Sometimes, Lowlands whisky gets a bad rap. Or no rap at all. But there’s more to Lowlands whisky than meets the eye. Or the palate. Much more.
Let’s start with the grain whisky industry. What’s grain whisky, you ask? As you probably know, blended scotch whisky has always dominated the market. In fact, single malt whisky has only really been popular for the past 40 years or so. Even today, at the height of single malt popularity, single malt scotch whisky only comprises about 10-15% of scotch whisky sales. So that leaves 80 per cent plus of the scotch whisky market as blends.
So where does grain whisky factor into all this? Well, it generally makes up more than two thirds of the scotch whisky in a blend. And where is the vast majority of this grain whisky made? In the Lowlands, where 5 of the 7 Scottish grain distilleries are located. And these facilities are massive. Where single malt is made from barley in individual batch stills, grain whisky is made from a variety of grain (wheat, corn, etc) in giant continuous stills, some of which produce 100 million liters/year. That’s a lot of whisky.
So who owns these grain distilleries? Diageo, William Grant, and Chivas are three of the biggest producers. They use this grain whisky to produce a host of household name blends, such as Chivas Regal, Grants, Famous Grouse, Ballentines, Johnny Walker, Dewers, J&B, Teachers, and Cutty Sark. It’s big business, and the heart and soul of it is based in the good old Lowlands.
However, the Lowlands whisky adventure includes much more than monster grain distilleries. Way down south, near the Scottish/English border, lies the Bladnoch Distillery. In fact, it’s the most southerly distillery in Scotland. And it’s the oldest private distillery in Scotland, operating since 1817. And, it’s home to the Bladnoch Distillery School, a three day hands-on whisky experience where students get to do everything from milling to mashing, fermentation, distilling, and casking. You even get to sign the cask that you fill. Whisky school. To quote Van Halen – “But then my homework was never quite like this.” Heavenly….
Next, we head to Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city and birthplace of lots of neat people. Like David MacCallum from The Man From Uncle. And some of music fame as well, including Augus Young of ACDC guitar fame, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and the great 80’s band Simple Minds. And a couple of famous Billys – Boyd of Lord of the Rings fame, and comedian Billy Connolly. But for us Canadians, at the top of the list is Sir John A MacDonald, first Prime Minister of Canada and reputed whisky enthusiast.
All this has little to do with Lowlands whisky, other than the fact that Glasgow is also home to the Auchentoshan Distillery. Founded in 1800 by John Bulloch, as the Duntocher Distillery, it was relaunched in 1823 as Auchentoshan. The name is Gaelic for ‘corner of the field’. I guess the owners wanted to save all of their originality for their great triple distilled products. Because it is located in an industrial region close to the Glasgow shipyards, in 1941, the distillery was bombed by the Germans, damaging buildings and leaving large craters on the property. In 2011, on the 70th anniversary of the bombing, Auchentoshan released a commemorative release of 70 bottles for auction, with the proceeds going to local charity.
Meanwhile, up near Edinburgh, the Glenkinchie Distillery is making quite a name for itself. Two names, actually. The Edinburgh Malt, because of its location on the outskirts of the city, and The Lowlands Lady, named for the light, floral flavors of the whisky. Glenkinchie is best know for being one of the Four Corners distilleries that makes Johnny Walker whisky. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 that bottling under the Glenkinchie label started in earnest. It also happens to have the largest still in Scotland, at a whopping 31,000 liter capacity. So, for local Edinburgh legends, like Sean Connery, Alexander Graham Bell, Tony Blair, and Robert Louis Stevenson, I’m sure that Glenkinchie has been a local favorite.
Glenkinchie – A truly picturesque distillery with a rich Johnny Walker history.
One final note. Lowlands whisky is enjoying a bit of a resurgence with the establishment of two newer distilleries. Annandale Distillery, in southern Scotland is producing some new products, including Outlaw King, a blend named in honor of Robert the Bruce. And Eden Mill Brewery and Distillery is up and running in St. Andrews on the site of the old Haig Distillery. So far they’ve produced a blend and three years of single malts.
That’s it for now. Keep an eye out for these great Lowlands brands. Light, floral, and tasty. Cheers!