Lowlands whiskies, their trouble, and an Ailsa Bay

From a regional perspective, as far as that is still a thing in Scotch whisky, the Lowlands are a strange one. If you regard the size of the regions it’s only second to the Highlands. But when it comes to distilleries it was pretty recent that there were only three distilleries left.

Some fifteen years ago (not an exact number) there were no Lowlands distilleries producing single malt whisky other than Bladnoch, Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie. All three have their issues, in my opinion. Thet’re not without their merits, but it’s a long shot from the glory days of St. Magdalene and Rosebank.

Currently there are some 22 distilleries in the same region (again, not an exact number). Many of which still have to come on steam or have started to release their inaugural bottles recently. Of course, as with everything Scotch, things are different then they were. Regional identity is one of those changed things, for example.

Some years ago, there was Islay, Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands and Campbeltown. Some counted the other ‘Islands’ as a separate region, but not everyone, and the distillery characters don’t support this argument either, so let’s leave it at that. The short list of regions had a rather simple list of default characteristics: Smoky, Spicy, Sweet, Floral and Funky.

Of course, this is a ridiculous simplification, but it was the thing that was used in the ‘introduction to Scotch’ tastings the world over. Currently, these characteristics don’t hold much merit to being a regional factor, since every region has their deviants, newer distilleries tend to do their own thing and be more idiosynractic, while older distilleries are trying to find more shelf space by diversifying. Whether or not that’s a good thing is an entirely different discussion.

Back to the point I was trying to make about the problem ‘The Lowlands’ has. From a historic perspective, they tend to be the lighter single malt whiskies from Scotland. Less bold flavors, floral, more timid and so on. There generally isn’t a massive sweetness, nor a huge helping of peat smoke or wood influence to help them along.

This makes their position awkward, since marketing your product at festivals is rather tough if people just came from the Ardbeg stand, or had more than a dram or three in general. The ‘average’ character of the whisky just can’t overcome the clunkiness that came before it.

HOWEVER! What I’ve found over the years is that these drams can be very rewarding if given the proper time and attention. Just chucking back a 1960s Rosebank at the end of a festival is going to leave you both poor and desillusioned, but if you give that same dram half an hour of time, it can very well be the best whisky you’ll have that year. Even at a festival.

Image from Whiskybase

Enter Ailsa Bay. Or at least, THIS Ailsa Bay. I’ve had some before that left me quite underwhelmed. Tasting notes to the one bottled by Duchess first. Explanation second.

Sniff:
A grassy and honeyed spirit, with a little helping of charry peat. Not smoky like Islay whiskies, there’s less of it and it’s a bit more woody. Honey, gorse, barley and a whiff of hay. There’s something minty too.

Sip:
There’s a bit of a salt and pepper bite initially, it tastes sharper than the 54-odd percent made me expect. Apart from that, there’s a thin layer of honey that gives way to hay, oak, heather and, surprisingly, no smokiness to speak of.

Swallow:
The finish mellows quickly, and gives a bit more room for the honey and flowery sweetness.

Much more ‘Lowlandy’ in style than I expected, and I think that’s a very good thing. The gentle smoky note gives it a nice extra layer. There’s quite enough to discover here!

I was a bit scared that this would be more like that other Ailsa Bay, generic, and without its own identity, but it is so much more than that!

This does, however, have that timidness that is so easily overwhelmed. It’s one to sit down with and sit down for, and then there’s is more than enough to discover, including a bit of that old fashioned regional style.

If you’d have a tasting and put this later in the line-up because of the ABV, it probably won’t work. Having said that, I really, really like this dram. A shame my part of the bottle-share has already gone…

88/100

Available at Best of Whiskies, for € 79. I’m very much considering to get myself another bottle.

Also: Yes, this is officially a blended malt. In this case especially, it sounds very much like a statement to make sure the distillery name is not on the label. But what eventually counts is what the booze tastes like and there’s zero problems with that!

About Sjoerd de Haan-Kramer

I'm very interested in booze, with a focus on whisky. I like to listen to loads of music and play lots of Magic: the Gathering, and board games too. I'm married to Anneke, have two daughters Ot and Cato, a son Moos and a cat called Kikker (which means Frog, in Dutch). I live in Krommenie, The Netherlands.
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