Woah, never saw this one coming. I was passing through Heathrow on the way back from a whisky pilgrimage around Scotland. Of course (and much to my wallet’s disappointment) I spent a good deal of time browsing around the selection at Duty Free. Out of the blue, one of the sales reps comes up to me, little plastic cup in hand, and asks “Care to try, sir?”
The bottle he proceeded to pour from was unfamiliar in every way. I took one sip and asked for the price, and next thing I’m shoving an extra bottle of whisky into the overhead stowage on the plane back to South Africa.
Turns out, it’s NOT a distillery. Instead, Ailsa Bay is a brand name for the new, edgy single malt arm of much loved Girvan distillery, known for some of the best grain whisky in the business. Why edgy? Because science, kids! Rather than relying entirely on traditional production methods, the Ailsa Bay brand produces malt using (ostensibly) innovative chemical analysis to ensure a target flavour profile and bottling consistency.
Here’s the schpiel: They claim to have put together a single malt formula using strict machine measurement of flavour profiles, rather than the noses of long time experts. Two of those profiles – peat parts per million (PPPM) and sugar parts per million (SPPM) – are measured prior to bottling and mixed in a specific ratio. In the case of their 1.2 release, 22 PPPM and 19 SPPM.
It’s all a little wanky… But not entirely steeped in marketing nonsense, fortunately. The malt for those flavour components comes from copper stills at Girvan distillery, both peated and unpeated. It’s then matured first in baby bourbon barrels for a few months before being transferred to first-fill, refill as well as virgin oak casks. So bullshit aside we also get some decent transparency – nice!
Ailsa Bay 1.2 is bottled at a lovely 48.9%, non-chill filtered, and comes in a bottle that looks like an oversized test tube with a cork heavy enough to be used as a weapon.
Dark, rusty gold.
Delightful. Peaty up front, but nothing grassy or vegetal about it – this is all campfire all the way down. Moderately peated, meaty overall. A strong sugary component (no doubt from the virgin casks). Candy apples. Orange chocolate. Very nutty – nutty and rich. Like pecan pie. Coriander. Fruity rather than floral. Slightly soapy. An excellent nose on this one!
After that first sip at the airport I knew I had to snap this up, and months later (and a few drams into a bottle) I’m sorry I didn’t buy two 🙁 Honestly, this is a truly terrific Scotch, and don’t let the traditionalist snobs deter you. As much as we may wish that technology won’t replicate or exceed generations-old craft, Ailsa Bay is proof that the traditionalists should be worried.
You get plenty of that meaty smoke, something like Paul John Edited or Highland Park 10 levels of peat. A nice citrus throughout, almost sour lemon zest. Densely packed, but not nauseating sweetness – glacé cherries. Pork ribs. Joy.
While it doesn’t swim well, it truly doesn’t need to – even at this strength. Dangerously drinkable.
Paprika and smoked bacon. Medium finish.
Ailsa Bay is biggest whisky surprise I’ve had in a long time, a sleeper hit that nobody saw coming. I’ve shared a dram with all kinds of whisky drinkers, from nerds to casual sippers, peat-deniers and peat-heads, and it seems to be universally loved. They’ve somehow managed to make a heavy whisky phenomenally accessible, without any of compromise on flavour, strength, or an unreasonable price.