The unsung heroes of Scotch whisky

1st February, 2019 by Amy Hopkins

Maltmen

Robin Bignal – Kilchoman

A farmer by trade, Robin Bignal was convinced by Kilchoman’s late manager John MacLellan to join the distillery’s production team in 2010. “At the time I didn’t really know anything about whisky – I didn’t drink it either,” recalls Bignal. “I went from working part time on the farm at Kilchoman to joining the distillery team as production grew.”

An independent farm distillery, Kilchoman became the newest member of Islay’s thriving whisky community in 2005. The distillery’s 100%-­Islay malt is the island’s only single­-estate whisky, with all processes – from barley-­growing to hand-­bottling – carried out on site. Kilchoman is also one of only a handful of distilleries across Scotland to use traditional floor maltings.

Bignal oversees the malting process, along with the distillery’s other production stages, and his hands are full as Kilchoman embarks on a considerable expansion project. In the middle of this year, the distillery installed new floor maltings to enable it to increase output of its 100%­Islay line. It is aiming to use 70% commercial barley and 30% estategrown barley in production. The current percentage ratio sits at about 80/20.

“A lot of work goes into making something that is 100% your own product,” says Bignal. “When we tell visitors we do everything here, a lot of people are surprised. We do everything on site, even straight through to bottling.” Bignal calls floor malting a “dying art”, and says a younger generation of Scotch whisky makers may not develop the operational know­how of their elders because of the influence of technology.

However, Kilchoman continues to invest in its traditional ways of working. The distillery now owns the farm on which it sits, and is aiming to double production by building a new still house. Bignal says: “It’s exciting times, but if you look outside, it’s a building site. It should look the part soon, but we don’t want it to look commercialised – Kilchoman is still a farm distillery. We want to try and keep it unique.”

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