was so tired that eating actually seemed like more effort than I could muster. I (very) slowly ate a sandwich and drank a Coke, which went a long way towards making me feel human again.

Eventually the tour began and Rebecca led us to the malt barn. Kilchoman had already produced enough malt to keep them going for a while, so the space was being used as general storage when we were there. When they are processing barley, each batch is roughly one ton and they do two maltings a week.

Kilchoman, like most of the distilleries on the island, sources most of its malted barley from Port Ellen. This barley is peated to a rather high 50 PPM. The other 30% is produced at the distillery from barley grown on their own farm. This is peated to a much more gentle 20-25 PPM. The local barley is kept separate from the PE malt, for use in their 100% Islay expressions. Rebecca also mentioned that Kilchoman is starting to experiment with unpeated malt, which I'll be quite interested to try if the whisky ever sees the light of day.

Because of the small quantities of malt Kilchoman produces at the distillery, that bucket in the lower left hand corner of the picture is enough to supply their kiln.

From there we ducked inside the stillhouse, which contains all of the other equipment the distillery uses in their production process. This makes their process relatively efficient, since the liquids don't have far to move between mash tun, washbacks, and stills. Kilchoman uses stainless steel for their mash tun and washbacks. Each washback holds 3600 liters of wash, which is fermented for a fairly long 72 hours to reach a standard 8% ABV.

The output of each washback is split into two charges for the wash still. The wash still is easily the smallest on the island, with a capacity of just 3230 liters, giving a charge of 56%. It has a relatively plain shape, though the lyne arm does slope down at a fairly shallow angle. Given the small size of the still (smaller objects have a higher surface area to volume ratio) and the lower charge, the spirit gets a fair amount of copper contact during its first distillation, though this is slightly balanced by the lyne arm, which will reduce reflux.

The low wines, which have an average strength of 25% ABV, are then piped over to the spirit still, which is even smaller at only 2070 liters. The bulb near the base of the neck of the still will increase reflux and copper contact, though this still also has a descending lyne arm, which will counterbalance that tendency. The foreshots cut is relatively short, ending only five minutes into the run. The hearts cut runs from a fairly high 75% down to a fairly low 63.5%, capturing a significant portion of the spirit. This makes sense, because Kilchoman simultaneously wants to produce a robust, smoky spirit, which requires a significant amount of heavier compounds to make it over, while also removing some of the less pleasant parts of the heads, which would require long aging to transform into more palatable compounds.

The steam coils inside the spirit still
Kilchoman currently has fairly low yield compared to the bigger distilleries (~400 liters/ton), getting 300 liters/ton from the Port Ellen malt and 260 liters/ton from their own malt. Given the lack of economy of scale at the distillery, it's not hard to see why their whisky ends up being fairly expensive.

The distillery's goal is to expand production up from 120K liters of spirit per year to 140K by doing seven mashes per week. Hopefully this will give them the capacity both to keep up with demand and set aside more whisky for longer aging.

When I visited, Kilchoman only had about 400 casks on site, with another 4000 tucked into various corners of bonded warehouses at other distilleries on Islay. Kilchoman primarily uses ex-bourbon casks from Buffalo Trace, with a smaller number of ex-sherry casks. They're also experimenting with other wine casks, like port, madeira, and sauternes. I can't wait to see how some of those turn out.
The first cask filled at the distillery
Most of Kilchoman's bourbon casks from from Buffalo Trace
I just learned that a new warehouse was finished in October, which will give them space for another 10,000 casks on site, eliminating the need to store any of their whisky at other distilleries. Both of their warehouses are the traditional dunnage type, with casks stacked three deep. While this makes for consistent aging, it does mean that it takes a lot of work to pull casks out.

Kilchoman also does its own bottling on site, though it's a slow and labor-intensive process. Automation will probably increase over time as their volume expands, but their goal is to keep it all on Islay to support the local economy.

Only four bottles can be filled at a time and they have to be moved by hand
At the end of the tour, we all got a taste of the latest 100% Islay release. It was significantly different from the Machir Bay that I tried last year - because it is made from the floor maltings on site, the peat is significantly less aggressive, letting the malt shine a bit more. Additionally, the whisky is made from spirit aged entirely in ex-bourbon barrels, which means that it doesn't have the hint of sherry that Machir Bay picks up from a short finish in ex-sherry casks. I really wish I could have spent more time with the whisky and tasted it under better circumstances, but it certainly piqued my interest.

Since my stomach had settled down a bit more, I decided to have a cup of hot chocolate at the distillery cafe before I left, as an extra boost for my ride to Ballygrant. It was, in a word, delicious, and I highly recommend having some if you ever visit.

After collecting my things, I once again set off. The dirt road was just as tricky going as coming, but I managed to traverse it without incident. While the hills were rolling and somewhat tough going, the general trend was down, which helped. Eventually I rejoined the main road and continued towards the north end of Loch Indaal, where I would turn off towards Ballygrant. The ride proceeded largely without incident - traffic was a bit heavier than I had been dealing with earlier, but people were still more or less polite. However, I was definitely starting to run low on fuel again by the time I actually rolled through the town of Ballygrant. Unfortunately, my destination was further on. It was a little frustrating not knowing how much further I had to go, but there wasn't any option other than to keep moving.

I am very grateful that I decided to find the Ballygrant Inn on Google Street View before I left - the signage isn't the easiest to spot, so it was very helpful to have seen a picture of the general area beforehand. I did get faked out a few times, but eventually found the right place with a decent amount of time to spare before sunset. There was another dirt road, but this time I chose to get off and walk.

Check in was a snap and my room was just off the lobby. The place was currently being remodeled and my room had clearly been refreshed recently. Unlike the B&Bs where I had been staying during the rest of my trip, it felt much more like a traditional hotel. While not as beat as I had been when I got to Kilchoman, I didn't have a lot left in me and basically collapsed right after taking a shower. I had another long day ahead and hoped that I would feel better in the morning.

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