To many Ailsa Bay will be an unknown entity and admittedly it’s a difficult task to keep up with all the new distilleries appearing or going through planning permission. At times they are rivalling supermarkets who went through a mad spurt of grabbing land and trying to outdo one another by location. If the trend continues then on every street corner you could have a distillery of some form.
For the uninitiated Ailsa Bay actually was slightly ahead of the curve being founded in 2007 and built in just 9 months. It’s owners William Grant & Sons are not new to quickly establishing a distillery having built the Girvan grain distillery in a similar period. Speed and efficiency are to be admired but you cannot dismiss design and a quality approach. Much like the whisky itself, distilleries are being knocked up in rapid fashion in almost kit form.
By coincidence Ailsa Bay exists within the Girvan distillery site, a location which once played host to one of the rarest distilleries of them all namely Ladyburn and occupies its former location. You can read all about this illusive distillery in my review of the 1975 Rare Ayrshire 36-year-old. For this piece we’re concerned about Ailsa Bay and its debut single malt whisky that originally hit the shelves in early 2016 with a No Age Statement Batch 1 release. Due to the attraction of experiencing a single malt from this unknown quantity, it sold out soon enough to be replaced by Batch 2, which is what we’re sitting down with tonight.
As you’d expect from William Grant & Sons, the design of the bottle is impressive and adorned with added touches of detail. With a retail price of £55, you’re maximising your money with the quality touches around the bottle including a piece of granite that comes from the nearby looming island of Ailsa Craig. The stone from this island, which is literally a massive piece of rock out at sea, has traditionally provided the raw material for the very best curling stones. Sitting in the Firth of Clyde, 20 miles from Girvan, it has previously played host to a castle and a prison before becoming uninhabited and a bird sanctuary today.
The distillery can produce five styles of spirit when required and these are often vatted to create a new distillate before going into casks. Until this release it was destined for assisting the William Grant blends or supplying young malt to independents with their own Scotch creations. By offering an alternative it removed the constraints around Glenfiddich and Balvenie who being recognisable single malts, were facing increased demand. It was revealed Ailsa Bay produces the peated spirit that eventually results in this single malt we have here, for just one week of the year. This provides an indication of how focused Ailsa Bay is on providing support for blends such as Grant’s blended Scotch.
There are various statements and snippets of information on the bottle that are worth highlighting. The most recognisable is the phenol count of 21 parts per million, with in comparison Ardbeg being around 55ppm. Peat aside, one of several new pieces of terminology is SPPM, or sweet parts per million. It’s all a little medicinal isn’t it? This nugget equivalent to 11sppm is the sweetness of the peat, as you’ll know peat varies on location and usage. Master Blender Brian Kinsman has come up with this range to assist consumers who may prefer one type of peat aspect over another. Personally, I find it ruins the voyage of discovery and the experience itself. If everything becomes defined and labelled in a whisky and placed into categories, it confines the adventure and reduces the exercise to a laboratory experiment.
Statements on the bottle such as precision distillation, echo this sentiment and how controlled and, well, consistently boring whisky is in danger of becoming. The other statement on the bottle is micro maturation. Really, I can imagine the marketing gurus having a field day creating this Ailsa Bay release. This reflects the small casks used from Hudson Bay distillery that range in size between 25-100 litres for a period of 6-9 months to turbo charge the whisky, before it goes into more traditional American Oak barrels (200 litres in size) for the remainder of its journey and how closely the team follow the spirit through its journey. It potentially is micro managed whisky.
For every bottle, concept or vision, at Whisky Rover, it comes down to the liquid itself. Having enjoyed the initial batch of Ailsa Bay, ok it was a little too engineered for my liking, we’re back for the sequel; does it strike back?
Colour: a pale butter
Nose: no surprises for saying peat with that essence of vegetative decay. Heather, Highland scrub and a sandy beach with coastal spray. So yes it has a touch of salt, ham hock, a little paraffin and oiliness. Water I felt didn't bring much to the equation, perhaps a more farmyard tinge with basil, but little else.
Taste: it's peaty and sweet. Interesting that the slight oily aspect comes through on the texture. Upon first tasting I find the vegetative peat and that sugary sweetness almost forced. It feels a little unbalanced, unnatural. Chalk, some vanilla, liquorice and a slight wateriness. With water more a nutty twist and a drop of iodine.
Overall: no question this Ailsa Bay is well made. It is precision engineering in a bottle, but in doing so and being an exponent of so many different distillates does it master one? That's the question. What is the distillery character? What makes Ailsa Bay different and its own whisky? This isn't something a piece of stone can achieve on the stopper; it comes from within. Currently it is a little soulless, modern and minimalist. Not for me, but I can appreciate why many may enjoy is reliability in the coming batches.