While Ailsa Bay is a Lowlands distillery it produces a variety of styles. The 16 pot stills give it a flexibility that’s pretty much unmatched—and that is very deliberate. Founded in 2007, it was built to replace Balvenie-style malt whisky for the blends produced by owner William Grant & Sons. But it’s also capable of other flavour profiles, ranging from estery and nutty to fruity and heavily peated. The distillery’s versatility is on full display in Ailsa Bay’s Release 1.2 Sweet Smoke.
When William Grant & Sons built Ailsa Bay on the same site as its grain distillery Girvan, they were far from the first to construct a malt distillery within a grain plant. There was Ben Wyvis at Invergordon, Glen Flagler at Garnheath, and Inverleven at Dumbarton, as well as a few others. William Grant built Ailsa Bay because demand for their blended brands as well as their single malts (Balvenie and Glenfiddich) was growing exponentially. They simply needed to relieve pressure on their malt distilleries. Mission accomplished, as they’re currently working on a £30-million-plus expansion of Glenfiddich. Or maybe they’ve already finished, I’m not exactly sure. Last I was there in 2019 the new still house was looking pretty advanced already.
Anyway, Ailsa Bay is not meant to produce for the single malt market. And yet they’ve released a few expressions so far. Well, two actually. In 2015 they launched the Ailsa Bay Single Malt, followed by the Ailsa Bay Release 1.2 Sweet Smoke three years after. It’s a fascinating whisky with an interesting cask recipe. The spirit initially matures in small ex-bourbon barrels (25-100 litres) from Hudson Distillery in New York. After about six to nine months they’re re-racked into more standard sized bourbon casks. The SPPM (sweetness parts per million) sits at 19 while the PPM (phenol parts per million) is 22.
Ailsa Bay Release 1.2 Sweet Smoke (48.9%, OB, 2019)
Nose: A very earthy smoke with plenty of smouldering embers, tar and charred meat, but also a good amount of vanilla and caramel-glazed apples. Finally a whisper of Cointreau and lemon zest. Taste: Surprisingly, I’d describe this as an (almost medicinal) peat influence, overall not unlike the Laphroaig Quarter Cask. Charcoal, sal ammoniac and fresh oak with a green, vegetal layer with sweet golden syrup and vanilla extract. Somewhat malty as well. Finish: More of the above with a pinch of cocoa powder. Quite long.
Honestly a very good offering from Ailsa Bay that’ll probably satisfy many peat heads. I can think of a few that I’d love to pour this (I only had a sample), to find out their opinion. Good stuff.