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Exploring Whisky Series: Inside the Lowlands

The Lowlands has gone from being Scotland’s also-ran whisky region to one of its most exciting centres for single malts. Peter Ranscombe explores the distilleries putting the area back on the map.

Wind the clock back to the early 1990s and there were only two malt whisky distilleries left in the Lowlands of Scotland. Auchentoshan sat in Clydebank, to the northwest of Glasgow, while Glenkinchie lay beyond Edinburgh in East Lothian.

Then, something magical happened. Having yo-yoed between being open and closed for 200 years, Bladnoch distillery in Galloway returned to production. It was followed by a raft of sites being set up or revived throughout the Borders, the Central Belt, Dumfries & Galloway and Fife.

The story of the Lowlands mirrors the story of distilling’s revival throughout Scotland, with the influence of the craft scene from the US hopping across the pond. An industry dominated by big companies with big brands was suddenly joined by entrepreneurs with new ways of thinking.

What makes the Lowlands so exciting?

Part of that revival story was triggered by the gin renaissance. Suddenly, distilleries could produce a popular white spirit one day and sell it the next, generating income while they waited for their whiskies to mature.

Vodka and even rum followed, with some distilleries concentrating solely on white spirits, while others kept their eyes focused on the ultimate holy grail of single malt. Several bottlers also took the opportunity to create whiskies blended from other distilleries to help bring in cash to finance their own sites.

What makes the Lowland revival so important though is its variety. As well as springing up in more traditional rural locations, the new wave of distilleries has also seen single malt plants returning to Scotland’s cities. These include Clydeside and Glasgow at one end of the M8 motorway, and Crabbie’s Bonnington, Holyrood and Port of Leith’s vertical distillery in Edinburgh.

Where are the Lowlands?

Draw an imaginary line along the Firth of Tay on Scotland’s east coast, which separates Dundee to the north from Fife to the south. Then extend that line southwest until you reach the Firth of Clyde (to the northwest of Glasgow). Now you’ve got the split between the Highlands and the Lowlands.

That whisky line almost follows the real-life Highland boundary fault line. This geographic step-change in the rock types lying below Scotland’s surface begins further up the east coast at Stonehaven. Arbikie, Glengoyne and Loch Lomond distilleries sit in the Lowlands geographically, yet in the Highlands under whisky regulations.

Edinburgh and Glasgow now both boast single malt distilleries once more, to complement their massive grain plants. However the Kingdom of Fife – located on the opposite bank of the Firth of Forth from the Scottish capital – is perhaps the most exciting part of the Lowlands. It is home to Aberargie, Daftmill, Eden Mill, Kingsbarns, InchDairnie and Lindores Abbey, where the first record of whisky originated in 1494.

Close-up of a whisky barrel from Glenkinchie

Whisky barrel at Glenkinchie Distillery

What are the most famous distilleries in the Lowlands?

Given its proximity to Edinburgh, Glenkinchie has been a stalwart on the tourist trail for generations. Meanwhile Auchentoshan is famous for triple – rather than double – distilling its Scotch. Further south, Annandale and Bladnoch have gathered fans, while Lochlea released its first malt this spring. In years to come, look out for whiskies from The Borders, Falkirk and Raer’s Jackton distilleries.

The Lowlands is also home to some of the most famous silent or ghost distilleries. Bottles of Littlemill and Rosebank still appear at auction or from specialists, with prices to match their rarity. In an unusual twist, one of those closed sites, Rosebank, is now in the process of reopening.

While Scotland’s five whisky regions cover single malts, the Lowlands also sits at the heart of grain whisky production. Diageo’s massive Cameronbridge distillery in Fife not only makes components for Bell’s and Johnnie Walker but also Gordon’s gin and Smirnoff vodka, while Edinburgh houses the North British and Glasgow is home to Strathclyde. Girvan continues the long tradition of having malt distilleries hidden away inside grain plants by hosting Ailsa Bay.

What does Lowland whisky taste like?

Flick through the pages of most coffee table whisky books and they’ll tell you that Lowland malts are light and floral, making them ideal aperitifs. That urban myth is more down to marketing than history.

It’s true that Glenkinchie and, to some extent, Auchentoshan can be categorised as lighter and smoother. But in Victorian times most whisky from the Lowlands would have been peated – especially on the west coast – as peat would have been burned to malt the barley.

Nowadays, the diversity of distilleries is reflected in the diversity of styles. They range from peated malts from Annandale and Glasgow through to fruitier examples in Fife. Just as in the Highlands, it’s unlikely that a single style will emerge from among the Lowlands’ new wave of innovative distilleries.

Which Lowland whiskies should I try?

Peter Ranscombe recommends four classic Lowland bottles to seek out

Four bottles of whisky against a white background

Auchentoshan American Oak Lowland Single Malt Scotch

Auchentoshen’s entry-level, triple-distilled whisky spends its entire life in first-fill bourbon casks. A sweet nose, full of vanilla and coconut, with notes of walnut and biscuit landing on the palate. There’s a deliciously oily smoothness to the texture. Alcohol 40%

Bladnoch Alinta Lowland Single Malt Scotch

A peated Scotch, aged in a mix of bourbon and Pedro Ximénez Sherry casks. That combination produces a fascinating mix of sweet and smoky, stretching from lemon curd and roast meat on the nose through to tangy barbecue sauce on the tongue. Alc 47%

Glenkinchie 12-year-old Lowland Single Malt Scotch

A true benchmark Lowland single malt. Aromatic peach, apricot, spun sugar and runny honey lead into richer heather honey, fudge and vanilla on the palate. A much deeper flavour profile than its light colour suggests. Alc 43%

Kingsbarns Distillery Reserve Lowland Single Malt Scotch

Made using barley grown in Fife, this Scotch was matured in a combination of 60% first-fill ex-bourbon barrels and 40% shaved, toasted and re-charred (STR) red wine barriques. Fruity banana and pineapple notes shimmer amid its richer honey and vanilla depth. Alc 61.8%

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