Anthony Wills, founder and managing director of Kilchoman, tells us about the site’s new still house and visitor centre, and what makes the Islay distillery unique.
*This feature was originally published in the March 2020 issue of The Spirits Business
How did you get into the Scotch whisky industry?
I spent about 15 years in the wine trade in London. Then in 1995, we, as a family, moved to Scotland. I started my own independent bottling business in 1996. It was just as the independent bottlers and single cask people were making a mark for themselves that I saw that the opportunity for building a distillery was just about right. So I drafted our first business plan. We managed to get up and running in 2005.
What sets Kilchoman apart from other Islay whisky producers?
With seven working distilleries on Islay at the time, and also 100 distilleries in Scotland, it would have been foolish to start a distillery like the others. We decided to start a farm distillery and really focus on heritage, tradition and farm distilling, which Islay had a lot of in the late 1700s to early 1800s. That was why we built on a working farm, grew some of the barley and did the whole process on site, so we had a uniqueness that nobody else was doing.
You’ve just unveiled your new still house and visitor centre – what does this expansion mean for Kilchoman?
It means we’ve proved we have a market. We reached a point where we felt if we didn’t increase production, we’d have to start allocating releases. We didn’t want to do that; we wanted to be able to share Kilchoman with as many people as possible. It means we’ve got twice as much liquid to put into our warehouse and share with people. It’s a huge investment because we’ve had to move our visitor centre to fit the new still house. But this gave us the chance to build a new visitor centre. It’ll benefit Islay hugely because it’s different from all the others.
When we started, my idea was a facility that could produce about 100,000 litres a year, but we realised we could make more than that out of the same equipment we had. We started in 2005 and only filled 50,000 litres in 2006, and that rose to 238,000 in 2018. Last June when we got the new facility installed we produced 330,000 litres. We are able to produce close to 500,000 litres. We’re filling around 80 barrels a week.
Have you noticed an increase in Scotch whisky tourism to Islay?
We’ve noticed more people coming to Kilchoman. A lot of people coming to Islay have a list of distilleries they want to visit, but now we’re on more of those lists. We’re seeing numbers increase yearly. We have a nine‐month season now, whereas years ago, you were lucky if you got two to three months. Certainly, whisky tourism is a huge part of the economy on Islay.
The Scotch whisky regulations changed last year. Has this enabled you to be more innovative?
We were restrained. Don’t get me wrong, I think the rules have served us well and are there for a purpose. You only have to look at spirits that don’t have such defined regulations and struggle to get their message across in a clear way. The rules have worked well for a number of years, but as we evolve as an industry it’s good to update how we operate – especially with cask maturation. As a smaller independent we can be more flexible and highlight things the bigger guys can’t do.
What can we expect to see from Kilchoman in 2020?
We issue four special releases each year, and we’ve got one coming out in a few months’ time. It was actually born out of a mistake where valves were opened when they should have been kept shut. It mixed two releases together, so we put that into Bourbon barrels and just left it for number of years. We then saw that it was coming on quite well, so we’re doing a bottling in April called Amburach, which means ‘mess’ or ‘cock‐up’ in Gaelic. We’re quite open about what happened; we’ve made something out of a complete mistake. It’s a one‐off but a bit of fun, and shows that if you’ve got patience to see what happens, it all comes good in the end.