An evening with John MacLellan
Last week we were on Islay for a few days. This was Tone's first visit to the island, and my third. As always, it was a great experience. One of the absolute highlights of this trip, was that we got to spend an evening with John MacLellan.
John is someone that is well known to many a whisky fan around the world. He started at Bunnahabhain as a mashman in 1989 and became distillery brewer in 1993. Then in 1997 he took over as Distillery Manager. On may 3, 2010, John joined Kilchoman as General Manager. Quite a move, from a big distillery in a big corporate setting, to a small farm distillery.
This was to be a special evening indeed. We were a group travelling with independent bottler Svenska Eldvatten (Peter and Tommy). John brought a few bottles with him, and held the tasting for us where we stayed at The Old Bakery at Bowmore Distillery. I think he enjoyed promoting Kilchoman at Bowmore!
John took us expertly through the four drams he had brought along. He told us the story of Kilchoman, anecdotes from his time at both Kilchoman and Bunnahabhain. It turned out he is a great storyteller as well, and his jokes had us all cracking up. It was all great fun and great whisky!
The evening was very special for me, both because I got to meet John again (I met him in 2013 as well, on my first visit to Islay, but I am sure he did not remember that!), and because Kilchoman and Bunnahabhain are among my top four favorite Islay distilleries. Bunnahabhain have always been underrated, I feel. Although that has started to change over the past few years. Not enough people have yet discovered this gentle old giant of Islay. Then we have Kilchoman, the young punk of Islay. What a wonderful, powerful and full-on taste experience they present! The older distilleries on the island better watch out - Kilchoman could very well end up teaching most (all?) of them a lesson or two.
One particular topic that I got to discuss with John was the peated Bunnahabhain. From what I know, Bunnahabhain used to be mainly a peated whisky up until 1963. At that time they expanded, rebuilt parts of the distillery, and stopped doing their own floor maltings. They also changed the profile to an (almost?) unpeated style. This was the status up until a series of peat experiments in 1991, and then again in a larger volume in 1997. Especially independent bottlings of peated Bunnahabhain from 1997 are of great quality, in my mind. If you come across any, do try them!
Then in 2003 Burn Stewart Distillers bought Bunnahabhain, and the brand Black Bottle. Black Bottle is a peated blend, and it was soon decided that the company wanted to have more control over the whisky sourced for Black Bottle. Rather than relying on being able to buy enough peated whisky from the other Islay distilleries, which was getting increasingly difficult because of demand, they wanted to produce more peated spirit themselves. Thus it was decided that from then on Bunnahabhain would produce both peated and unpeated spirit. Since then this has resulted in a re-launch of Black Bottle (no longer containing whisky from all the Islay distilleries), and peated Bunnahabhain expressions like Toiteach and Ceòbanach.
Well, enough with the history lessons, I guess. Back to the whiskies we were presented with:
Kilchoman 100 % Islay 4th Edition, 50 %
Kilchoman Cask Strength, 59,2 %
Kilchoman 2008 4 YO Single Cask #397/2008, 60,4 %
John's Peaty Dram Bunnahabhain 1997 14 YO Cask #5911, 51,5 %
The last whisky we tried, John's Peaty Dram, was very special. When John left Bunnahabhain he got a deal where he could select any cask he wanted from the warehouses, and buy that off Edrington - the previous owner of Bunnahabhain and John's former employer. He selected this cask of sherry matured, heavily peated Bunnahabhain from 1997. The whisky was matured in the warehouses at Bunnahabhain until 2010, then the cask was moved to Kilchoman for further maturation. It was then bottled in early 2012. The cask was then re-filled with Kilchoman spirit, which is now almost 3 YO! As such, this is a dram that perfectly unites John, Bunnahabhain and Kilchoman. I just love stories like that!
John also spoke a bit about the future of Kilchoman. They are doing well, building and expanding at a slow but sustainable pace. They are working on replacing some equipment and improving on their processes, to make it all more efficient. When asked about when we can see the first 10 YO Kilchoman he would not say, but indicated that we have to wait a while yet. The production in 2005 was very limited. I am sure they will do something fun for Feis Ile 2015 to celebrate their first 10 years, even if that cannot be a 10 YO (they started production late 2005).
All in all this was a very special tasting, and a very special evening. We are all grateful to John for taking the time to do this for us. This is one unique experience to remember! Thank you very much, John!
Sláinte! - Thomas