The personality of a whisky is only revealed in the glass.
It’s only at this moment that the branding and marketing falls to the wayside. The fanciful bottle and packaging become mere facilitators of the experience you’re about to delve into. Everything should, in an ideal world, come down to the aromas and taste of a whisky. That’s the bottom line. Yet for many whiskies nowadays, few reach this point of dissection and deliberation; have you seen an Ardbeg 25 year old opened yet?
Mark reviewed the debut release from this Lowland construct back in 2016 and I followed with an additional batch just a year later. In summary, Mark enjoyed the whisky, whereas I felt it was still seeking an identity and was a composite of so much research from William Grant and Sons, that it had become a little soulless. It wasn’t a bad whisky in any shape or form, but it was missing the X-factor or that umami characteristic that wins you over.
So much has changed since 2017 on this site and in whisky in general. I’m reminded by the fragility of life since our days became dominated by COVID-19 and the sacrifices of others. More than ever, I’ve double-downed on opening and experiencing more whisky (not to excess may I add!), to seek out those moments of reflection, remembrance and satisfaction that have become rare commodities nowadays.
There are good memories even associated with my last bottle of Ailsa Bay, which headed to Speyside for the festival and was drank around a campfire by friends for several days alongside so many other bottles. A fair conclusion would be that it never won anyone really over. Comments about it being solid and ticking a box were commonplace. Once finished, it was tossed on the fire and it was never missed thereafter. The lasting memory was the bottle stopper with the piece of stone, which gave it a local and distinctive touch that I appreciated.
Sadly, the stone has now gone and we’re left with a cheaper feeling tin stopper. A disappointing start to our Aisla Bay revisit. But as I kicked off this article with the theme it’s all about the liquid, it doesn’t really matter now does it? However, let’s look at what this 1.2 Sweet Smoke promises and why Ailsa Bay needed to change, or should that be, evolve?
Despite the clutter of phrases on the bottle, there seems to be a more relaxed emphasis on highlighting all the science this time around. A more chilled approach has been adopted and one that lets you scan the code and read more online if you wish to interact more. Last time around, I expect many drinkers were left feeling a little cold and de-motivated by all the science. The preconception of a laboratory and genetically modified whisky (which it wasn’t) lingered; gone was the human element and the traditional aspects of whisky production. Except, in reality, they were always there to a certain degree but swamped by a misguided scientific approach. Ultimately, William Grant & Sons overplayed their hand to shape a new brand and distillery.
Whisky science is a stimulating and hugely interesting area of whisky. Only to the geeks or those that want to listen to farm noises or debate fermentation temperatures and such like. It can be overplayed and in doing so, creates the danger of a synthetic whisky. Personally, I’d rather pay more for a handcrafted exponent that relies more so on human skill and knowledge than what computer XYZ says is best. Horses for courses and all that. It seems from the existence of this 1.2 that it wasn’t just the paraphernalia that put consumers off, but also the juice.
Again, Ailsa Bay is matured in smaller casks initially (25-100 litre) for a period of 6-9 months, to give the new liquid a boost and identity before being let to mature in more traditionally sized ex-bourbon casks. These are noted to be virgin, first fill and re-fill barrels on the fairly basic Ailsa Bay site. So, that’s a reverse of what we generally have seen from other distilleries and underlines the experimental approach from Brian Kinsman and his team. What’s actually changed this time around, is what’s coming off the stills. The Sweetness parts per million (SPPM) have been upped, which in theory, as displayed on the blackboard (do they have them in schools?) means more peat, but also more of that sweetness. In essence, Ailsa Bay is still searching for the sweet spot that proved elusive with their initial releases.
This release is widely available and will often have a few quid chopped off so it pays to shop around. It’s currently available from The Whisky Exchange for £49.95, Amazon currently demand £49.55 and Master of Malt £48.90. Thanks to my neighbour for a shot of this bottle and the opportunity to check out how things are going…
Ailsa Bay 1.2 Sweet Smoke – review
On the nose: the peat initially greets you followed by a mixture of cooking apples, mango and lime jelly. Wet wool, sugary toffee and spent gunpowder. There’s also with time, some caramel and peppermint. A splash of water brings out smoke and clementines.
In the mouth: less interesting with the peat being the dominant force here. Taking over the show leaves little room for the peppery, coal dust, green olives and youthful palate. Adding water does upset the taught youthfulness of the experience, as it loses urgency and definition, becoming more of a peat bog.
I’m still left somewhat cold by this release. Again, it is well made and ticks the peat box but beyond that? I ask myself what is the identity of Ailsa Bay? What’s the USP here? If you’re looking for a Lowland peat expression then it does meet that market gap, but why not jump off to Campbeltown, Arran or even Islay for such a better wholesome peated experience?
Trying to find that mark of sweetness versus peat is a thankless task. Something that might never be conquered or identified. The human palate is a complex thing and we all have preferences and it’ll be true of peat and sweetness as well. Why not just concentrate on making whisky that showcases what you’re all about and the qualities that such an experimental distillery can do? After all these years, Ailsa Bay is still searching for its own identity. The whisky here is a little better, but feels more peated and lacks a certain complexity that I was hoping to see 4 years on from my last experience. Here’s to 2025 and maybe then, the liquid will come through.
There are commission links above if you want to support Malt and check out this release for yourself. Lead image kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange.