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Sunday May 12, 2013
TIPSY-TURVYBy MICHAEL CHEANG
Our columnist samples some whisky from a corner of a field in the Scotch Lowland region.
OF all the whisky regions in Scotland, the Lowlands are probably the most underrated of them all. Most of the more popular single malt whiskies these days come from the Highlands, Speyside or the Islay regions, all of which boast a relatively large number of distilleries.
Over in the Lowlands, however, there are currently only a handful of distilleries still operating – three major ones, to be exact: Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie and Bladnoch.
Of these, Auchentoshan is probably the best known Lowland single malt of them all. Recently, Gordon Dundas, Europe and Asia brand ambassador for Morrison Bowmore Distillers, was in Souled Out Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur, to launch three brands under the company – Bowmore, Glen Garioch and Auchentoshan. During an interview before the event, I got him to shed some light on whiskies from the Lowland region.
Pronounced “awe-khen-tosh-en”, Auchentoshan is a Scottish Gaelic word that means “the corner of a field”, and according to Dundas, the distillery was built in 1823 in the outskirts of Glasgow, very much in the central, most populated part of Scotland.
“There are very few distilleries in that Lowland region of Scotland. There are only three main distilleries in that region producing single malt bottlings right now, and Auchentoshan is the oldest one,” he said, adding that more than 150 years ago, the Lowlands used to produce a vast amount of relatively low-quality whisky.
“There was a huge mass-produced factory element to whisky at that point, and that had a long-term effect in terms of the quality. For many years, single malt didn’t do very well, so many distilleries have closed down as well.”
Today, however, Dundas emphasised that the quality and consistency of the remaining distilleries, particularly Auchentoshan, is so good and the quality of the casks is so high, that the whiskies they produce now are of the finest quality. There are even a few new distilleries popping up in the Lowlands as well.
The Auchentoshan distillery is the only one in Scotland that is 100% triple distilled – another unique characteristic of traditional Lowland whiskies.
During this process, the spirit passes through three uniquely shaped stills, which allows for more copper contact, and thus a lighter and more delicate end product.
According to him, the Lowland whisky style is usually lighter and more delicate, and the triple distillation process helps to enhance that style. “The reason we do it is because it produces a spirit that, at 81.5% ABV (alcohol base volume), is a higher strength than any other distillery,” he explained. “The process takes a lot of the impurities out, and therefore what you see is a very clean nose, freshness in the spirit, and a bit of greenness to it, which is very typical of Lowland whiskies.”
The combination of that light delicate spirit plus the quality of the casks the spirit is put in is what makes Auchentoshan unique.
Of course, you can have the best spirit in the world, but if the cask it is matured in is bad, then you’re ultimately going to have a bad whisky. Fortunately, Auchentoshen puts just as much thought and care into their casks as they do in their spirit, and the beautifully rich Auchentoshan Three Wood expression is a fine example of this.
“The Three Wood doesn’t have an age statement because that is not what this whisky is about. This whisky is about wood. It spends approximately 10 years in a bourbon cask, then we move it into an Oloroso sherry cask for a year, and then finally, we move it into a Pedro Ximenez sherry cask for a year,” Dundas explained.
“The result is a whisky with very strong sherry notes – you get the sherry coming through immediately on the nose. Because it’s not a marriage but a finish, you get a big impact from the sherry casks. There is a big burst of flavour in the beginning, layered on top of the lighter bourbon flavours, and a wonderful syrupy taste, rich onset of big flavours going down the throat.”
The next whisky we tried was the Auchentoshan 18-Year-Old, which added another surprising twist to the story. Matured solely in ex-bourbon casks for 18 years, this was the embodiment of the light, delicate Lowland whiskies I kept hearing about.
Although it is stronger than the Three Wood in terms of alcohol (the 18YO is 43% ABV compared to the Three Wood’s 40% ABV), this feels like a much lighter whisky. It has a more complex mouth feel, with a lovely sweet nose lined with the greenness of the triple-distilled spirit; and on the palate, a wonderful vanilla creaminess comes through with sweetness in the front, and a bit of spiciness at the finish.
While Auchentoshan is generally categorised as a “Lowland whisky”, Dundas reckons the lines have been blurred when it comes to the different regions, and that these categories serve geographical purposes more than anything else.
“To be frank, when people say Lowland whiskies are light and delicate, they are usually talking about Auchentoshan, or potentially Glenkinchie. Calling us a Lowland distillery these days is really more of a location thing than a description of our style,” he said.
“Islay is probably the only region that will have one true characteristic, which is the smokiness. But because of the production of the whisky these days, even if you are a Highland distiller, you can buy peated malt to make a peated version of your whisky. As a whole, the region they are produced in don’t define the whiskies themselves anymore,” he concluded.
Michael Cheang had trouble pronouncing Auchentoshan at first, but a few drams of the whisky soon solved that problem. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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