First releases from any distillery always tickle the imagination. This time, the first single malt relase from Ailsa bay, a peated NAS bottled at an impressive 48.9 ABV. Let’s jump straight into the tasting notes, shall we? More details further down…
Colour: I never assess a whisky’s colour, for three reasons: it’s not a meaningful exercise unless you are absolutely sure that there is no colour added; it rarely yields meningful information about the whisky; plus, since I am colour blind, the finer differences between pale gold and gold are difficult to assess. However, I will say this much: this whisky can hardly contain colouring. So, hats off to the producers for releasing a pale whisky rather than turning it to amber with artificial colouring. Also, hats off for the ABV. It is indeed a whisky for the geeks that they have chosen to release, William Grant & Sons.
On the nose: peat and smoke, to be sure, but much more subtle than the Islay screamers, and very different from the medicinal, oily and boisterous notes we find in whiskies from that famed island. Here, tones of vanilla and diluted fudge, even caramel sauce, are to the fore. In terms of smoke, this is much more smoky and peated (they are not synonyms, by the way) than Highland Park, much much less so than say your Laphroaig or your Kilchoman. A slowly burning wet fire of leaves in autumn; vanilla powder, or vanilla mixed with sugar; diluted caramel. Somewhat unexcpectedly, herbal notes which are from fresh herbes rather than dried; basil, perhaps even rosemary. Freshly cut apples. Those who are deep into Islay may well find this to be too gentle, but I enjoy this mix of smoke and sweet. A hint of that Swedish peculiarity: salty licorice. With water, the smoke and peat are augmented and the herbal notes come forward, as well as pepper; the vanilla recedes somewhat.
On the palate (undiluted): it is way more peated than on the nose, arriving with an almost acidic smoke; burning birchwood; peppercorn, I think first, but then again, it’s a little sweeter, more like allspice. Herbal and a little oily. It tastes young, something many are not too fond of, but which suites me well. With water: unexpectedly, the smoke calms down and some notes of honey and even heather appear. It’s nice, it’s good, but not amazing.
Finish: we now turn a corner to the gentler ways of the nose; after an initial touch of peppar, a mild and almost sweet peat, enlaced in disreet vanilla. Some fudge and that licorice-with-salt return from the nose. As always, it’s in the finish that young whiskies reveal themselves: it’s fairly short, and not very complex. With water: the vanilla recedes and a mild peppery note meets up with subdued peat and smoke.
To conclude: I like this whisky. I am not amazed by it, but it’s definitely a good, enjoyable dram. I would love to try it head-to-head with other non-Islay peaters, to better suss out the differences between them. The youth is apparent, especially in the finish. For me, I would have loved it if they had gone a little bit further with the peatiness, but that’s me, I like whiskies that are slightly off-balance, and more peat would certainly have clashed with the strong sweetness. It’s a good dram, but just a tad too…nice; cautious, perhaps.They certainly make good peated whisky on Aisla bay, but it would have been nice if they had showcased something just a little more…extreme. Or perhaps just daring?
When just under 500 bottles of this whisky were relased in Sweden just the other day, they sold out quickly. The price tag was the equivalent of around €85. A heavy pricetag for such a young whisky; it’s what we Swedes pay for a Laphroaig 18 YO.
I don’t do exact scoring of whiskies since I think it is an impossible and rather ridiculous exercise. But roughly, I’d say somewhere below 88 and above 82. To be more precise than that would be to try to fool you that I actully know the difference between an 84 and an 86, which I don’t.
On the distillery and the maturation
I have tried this whisky twice. The first time was on a big whisky fair, in a tasting session with five different whiskies during which I really enjoyed it, and found it the best of the five whiskies we tried. This time, tasting it for the blog, I liked it; enjoyed it. Kevin Abrook at Grant’s presented Aisla bay at the masterclass, and shared some things which may interest the reading community. But first, some words on the distillery.
Aisla bay was commissioned in 2007 and was up and running by 2008, essentially to produce a whisky very similar to Balvenie, since more Balvenie was needed to go into the mega-selling blend Grant’s. An absolute majority of what’s distilled on Aisla bay, then, is unpeated whisky destined for Grant’s. However, the ginormous distillery – they distilled roughly 11.5 million litres of pure alcohol in 2015 – also produces peated whiskies: lightly, medium and heavily peated. Kevin Abrook told us during the masterclass that Brian Kingsman, the master blender, wanted to create a peated whisky but without the medicinal tones. Or, as Kevin put it during the masterclass, ”we can’t out-Islay Islay”. Instead of trying to mimick Islay, they tried to make another kind of peated whisky.
The whisky has been matured in a rather innovative way which they call ”cask starting”, as opposed to finishing. Grant’s owns the distillery which makes Hudson baby bourbon, and their smaller casks (from 25 up to 100 litre casks; presumably an absolute majority of 100-litre casks) are used for the first six to eight months of maturation. After this very intense first stage of maturation, the whisky is then moved to refill bourbon barrels, with some first-fill barrels and even some new oak barrels in the mix. In this way, the first stage of maturation is something of a flying start. The whisky is a NAS, sure, but it’s between five and seven years old – naturally, it would be impossible for it be even older. I did not get an absolute answer as to how big this first release might be, but we are talking somewhere around 5000 cases being released, in Scandinavia and London, some of it straight to pubs. So, from Grant’s perspective, this is a very very small first release.
A last word. Most of this blog is in Swedish. If this review interested you, earlier posts in English are a review of Amrut Intermediate sherry, a post on Diageo’s Distiller’s Edition series, two articles concerning the SWA’s critique of Compass Box here and here, and a feminist critique of ”the world of whisky”. Slainte!