Scotland 2013 - Day 7 - The Last King of the Lowlands

Of all the regions hit hardest by the recent snowstorms, the Isle of Arran, Kintyre Peninsula, and Lowlands where at the top of the list. Just a few days ago this area was buried in powder. Now when I say Lowlands, I'm not talking about Auchentoshan or Glenkinchie Lowlands. Those distilleries are no further South than Glasgow or Edinburgh. Even the newest Lowlander, Daftmill, is due North of these cities - on a longitude with Glen Goyne, which is considered a Highland whisky. Yet, the Lowlands still remains a geographical whisky-producing region, despite the fact that the true South of Scotland contains only one distillery currently releasing single malt expressions.

The town of Girvan has a distillery. A gigantic grain operation run by William Grant (some K&L customers might remember the Girvan grain cask we did a few years back). Ladyburn used to be inside of this facility. Grant has recently build a new Lowlander named Ailsa Bay, which sits next door, but that whisky has yet to mature into anything yet. Another small operation, Annandale, was recently founded deep in the Lowlands as well, but it too is still too young to release any whisky of merit.

The South of Scotland isn't a very populated region. About 25,000 people live in a 100 square mile radius. There's not much of an economy down there unless you're a farmer, a plumber, an electrician, or a butcher.

The coastline is completely barren in some places. Some parts look across to the Isle or Arran and at other places you can see Northern Ireland. It is deep within this part of Scotland, almost down near the border with England, that you can find one of the true Lowland distilleries in the Lowlands. It's not near anything you'd want to visit as a tourist and it's not on the way to anywhere else. You need to make the effort if you're going to visit this facility.

The river Bladnoch flows through the town bearing the same name. Immediately situated upon this waterway sits the eponymous distillery, a mysterious distillery that has been the subject of much rumor and drama over the past few years. Takeovers, familiy feuds, buyouts, reopenings, closures, and fist-fights have all made their way into this distillery's recent whisky lore. What was once a Diageo operation was purchased by the Armstrong brothers in 1994 and nothing has gone as planned ever since.

We didn't really have an appointment at Bladnoch. Getting the current operation manager on the phone isn't possible. He doesn't answer email either. However, after a series of successful independently-bottled Bladnoch bottlings that have had K&L customers singing their praises, we knew we needed to get into this distillery. We knew it was family-owned. We just didn't know the extent to which this family's internal fighting had affected operations. The story of Bladnoch over the past decade is absolutely insane. It's so over the top that I don't really feel comfortable reporting the details here on this blog.

Did we make it in to the distillery? You bet we did. Did we sample casks? Yes. Apparently, getting the chance to purchase booze from Bladnoch depends upon which brother is operating the site that day. Do we plan on getting some whisky directly from the distillery into the states? Yes we do. That's the important part.

What some may not know, however, is that Bladnoch is effectively a silent distillery. They haven't operated the stills in more than three years, actually. The inability for the two Armstrong brothers to agree on a direction has put a complete halt on operations, but the whisky they've distilled over the past ten years is outstanding. We've all (at least us in the industry) heard stories about the current situation. We've tasted some of the current distillery bottlings (not all that impressive). That's not what's happening in the barrel, however. The lukewarm reception to the current expressions is based upon weak blending skills, not distillation or maturation.

You'll see what we mean later this year. When we bring the first post-Diageo Bladnoch distillate to California, you'll all be believers, too.

More on this later.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll