Hugh Smith’s letter from Islay

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Kilchoman Distillery

Kilchoman Farm Distillery, which is situated on the west of Islay and takes its name from the surrounding parish, is the first new distillery to be built on the island for 124 years.

It stands on the site of Rockside Farm and, prior to the opening of the Abhainn Dearg Distillery on Lewis in 2007, it was the most westerly distillery in Scotland.

Production at the new distillery began in 2005 and the barley used is grown on site and malted at the distillery and is augmented by supplies provided by the Port Ellen Maltings.

Kilchoman is one of only six Scottish distillers still carrying out traditional floor-maltings and prides itself on ensuring that all parts of the production processes are carried out on the island.

The founder and managing director is Anthony Wills, who ran his own single cask bottling company before launching out on his Kilchoman venture. Islay was chosen as the location for the farm distillery because of its world-wide reputation for producing quality malts. The Rockside farm premises provided ideal buildings for the project as well as its reputation for producing the best malting barley on the island.

The owner was no stranger to the island as his wife, Kathy, was a member of the famous Wilks family of the Rover Car Company and they owned and operated the Laggan Estates for more than six decades.

The Wills, as well as being worthy ambassadors for their product, are heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the distillery, as are their three sons, Peter, James and George.

Kilchoman distillers continue to be the main sponsor of the island pipe band and the annual beach rugby tournament as well as supporting events with a slightly lower profile.

The distillery is situated in a scenically pleasing area of the island with Machir and Saligo Bays close at hand. It also overlooks Loch Gorm, the island’s largest stretch of fresh water.

Music and malt

Fèis Ìle, the island’s annual festival of music and malt, is fast approaching – it kicks off on Friday May 26 and continues until Saturday June 3. This is the largest event on the island’s social calendar and it has gone from strength to strength since it began 31 years ago.

It attracts visitors from across the globe, and the island will be bursting at the seams, accommodation will be at a premium and the local economy will greatly benefit as a result.

Among the firm favourites will be the clootie dumpling ceilidh at Ballygrant, whisky nosing and ensuing ceilidh at Port Ellen and much folk singing at Ardbeg Distillery.

Visiting performers will include the Rowan Brothers, Tide Lines, the Playboys, Irish vocalist Hugo Duncan, piper Fred Morrison and musician and author Jess Smith.

A number of local performers will also participate in some of the festival events and there will be classes in ceilidh dancing for those who want to hoof it in Highland style.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society hosts a garden party at Islay House Hotel, the Rare Malt Whisky Company will marry malt, cheese and chocolate on two evenings in the former Portnahaven school, and the Finlaggan Trust’s open day will be supported by the Vintage Malt Whisky Company.

Master distiller Jim MacEwan holds a whisky tasting session at Ballygrant, and Douglas Laing and friends will tickle the seafood and whisky taste buds at various venues including Ionad Chaluim Chille Ìle.

The island’s eight distilleries are bracing themselves for the fèis invasion and will pull out all the stops to cater for the hundreds who will attend their open days throughout the week.

Even the distillery on neighbouring Jura is more than happy to join in the festive fray as is Islay Ales in Islay House Square

Those who seek a break from the music and the malt can take part in fly-fishing competitions on various local lochs and can participate in or spectate at bowling matches at both Bridgend or Port Ellen.

For more detailed fèis information contact: enquiries@islay

Hugh Smith, 4 Flora Street, Bowmore, Islay PA43 7JX. Tel: 01496 810 658