No fate but what we make

Posted 11 October 2019 by Matt / In Ailsa Bay
The dramble reviews Ailsa Bay 1.2 Sweet Smoke

Bottle Name: Ailsa Bay 1.2 Sweet Smoke

ABV: 48.9%
Distillery: Ailsa Bay
Region: Lowlands

Scotland. An unknown time in the future. Following the early 21st Century boom in demand for whisky, production is at an all-time high. Competition from on-trend new world producers has taken its toll, and over the years the SWA have been forced to gradually relax the rules which govern the production of Scotch whisky – tradition is slowly sacrificed on the altar of global competitiveness. Age statements are, for all but the most wealthy, a thing of the past. Automation and efficiency are vital to capitalise on the hungering needs of the modern, connected and educated consumer – with an abundance of choice and no regional styling to guide tastes – you snooze, you lose. Deliver or die – or someone else will take your place. 

Whisky laden drones take to the skies transporting liquid by the case load, whilst distilleries look increasingly like 20th Century DIY stores - producing bottlings filled on-spec based on customer submitted ‘data points’. It’s an age of technological drinking. And yet, despite all of the hype of the last 50 years, rapid-ageing still hasn’t been mastered, nor widely adopted.

A somewhat dystopian vision of the future of whisky world – though nevertheless you can already see technological innovation being both adopted and driven by the industry. OK, perhaps not at Springbank – they’ll be producing whisky with rubber bands and sticky tape until the sun boils, but elsewhere, computerisation and in particular the leveraging of data is being increasingly viewed as vital for the future of whisky. It sounds obvious, but not all that long ago, the only guide to what a distillery had maturing in its warehouses were its hand written ledgers. Casks went missing, some never existed in the first place.

People have a very romantic image of whisky’s past (and companies have been keen to rose tint this – history sells – at least for now) – but the reality was often one of drunkenness, haphazardness and sheer guesswork. There was little understanding of maturation processes in term of their physical chemistry – wood was filled with spirit – some casks would eventually produce amazing liquid – some would be disgorged and found to be totally naff. And it didn’t really matter back then – most of the production was blended away – homogenised to a point where the variances were irrelevant. But nowadays, with single malt riding the crest of a wave, the highs and lows of production are much more visible. Whilst warehouses are larger and more numerous, they’re much harder to hide in.

A visit to Waterford over in Ireland will quickly show you the level of data it’s possible to gather from field through to glass – and let me tell you, it’s staggering. But, nevertheless, don’t be fooled into thinking that less automated, less outwardly technologically focussed distilleries are not similarly trying to employ both science and rigor into their operations. Whisky has for the most part grown up to the realities of production in the 21st Century - randomness and happenstance may still occur - but they’re no longer the plat du jour.

There will undoubtedly be increasing competition in the marketplace in the future – you only have to look at the number of new distilleries that are opening. Whilst their LPA is relatively tiny compared to that of the big boys (who, it’s worth noting have also upped their capacities significantly), the level of choice that the consumer is going to be faced with over the next decade will be remarkable. Not all of these new ‘craft’ / small outfits are going to survive. Whisky is a complicated thing – until it isn’t – make tasty liquid and sell it at a reasonable price. At the end of the day that’s the aim – and some liquid is most certainly tastier than others – usually because it’s been well thought out and well-made. But where’s the science in that? Is there any?

Science and whisky can be a dangerous arena – once the marketeers get hold of it. Brands increasingly need strong stories to stand out in the marketplace – to open doors whereby consumers can realise that they are one of the producers following the tried and tested – ‘think it out, make it well method - as opposed to those with the mindset of ‘make it cheaply, make it quickly’. But, in some ways scientific progress can’t keep up the demands of the marketplace – increasingly, I’m seeing ever more tenuous claims of whisky vs. science. “The latest this….” “The first to ever do that….” So of these things matter, but many of them do not – and in a world where the global narrative is changing to not trusting expert option (honestly the mind boggles), it’s becoming increasingly hard to see the wood through the trees.

Whilst technology is being utilised to achieve amazing things, it’s also being used for miscommunication and distraction. In whisky promotion parlance, you can increasingly see this across brand marketing, especially when it comes to product ‘innovation’. Little to no talk of the actual liquid – just of something new and shiny, cool and tech-y – with the sole aim of dazzling the consumer – a rabbit in the headlights of a consumerism – blinded to the actualities of the liquid itself. Look into my eyes not around the eyes.

Ailsa bay’s first release was accompanied by all manner of pseudoscience phraseology - ‘hacking whisky’, ‘futuristic whisky’, ‘whisky imbued with tech and innovation’. It’s therefore pleasing that the follow-up/re-imagined/renewed version, in the form of Aisla Bay 1.2 Sweet Smoke has toned down the tech-babble a notch or two. The information that’s provided is clear, relatively transparent and should be of genuine interest to consumers. There's still an air of science bullshit abound - but it's certainly a step in the right direction.

The spirit, similarly to the first release has still been initially matured in small (25-100 litre) ex-bourbon barrels sourced from Hudson in New York (utilised for their Baby Bourbon expression) for a six to nine month ‘micro maturation’. And once more, it has then been re-casked into more standard sized barrels (likely 1st fill, refill and virgin wood), before being vatted together and bottled at the same, generous ABV of 48.9%.

But, what’s different this time is the recipe. The SPPM (sweetness parts per million) has been increased from 11 to 19 and the PPM (phenol parts per million – of the liquid not the barley) rises to 22 from 21. Now on paper, these changes don’t sound hugely significant, but, as you’ll see from my tasting note and review below – the composition, whilst similar in character is an entirely different beast to its predecessor – for the better.

The bottling is widely available, and will set you back £55 from retailers such as The Whisky Exchange.

Nose: Immediate earthiness – moist soils and damp mosses – with smoked candied apples, felt roofing tar, bitumen, spent bonfire embers and antiseptic cleaner. Running throughout, rich tea biscuits and a crisp oakiness. Reduction adds orange and lemon peels alongside wild honey – but it also lowers the discernible peat levels.

Taste: Ex-bourbon led flavours are on the arrival – soft vanilla cream, set custard, roasted cereals and hay – these quickly give way to reasonable powerful smoke – vegetal and earthy – smouldering plant matter, burning leaf mulch and moss – joined by an ashy spent hearth – defined, wafting and quite dry. The back palate once again favours the cask with camphor, bark, charred heads and golden syrup. Dilution brings maltiness to the front and send the smoke all to the back – quite an interesting change in development, if not flavour. The smoke levels are less pervasive and more restrained – but still very much in pole position.

Finish: Quite long, delivering sweetness from toffee and citrus peels before returning to earthy peat.

Ailsa Bay 1.2 Sweet Smoke is a much more confident release than that of its predecessor. It’s assertive and as labelled, packed full of sweetness and smoke. Whilst the change to the SPPM and PPM (in particular) don’t initially appear radical on paper, the effect on the overall composition of the release is dramatic. Sweetness is higher, smoke is markedly more discernible and the overall composition just feels much more self-assured. The selection of casks undoubtedly have had as much (if not more) impact than the overall changes to SPPM and PPM – indeed, I suspect they’ve driven them. But, they also feel less youthful, less raw and with much better overall integration. Yet more proof that regionality is by-and-large a historical concept only. 

Score: 85/100

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