The Lowlands Return to Splendor

The Lowlands have the dubious reputation of producing Scotland’s least fashionable whiskies. While it’s easy to find whisky lovers who swoon for the peaty malts of Islay and rich, sherried drams of Speyside, the delicate and floral whiskies of the Lowlands have lingered on in relative obscurity—more of a footnote on most whisky lists—until now. From a low of just two operational malt whisky distilleries in 1993, the designated Lowlands region of Scotch whisky production has now grown to include eleven distilleries, with several more in the pipeline. The Lowlands Renaissance has arrived.

Lowlands Emergence

The Lowlands malt whisky region was first defined as part of the 1784 Wash Act, which introduced a theoretical ‘Highland Line,’ running across Scotland from the Firth of Clyde in the west to the Firth of Tay in the east, with differing levels of excise duty initially being paid on either side of the ‘line.’

The Act aimed to stimulate legal distilling in the Highlands and to reduce illicit distilling, and applied lower rates of duty to small distilleries north of the Highland line—a state of affairs that persisted until 1816.

It was during the latter decades of the 18th century that a major, commercial Lowlands distilling industry developed. Unlike in the Highlands, Lowlands distillers traditionally used coal rather than peat in the malting process. Additionally, triple distillation—where spirit is run through three stills instead of the usual two—was often employed, helping to define the quintessential Lowlands style—whiskies that are comparatively light in color, flavor, and body; elegant and subtle, but always boasting character, and never bland.

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But their distinctive style was not enough to save the Lowlands distillers, as the number of producers, once over 100, dwindled to just two by 1993. The dramatic decline was due in part to the increasing influence and distilling capacity of the Speyside region during the later decades of the 19th century, with its malts finding great favor among blenders. Additionally, many of the Lowlands distilleries were built in urban areas, and their sites were more valuable for redevelopment than whisky making. When times got tough, Lowland whisky makers were easily persuaded to convert their distilleries into cash.

A Survivor’s Tale

As others fell by the wayside, ultimately only Auchentoshan in the west and Glenkinchie in the east continued to fly the flag for Lowlands single malt, operating almost constantly since the end of the Second World War. For many years, these were the only representations you’d find filed under “Lowlands” on whisky lists in the U.S. A few large grain distilleries also survived, but their distillate was used almost entirely for blending.

Kingsbarns is one of three new Fife malt distilleries and the only promising a ‘true’ Lowlands style of spirit.

Auchentoshan was first licensed in 1823, and although being promoted for some years as ‘Glasgow’s malt whisky,’ there will soon be another contender for that title, when spirit from the Glasgow Distillery—founded in 2015—comes of age. Additionally, whisky making will soon occur at two other Glasgow city venues, namely the Clydeside Distillery and Douglas Laing & Co’s projected distillery at Pacific Quay, on opposite banks of the River Clyde.

Today Auchentoshan, under the ownership of Japan’s Suntory, is the sole Scottish distillery to fully triple distill its spirit (although Inchdairnie Distillery in Fife is capable as well). Triple distillation features a wash still, an intermediate still, and a spirit still—giving a lower yield than with the typical two stills, but a refined new make spirit with the high strength of 81% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Stylistically, Auchentoshan is light-bodied and grassy, but the distillers showcase it in a variety of ways, offering 12, 18, and 21 year old variants in the core range, with the 21 year old being matured in a mix of bourbon and Spanish oak casks. Additionally, the range includes two non-age statement whiskies: American Oak and the innovative Three Wood, aged initially in bourbon barrels, followed by Spanish oloroso sherry butts, and finally Pedro Ximenez sherry butts.

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Just as Auchentoshan is considered ‘Glasgow’s single malt,’ Glenkinchie—located in prime agricultural land—claims the same association with Edinburgh, some fifteen miles away. The Rate family of farmers founded it as Milton Distillery in 1825.

Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie represent stability and continuity in Lowland whisky, but a third survivor from the early 19th century has had a much more perilous existence. Bladnoch is the most remote of all Lowlands distilleries, far from the cities, buried deep in the southeastern corner of Scotland.

A farm-based distillery, established in 1817 by brothers John and Thomas McClelland, Bladnoch has endured ten owners and many periods of closure over the decades.

The distillery was rescued from silence in 1994 by Northern Irish businessman Raymond Armstrong and his brother, Colin. They were faced with the daunting task of restoring the plant to life, as previous owners had gutted it, and spirit finally flowed again in 2000.

Bladnoch’s struggles were not behind it, however, as the distillery fell silent again in 2009 and liquidated in 2014. Australian entrepreneur David Prior came to the rescue, purchasing Bladnoch and employing veteran master blender and distiller Ian MacMillan to undertake a major restoration program, which included creating a virtually new distillery within the old stone buildings and launching new, innovative bottlings.

According to MacMillan, “It’s great to see the old distillery celebrating its 200th anniversary fully refurbished and in safe hands for the future. I think it’s really significant for the Lowlands region that one of the major Lowlands distilleries is now operating again. It was important to us to retain a Lowlands style, and the stills were designed to do that, but I wanted to add a bit more weight and fruitiness to complement the existing grassy, citrus style, though it’s still quintessential Lowland in character.”

Although the Lowlands sector is clearly thriving, that does not necessarily mean that the traditional Lowlands style of malt whisky is undergoing a revival.

Macmillan worked with Bladnoch’s best available whisky stocks, including first-fill bourbon casks and California red wine casks, blending them to create Samsara, a no-age statement whisky. For 15 year old Adela he selected oloroso sherry butts and for the 25 year old Talia he finished the whisky in new oak for the first edition, and port pipes for the second. “The next release is likely to be a 10 year old from first-fill bourbon casks, and it should be out by the end of the year,” says Macmillan.

New From Old

Bladnoch is not the only Lowlands distillery to be rekindled. Annandale was founded in 1830, and ultimately came into the hands of the great blending house of John Walker & Sons. It was mothballed in 1918 and closed permanently two years later. In 2007 professor David Thomson purchased Annandale with the intention of restoring it to production. After a great deal of expensive reconstruction work, spirit—both unpeated and peated—flowed again in 2014.

After nearly a century of silence, whisky lovers are rightfully eager to sample Annandale single malt again. According to Thomson, “Samples of the maturing spirit are tasted at regular intervals, and it seems that the spirit is maturing exceptionally well and quite quickly, too. Sometimes we might not enjoy the local weather but it transpires that the moderate, damp microclimate of Annandale is ideal for maturing whisky.”

In 2007/8, William Grant & Sons Ltd. created the largest Lowlands malt distillery of them all on the site of its existing grain distilling operation at Girvan, on the Ayrshire coast. The distillery was christened Ailsa Bay and its stills were modeled on those at William Grant’s Balvenie Distillery.

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Although much smaller in scale, the revival of Lindores Abbey Distillery is equally thrilling. Lindores is regarded as the spiritual home of Scotch whisky, thanks to Friar John Cor, who paid duty on malt in 1494 in order to make aqua vitae for the king. This act was recorded in the Exchequer Rolls and is the earliest written evidence of whisky distillation in Scotland.

Lindores Abbey Distillery founder Drew Mackenzie Smith describes the distillery’s spirit as, “classic Lowland style.” Lindores even employs an apothecary to flavor aqua vitae—infused barley spirit—much as Cor and his fellow friars would have done over five centuries ago. New make spirit will be for sale, as the whisky comes of age.

In October 2017, Ian Macleod Distillers announced their intention to bring Rosebank back to life, having separately acquired the distillery and the trademark. It looks like a triple win for fans of the Lowlands icon, mothballed since 1993, with vintage cask releases, a visitor center, and new spirit flowing.

A Question of Style

William Grant’s master blender Brian Kinsman describes the bulk of Ailsa Bay’s output as, “Speyside-style sweet, biscuity cereal spirit,” adding that two different peated distillates contribute to a second “meaty, sulfury style” whisky. Both represent an intentional departure from traditionally light and delicate Lowlands-style whisky, says Kinsman.

David Robertson, a former Macallan distiller now consulting for Glasgow Distillery and a co-founder of the proposed Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh says, “Typical Lowland to me was floral, fruity, citrus, and zesty—Rosebank was always my classic go-to,” citing one of the lost legends of the Lowlands, closed in 1993.

For years, Auchentoshan (distillery pictured here) was one of only two “Lowlands” whiskies you’d find on lists in the U.S. (Photo by Keith Fergus/Scottish Viewpoint)

However, with the diversity of styles appearing, the lines that once defined the flavor of scotch by area of production are increasingly unreliable. Robertson says the notion of a ‘Lowlands’ style is now largely irrelevant. “I think it is the case across all the regions where many distillers seek to change, adjust, improve, and innovate,” he says. “Peated whisky from Speyside and the Highlands is now common, and almost everyone uses bourbon barrels and creates a vanilla-led style. There is a huge blurring of what is and what is not a typical style.”

So, although the Lowlands sector is clearly thriving, that does not necessarily mean that the traditional Lowlands style of malt whisky is undergoing a revival. Many of the new generation of Lowlands distilleries show no inclination to emulate the spirit character originally associated with the region.

The County of Fife

In the county of Fife—home to Diageo’s vast Cameronbridge grain distillery—Daftmill was established in 2003 by members of the Cuthbert farming family, who declared their early intention to produce something similar to Rosebank. Although spirit began flowing in 2005, aficionados are still waiting for their first taste of single malt.

Since 2014, three new Fife malt distilleries have emerged to keep Daftmill company, but only one of them is promising a ‘true’ Lowlands style of spirit—Kingsbarns Distillery. Located near St Andrews on the Fife coast, Kingsbarns operates in an 18th century farmstead on the Cambo Estate and is owned by independent bottler Wemyss Malts.

Like Kingsbarns, Eden Mill is located just a few miles from St Andrews, in the village of Guardbridge, on the site of a former paper mill. Drinks industry veteran Paul Miller established Eden Mill Brewery in 2012, and subsequently decided to add a craft distillery to the operation to create whisky he describes as, “coastal Highland and robust.”

Inchdairnie Distillery at Kinglassie is a newly constructed and innovative operation. It is equipped with a mash filter and hammer mill instead of the customary mash tun, which allows it to process winter barley as well as the more generally used spring barley. It operates high-gravity fermentation to generate more intense flavors and boasts stills with double condensers intended to ensure greater copper contact for a ‘cleaner’ spirit. According to distillery manager Scott Sneddon, “We set out to push the boundaries to give maximum flexibility of spirit styles.”

In addition to conventional pot stills, Inchdairnie is equipped with a Lomond still, a cross between a pot and a column still. “We will sometimes use it for triple distillation and, if we used it instead of the conventional spirit still, it would give much more reflux and a lighter spirit. Generally, the spirit is full-bodied and complex, with a slightly sweet edge,” says Sneddon.

Distillery managing director Ian Palmer explains, “We are fortunate not to be under any commercial pressure to release our whisky, so we will wait until the whisky is at its absolute best, which could be in 10, 12, or 15 years’ time; only time will tell.”

Grit and Peat

Douglas Laing & Co.’s new Glasgow-based distillery is due to commence production in 2018/19. According to managing director Fred Laing, a significant amount of the whisky made will be used in the independent bottler’s established range of blended malts. “We are therefore looking for a more robust spirit than the lighter, more aperitif style of floral or herbal Lowlanders,” explains Laing. “That will hopefully take us to a style more akin to the Highlands, which is full-bodied, rich, honeyed, spiced, and with a distinct mouthfeel and palate.”

Breaking with Lowlands tradition seems a recipe for success for Ailsa Bay. Their eagerly anticipated 2016 release was as far from a traditional Lowland single malt as you could get—no age statement, peated malt, initially matured between 6 and 9 months in 24 100-liter Hudson Baby bourbon casks before being transferred to virgin oak, first-fill, and refill American oak casks for several years.

After languishing for decades, the Lowlands region is on the rise, a geographic region offering new whiskies that are, at least figuratively, all over the map. There will soon be a chance to sample traditional Lowlands whiskies and new expressions that will help redefine the region for a new generation of whisky enthusiasts.

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