Scottish distiller William Grant & Sons has put a new riff on peated whisky with its Ailsa Bay Sweet Smoke Single Malt, now available in Australia for the first time.
The whisky comes from the Girvan, Scotland distillery opened by Grant’s in 2009 with the stated objective of developing a new style of smoky dram.
“We use Highland peat, which creates a completely different flavour than that of our west coast island-based cousins,” says Ailsa Bay brand ambassador James Macrae.
“The composition of the terroir of Islay peat is unique to them and creates their flavours.
“Where we source our peat from there’s a lot more bracken and pine. It does tend to create a more bonfire style of smoke – a true representation of wood smoke.”
Macrae says this deliberately avoids the “medicinal” kind of smoke commonly associated with Islay whiskies.
And Ailsa Bay has further defied Islay convention by measuring its peat content – phenol parts per million (PPM) – based on an assessment of the finished whisky, rather than the malted barley before it is distilled.
Brian Kinsman pioneers ‘sweetness index’
The PPM is called out on the bottle alongside an industry-first ‘sweetness index’ (SPPM) pioneered by Grant’s malt master Brian Kinsman, which measures the oak-derived compounds that are responsible for the perceived sweetness of a whisky.
Grant’s claims this scientific measurement of sweetness, along with the more precise calculation of final ‘peatiness’, enabled the creation of a whisky that is perfectly balanced.
Quite how useful these metrics are to consumers will depend whether other distillers choose to follow Grant’s lead in benchmarking their whiskies’ peat content once production is complete.
Islay distiller Ardbeg reportedly uses malt in its whisky that’s been peated to between 50 to 55 PPM.
Ailsa Bay Sweet Smoke is labelled as a comparatively meagre 22 PPM based on Grant’s methodology.
But a side-by-side sensory comparison between the two whiskies leaves no doubt that Ailsa Bay is a significantly more peaty dram.
“People are definitely gravitating to understanding what is in their finished dram,” says Macrae.
“We felt that [finished PPM] was something that we should put on the bottle for a much more accurate representation of the smoke levels.”
Ailsa Bay single malt: Bourbon cask maturation
Ailsa Bay single malt whisky is also the only Scotch whisky to undergo ‘micro-maturation’, a process where the new spirit is first kept in small bourbon casks to age for up to nine months.
“By ‘cask starting’ rather than ‘cask finishing’ the malt, whisky scientists can then layer on a complex matrix of flavours, taking the liquid through rapid, intense maturation and incorporating varying levels of sweetness and smokiness,” the press release says.
The cynic in me assumed this production twist was in reality motivated by a desire to expedite the maturation process, which is routine practice in Australia’s nascent whisky industry.
But Macrae says it has more to do with Grant’s good fortune in being able to access small format casks previously used in bourbon production by its American subsidiary Hudson.
“It’s not at all to try and quicken the time period. Because we are so lucky to have these Hudson Baby Bourbon casks, now owning the Hudson Distillery in Upstate New York, we felt, ‘why put these casks to waste? Let’s use them and see what we get back’,” he says.
“The style of whiskey that Hudson produces, it just lends itself so perfectly to the spirit that we create at Ailsa Bay.
“Thus, we wanted to ensure that that building block of flavour was there before we then move the spirit into virgin, first fill and refill casks that we get from a number of different distilleries across the states.”
Ailsa Bay 1.2 Sweet Smoke is the second release from the namesake distillery. Grant’s says it offers a sweeter expression of Ailsa Bay than the debut release, which did not make it to Australia, and will be superseded globally by the new product.
Sweet Smoke registers at 19 SPPM as compared with the 11SPPM of the first Ailsa Bay release, while the peat content has increased slightly from 21PPM to 22PPM.
“The whiskies are a couple of years older now, so what’s happening is in cask you’re getting a lot more sweetness notes coming through with the extra age,” Grant’s global whisky specialist for innovation, Kevin Abrook, told The Whiskycast.
In total the Girvan distillery produces four different malts for Grant’s to draw upon in composing its blended whiskies.
Aerstone whisky distilled at Ailsa Bay
The Ailsa Bay single malt brand name showcases its most heavily peated expression, while a separate single malt brand, Aerstone, showcases two of the other malts produced at Girvan.
Aerstone Sea Cask uses its unpeated Speyside-style malt, while Aerstone Land Cask features the lightly peated expression, but these two whiskies are yet to be released outside of the UK.
Ailsa Bay is now available in Australia through Vintage Cellars, First Choice and selected Liquorland stores at a recommended retail price of $99 per 700ml bottle.