By Richard Thomas
Ailsa Bay is less than ten years old, and once upon a time that would have made it one of the newest distilleries in Scotland. Not anymore, as the momentum of the booming world whisky scene has given rise to several newer Scottish distilleries. Even so, Ailsa Bay remains among the most interesting opened in recent times, especially among those plants opened by “Big Scotch” companies.
This Lowland malt distillery was erected in 2007 by William Grant & Sons in less than a year’s time, basically as an extension of the company’s Girvan grain whisky distillery. Ailsa was intended first and foremost to relieve pressure on Glenfiddich and Balvenie in terms of supplying the company’s blends, like Grant’s, Clan MacGregor, and the fan favorite Monkey Shoulder. It was thus designed as a major producer with now sixteen big pot stills, but also one with multiple personalities. For example, one set of stills has stainless steel condensers, creating a heavier and more mineralized spirit.
Ailsa Bay Single Malt is their first release, and in that they went boldly unusual: a peated Lowland whisky. Reportedly the stock was drawn from a mix of new oak and first fill bourbon barrels, most interestingly including small barrels used by Tuthilltown to make Hudson Baby Bourbon, and the whisky was bottled at 48.9% ABV.
Imbued with a golden appearance in the glass (and this tasting was the inaugural use of my new Norlan glass to boot), the liquid had a potent, aromatic quality. The scent floated up and out, and this even though I was outdoors on a breezy day.
The nose opens with green apples, before turning strongly ashy. This was just the initial sniff, though, and either contact with air or my senses diminished the peaty side of the whisky, and dismissed it into the background. From there the green apples mingled with fresh cut grass and cookie spices, grounded on an earthy layer of wet ash.
Sipping on Ailsa Bay revealed a sweetly spicy whisky, one with the emphasis on spices like cinnamon, peppermint and raw ginger. It’s akin to an overspiced fruit pie. The apples are still there, but someone spilled too much of the spice mix in. This is much better in a whisky than it could ever be in a pie, however, so don’t read that as anything more than descriptive. Traces of 54that earthy, wet ash run throughout, always lurking on the periphery.
The finish turns the spices in a peppery direction, and winds down with prickly warmth.
This initial outing for Ailsa Bay is a promising one. The single malt is flavorful, balanced, and a little complex. It would, in fact, be a solid choice for an introduction to peated whisky, something to cut the teeth on before moving onto a smoky beast.
This whisky is listed at £54 and €63.