A region of subtlety

A region of subtlety

Gavin D. Smith takes us through this often maligned producing region

Places | 28 Jan 2011 | Issue 93 | By Gavin Smith

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When we think of the Lowlands of Scotland and the malt whiskies they produce, there is sometimes a tendency to compare them unfavourably with the more dramatic and romantic Scottish Highlands and islands and their single malts.

In terms of whisky, the Lowlands are all too often perceived as the poor relations of the Speysides and the Islays; too light and undemanding to be taken seriously by the experienced imbiber. They are seen as not terribly characterful: whiskies for‘the ladies’ and malt virgins of both sexes. This is, of course, emphatically not true. If we have to characterise Lowlands in generalised stylistic terms we can say they are quite delicate, floral, grassy and comparatively sweet. It is all too easy to mistake subtlety for blandness.

Like the whiskies they produce, the geographical Scottish Lowlands offer a gentle charm in rural areas, and also house the country’s main centres of population, industry, commerce and entertainment.

In Edinburgh and Glasgow Scotland has two contrasting, engaging, cosmopolitan cities, each of which boasts a grain distillery at their heart and a malt distillery in their hinterland.

North British grain distillery stands in the Gorgie area of Edinburgh, and Glenkinchie malt distillery, established in 1837, is to be found in the soft, fertile farmland of East Lothian, 18 miles south-east of Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, Glasgow has Chivas Brothers’ Strathclyde grain distillery located in its Gorbals district, while Auchentoshan malt distillery, founded in 1823, is located 10 miles away at Dalmuir, close to the River Clyde.

Distillery-baggers visiting either or both cities will find many fine and varied bars offering large selections of whisky along with a number of specialist retail outlets. Additionally, Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience, situated close to the castle, at the head of the
‘Royal Mile,’ serves as a great introduction to Scotch whisky for the novice, while also providing plenty to interest the more experienced aficionado.

In historical terms, the establishment of a major, commercial Lowland distilling industry can be said to date from the 1770s and ’80s, with no fewer than 23 distilleries being built in the Lowlands during those two decades. Consumption of Scotch whisky virtually trebled between 1777 and1779, as more people moved from the countryside into large towns and cities.

The Lowland region of whisky production, as distinct from the Highland region, was first designated as part of the 1784 Wash Act, which introduced differential duty levels north and south of a theoretical ‘Highland Line,’ running across Scotland from the Firth of Clyde in the west to the Firth of Tay in the east.

Lowland distilleries developed on a large scale because the Lowlands of Scotland grew vast quantities of grain, and there were abundant supplies of coal to fire the malt kilns and heat the stills. The use of coal, rather than peat in the malting process, as practiced in the Highlands, was one factor that helped to define what was to become the quintessential Lowland style.

New distillery projects suggest the ranks could be swollen

Also relevant was the early use of unmalted as well as malted barley, along with quantities of wheat. Additionally, triple distillation was often employed to produce a whisky comparatively light in flavour and body.

By the mid-1830s there were no fewer than 115 licensed Lowland distilleries, and while researching his epic tome The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom half a century later, Alfred Barnard was still able to visit 28 operational Lowland sites.

However, blenders came to prefer Speyside malts to those of the Lowlands, and in his slim volume How to Blend Scotch Whisky, published during the 1890s, Alfred Barnard noted that “Lowland malts alone, without Highland whiskies, would be of little use; the best makes are useful as padding, when they have considerable age and not too much flavour, for they not only help to keep down the price of a blend, but are preferable to using a large quantity of grain spirit.”

The 20th century was far from kind to Lowland malt distilling, though the area continued to be the heartland of large-scale grain whisky distillation, as it remains to this day, along with the focus for blending, bottling and bonding operations for many companies in the Scotch whisky industry.

Little more than a decade ago, the region could muster only two working distilleries, in the shape of Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan, with St Magdalene in Linlithgow having closed in 1983, followed a decade later by the much-mourned Rosebank at Falkirk, Littlemill near Dumbarton and Bladnoch in the far south-west corner of the country.

However, the situation improved slightly with the re-commissioning of Bladnoch during 2000, followed by the opening of Fife’s Daft Mill facility late in 2005. Of today’s four working Lowland distilleries only Daftmill, located close to the historic town of Cupar, does not offer visitor facilities, being a small-scale, family-run operation.

When it comes to visiting Bladnoch, which dates from 1817 and is located near Scotland’s official ‘book town’ of Wigtown, a degree of fortitude is required, not to mention a car. Public transport links to this beautiful and tranquil corner of Galloway, 55 miles from Dumfries, are few and far between. The journey is well worthwhile, however, for a trip to Galloway seems to take the visitor back in time, offering individualistic towns and villages, castles and religious sites to explore, along with a captivating, peaceful coastline.

While Glenkinchie is owned by industry leader Diageo, and Auchentoshan by the Japanese distiller Suntory, via its Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd subsidiary, Bladnoch is in the hands of idiosyncratic Northern Irish businessman Raymond Armstrong, and its visitor experience is accordingly individualistic.

If Bladnoch represents a ‘lost’ Lowland distillery which has been brought back to life, then Annandale, some seven miles north of the English border and 16 miles from Dumfries, is currently undergoing a similar process of restoration.

Whereas Bladnoch’s Raymond Armstrong had only had a seven year period of closure with which to contend, Annandale owners David Thomson and his wife Teresa Church are faced with reviving a distillery that last made whisky
in 1919!
Nonetheless, if all goes to plan, Annandale will be making whisky once more sometime next year, and two entirely new distillery projects in the region suggest that the ranks of Lowland distilleries could be significantly swollen before too long.

At Kingsbarns in Fife there are detailed proposals to convert a derelict farm steading on the Cambo Estate into a craft distillery, and Falkirk is on course to become home to a bespoke, small-scale distillery to carry on the distilling tradition lost when Rosebank closed down in 1993.

The Stewart family’s £5 million Falkirk Distillery Company venture to create a distillery, visitor centre and retail facilities not far from the M9 motorway has gained planning consent, and work on the site looks set to proceed in the near future. The new distillery is to triple-distil its whisky in the old Lowland tradition now only fully practiced at Auchentoshan.

Hopefully, before too long there will therefore be even more reasons for whisky lovers to dally in the Scottish Lowlands rather than immediately head north to the Highlands and islands.

But for now there is still plenty to tempt the visitor to dwell south of the ‘Highland Line,’ and take some time to appreciate that subtlety we mentioned earlier...


Auchentoshan Distillery

Dalmuir, Clydebank, Dunbartonshire G81 4SJ
Open daily, Monday to Saturday, and Sunday afternoons, all year round.
Tel: +44 (0)1389 878561
Website: www.auchentoshan.com

Bladnoch Distillery

Bladnoch, Dumfries & Galloway DG8 9AB
Open Easter to end of October, Monday to Friday, July and August, also Sunday pm. November to Easter by arrangement.
Tel: +44 (0)1988 402605
Website: www.bladnoch.com

Glenkinchie Distillery

Peastonbank, Pencaitland, East Lothian EH34 5ET
Open Monday to Saturday, April to October, and pm on Sundays. Monday to Sunday through November. Monday to Friday, December to Easter (noon onwards).
Tel: +44 (0)1875 342004
Website: www.discovering-distilleries.com
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