Ailsa Bay Distillery in picturesBy Amy Hopkins
Last week, spirits writers from across the UK were whisked off to the beautiful Scottish Lowlands for an exclusive preview of William Grant & Sons’ newest addition to its whisky portfolio – Ailsa Bay. Staying in the grand Glenapp Castle on the rugged Ayreshire coast, we were hosted by Peter Gordon, director of William Grant & Sons and great great grandson of its founder William Grant.
The usually shy Scottish sun emerged as we travelled along the coast to Girvan, where the Ailsa Bay Distillery is based. The distillery is named after the nearby bay which overlooks Ailsa Craig – an island based 9.9 miles off the coast. It famously provides blue hone granite for curling stones.
Lowlands distillery Ailsa Bay was built in 2007 to provide additional malt liquid for William Grant’s broader Scotch portfolio. Pioneered by Peter Gordon, the distillery has now released its inaugural Ailsa Bay Scotch whisky – an innovative variant that also “very specifically” marks William Grant’s play in the peated whisky arena. According to Gordon, William Grant had an agreement with Seagram’s almost 50 years ago to build a peated distillery on Islay, but backtracked due to a lack of water. The company later “got really far down the track” in negotiations to acquire a “well-known” peated distillery, which ultimately fell through.
While exclusively used to produce malt Scotch whisky, Ailsa Bay is unique in its position on the grounds of William Grant’s sprawling Girvan grain whisky distillery complex, which also houses the Hendrick’s Gin Distillery.
Ailsa Bay is pioneering lesser explored ground with its use of “optimal control methods”, allowing master blender Brian Kinsman the ability to “isolate and control more elements from the distillation, to maturation, to filtration process”.
Stuart Watts, distillery manager at Girvan, describes Ailsa Bay Distillery as “heavily automated and efficient”, saving “about a third” of the energy of a traditional malt distillery. These modern washbacks are made of stainless steel, as opposed to the more traditional wood, and create a stronger type of beer.
Ailsa Bay consists of 16 stills – with wash stills and spirit stills both the same style and size – and also uses four stainless steel condensers to create a “different flavour”. The inaugural Ailsa Bay whisky has been created during a heavy peated distillation run, which takes place for just one week a year. A lightly peated run takes place for a second week, but the distillates have not yet been combined.
Here, Brian Kinsman takes guests through a tutored, deconstructed tasting of Ailsa Bay. Embodying a “unique balance of smoke and sweetness” which “occupies a new space on the flavour map”, the whisky is comprised of four different types of casks: refill American oak, first fill Bourbon, new oak and Baby Bourbon casks from the Hudson Distillery in New York. The whisky does not carry an age statement, but its liquid will not be older than eight or nine years.
Ailsa Bay is bottled in a vessel that Peter Gordon says has been designed “to be resused”, and features a piece of granite from Ailsa Craig in its stopper. The bottle’s label is also unique in its inclusion of the phenol parts per million (PPPM) and sweet parts per million (SPPM), educating consumers on its smoky and sweet taste profile.
Ailsa Bay casks are kept in Girvan Distillery’s vast warehousing complex – which consists of 53 different buildings. More than 120 different brands have whisky maturing in these warehouses, which are thought to hold 10% of total whisky volumes in Scotland.