Usually when talking about a whisky, we ask questions like “How old is it?”, “In what cask was it matured?” or “Which region does it come from?”. Rarely if ever, we discuss the barley or yeast varieties that were used in the production. Yet, they play an important role in the development of the final product. After all, they constitute two thirds of the basic ingredients from which whisky is made (the remaining one being water). To highlight this, Islay’s farm distillery Kilchoman ran a “Barley & Yeast” tasting as part of their Feis Ile programme this year. On May 28, Kilchoman’s founder Anthony Wills and his son James savored four cask samples together with their viewers. Viewers? Yes, that is correct. Like all activities associated with the 2020 edition of The Islay Festival of Music and Malt, the degustation took place online (let’s not forget that we are not just sipping whisky these days, but also battling a pandemic). While following a live stream on Facebook, me and the other attendees drank our drams in pairs of two. The members of these pairs were identical in terms of age, wood and strength; yet they differed in regard to the utilized sorts of barley and yeast.
The barley duo consisted of two lightly peated young malts that were drawn from 1st fill ex-bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace. As the spirit was in there for round about ten months, it had already absorbed some color and flavor from the casks. Both drams clocked in at almost 62 per cent. The first sample featured Concerto barley, which has been Kilchoman’s go-to variety for several years now. The second sample contained Octavia barley, which Kilchoman also grows on the distillery-owned fields in the northwest of Islay. “At the moment we have been happy using Concerto as our main stake. But we have also been growing ten acres of other varieties over the last few years,” explained Anthony. “We have grown Laureate, we have grown Octavia and we have also started growing Sassy in 2019.” Being able to try out new stuff – be it alternate ingredients or production methods – is deeply rooted in Kilchoman’s philosophy and history. As one of just a few truly independent distilleries in Scotand, they have a lot of freedom to experiment. When I tried my first two samples back to back, I did indeed recognize a number of differences. The Concerto Barley expression was crisp and creamy with a lot of fruity and grassy notes. The Octavia Barley expression was fresh and sharp. It offered cereals, grapes and spices.
The drams made from differing yeast varieties were both one year old. They came from oloroso sherry hogsheads and had ABVs of well above 60 per cent. Both samples were made with Concerto barley and fell into the category “Heavily peated”. The only difference between them: One contained Mauri yeast (which is Kilchoman’s standard) and the other contained Kerry yeast. Like the first duo, this one was also more distinct than one might have thought. The Mauri Yeast expression was bold and big with wild berries, autumn fruits, tobacco and thick, dark smoke. Towards the end it got sweeter, culminating in a mouthwatering marzipan aftertaste. The Kerry Yeast expression went more into a sizzling BBQ direction. It was both meaty and heavy. In it, I made out quinces, gooseberries, pumpkins, herbs and pastry. Plus a good amount of greasy BBQ smoke.
In conclusion, I must say that the differences between Concerto barley and Octavia barley or Mauri yeast and Kerry yeast were not like night and day to me. It did take some concentrating to identify the nuances that set each expression apart. But – and that was quite a revelation to me – every ingredient left its distinguishable mark. Of course, the influence of the barley or yeast will be less striking in a 10-year-old than it was in a 1-year-old. The longer the spirit stays in the cask, the more it will be shaped by the wood. Yet, the barley and yeast will both remain influential in older whiskies, too: They are essential parts of the spirit’s DNA. Thanks to Anthony and James, I have gotten some very interesting insights into this topic. If you are also keen to learn more about it, simply hop over to Kilchoman’s Facebook page and watch the recording of the online tasting. If you pride yourself to be a whisky nerd, these 53 minutes are absolutely worth your time. Never mind the fact that you might not be able to get hold of the corresponding cask samples anymore. I am sure you will have just as much fun and learn just as much about whisky if you watch the video with Machir Bay, 100% Islay or any other Kilchoman whisky in your glass!
Cask Sample “Concerto Barley” (Malt spirit / Islay / Bourbon barrel / 10 months / 61.8% / 20 ppm)
Cask Sample “Octavia Barley” (Malt spirit / Islay / Bourbon barrel / 10 months / 61.8% / 20 ppm)
Cask Sample “Kerry Yeast” (Malt spirit / Islay / Oloroso hogshead / 1 year / 61.8% / 50 ppm)
Cask Sample “Mauri Yeast” (Malt spirit / Islay / Oloroso hogshead / 1 year / 62% / 50 ppm)
Kilchoman Distillery @ Web: https://www.kilchomandistillery.com (Distillery)
Kilchoman Distillery @ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KilchomanWhisky/ (Distillery)
“Barley & Yeast” Online Tasting @Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Kilchomanwhisky/videos/2598013250527355/ (Video)