The Lowlands laboratory: the region’s experimental new whisky-makers

New independent distilleries are springing up in the Lowland region of Scotland and breaking free from its traditional style of whisky. Johanna Derry Hall speaks to producers about the diversity drinkers can look forward to when their new drams hit the shelves

Words by Johanna Derry Hall

bladnoch distillery
Bladnoch has 200 years of history but is one of the Lowland distilleries experimenting with new styles of whisky

What defines a ‘Lowland whisky’? The Scotch Whisky Association suggests flavours ‘reminiscent of grass, honeysuckle, cream, ginger, toffee, toast and cinnamon’, and historically the expectation has been that Lowland whiskies are light. ‘I think a lot of people see it as a beginner’s whisky,’ says Drew Mckenzie Smith, founder and managing director of Lindores Abbey Distillery. ‘We would refute that.’

They’re not the only ones. For decades, the Lowland region, roughly covering the area south of a line between the Clyde Estuary and the north bank of the River Tay, has been home to less than a handful of whisky distilleries. Most famous of these have been Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie and Rosebank, the last of which has, until this summer, lain dormant since 1993.

Port of Leith
Vaibhav Sood, master distiller at the new Port of Leith distillery in Edinburgh, with one of the stills

But in recent years, a rash of new independent producers have set up shop in the region. Many, like Lindores Abbey, aren’t making spirit that adheres to the traditional style and even those that do are querying the relevance of the Lowland label. ‘I think the term “classic Lowland” misrepresents the evolution of styles and characteristics within the region,’ says Euan Kinninmonth, whisky brand ambassador at Eden Mill in St Andrews. ‘As new Lowland distilleries have opened their doors, we’ve seen each brand adding its own interpretation, with a much more flexible approach to production techniques and maturation plans. Even within Fife, there are notable differences between each of the whisky producers.’

The term ‘classic Lowland’ misrepresents the evolution of styles and characteristics within the region – Euan Kinninmonth

Over in the west, the sentiment is the same. ‘We don’t really think of ourselves as a typical distillery, let alone a typical Lowland distillery,’ says Seb Bunford-Jones from The Glasgow Distillery Co. Splitting their production year into three, they make three different styles of new make – double distilled and triple distilled unpeated single malts, plus a peated single malt. ‘These three different strands of DNA give us a wider set of flavours to play with – from light, smooth, crisp and citrus-led styles to really waxy, oily, heavily peated styles,’ he explains. ‘Waxy’ and ‘oily’ are certainly not words you often hear associated with the Lowland style.

‘There’s a romanticising of that delicate floral character, of which Rosebank is a perfect example,’ says Vaibhav Sood, master distiller at the Port of Leith distillery in Edinburgh. ‘But newer distilleries cannot compete with legends. We have to form our own market.’ Production at the Port of Leith began earlier this year and Sood’s aim is to create ‘something fruity but more medium-heavy’ than the classic Lowland style. It’s a profile he says is a ‘preference for everybody in the company. You cannot make a product you’re not passionate about making.’

David Keir
David Keir of Ardgowan, a new producer constructing a state-of-the art, carbon-negative distillery to the west of Glasgow

John Campbell, master blender at Lochlea distillery in Kilmarnock says that many distilleries in the Lowlands are in the same position. ‘They’re relatively young and up and coming, so have to do things slightly differently. We don’t have 200 years of whisky-making history behind us. For us, there’s still the unknown element. At Lochlea, everything’s done on the farm and that is an element that we think is valuable. But, equally, we can’t say how valuable yet.’

An awareness of how time has organically and authentically created a homogenous Lowland style is a recurring theme amongst the newer producers. It brings the realisation that simply attempting to ape it is limiting and potentially counterproductive. ‘We don’t have the hand of history on our shoulder,’ says David Keir from Ardgowan Distillery. ‘There’s no preconception of what our whisky should be so we can go and do our own thing. Being in the Lowlands, it’s almost like you’re out of the traditional whisky loop, so we can be innovative.’ For Ardgowan, innovation looks in part like the bespoke creation of what they’re calling an ‘infinity sherry cask’, undergoing a super-long seasoning period well over the industry average at Sanlucar de Barrameda, which Keir says will be ‘absolutely soaked in sherry’ to allow the distillery to produce a spirit designed for super-long, or almost infinite, maturation. ‘When there are no expectations, that frees you to come up with a vision and to deliver it. There’s a blank canvas there for us.’

Dr Nick Savage
Dr Nick Savage, Bladnoch's master distiller, joined the company in 2019 having previously been master distiller at The Macallan

That’s not to say that history or geography are irrelevant. According to records, a form of spirit was being made on site at Lindores Abbey before the Reformation. Lochlea was farmed by Robert Burns for a time and their distilling process references whisky-making practices dating back a century. And for distilleries like Bladnoch, with whisky stocks already in house, history is all around them.

‘I describe Bladnoch as a brand-new 200-year-old distillery,’ says Dr Nick Savage, the distillery’s master distiller. ‘We’ve got history and heritage; we’ve got maturing stocks; and that means we’ve got something to pay homage to. Yet we’re able to create our own narrative, our own story, our own way of making the whisky because that’s the new bit.’ For Savage, this means putting flavour and quality first, experimenting to improve the spirit, and being transparent about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. These are values shared by others across the region, as Bunford-Jones explains: ‘Our location is very influential to us in that it embodies industriousness, authenticity and transparency. Our approach to making whisky is honest, open, transparent and focused on good quality.’

Newer distilleries cannot compete with legends – Vaibhav Sood

While most if not all of the new Lowland distilleries make a virtue of their freedom to innovate, there are few as experimental as Edinburgh’s Holyrood Distillery, where each distillery run explores a different yeast, malt or fermentation time. ‘I think the vagueness of what Lowland whisky is, is what makes it exciting,’ says Calum Rae, distillery manager at Holyrood. ‘Being brand new has really allowed our experimental nature to step forward.’

Embra whisky
Embra is one of the first two releases from Holyrood but represents a distinctively different style to the other, called Arrival

Nevertheless, even the choice of ingredients is influenced by a sense of history and place, as Rae explains: ‘Flavour drives everything we do and the fact we’re a brand new distillery is freeing. But we look at the past to inform our future and we use loads of different varieties of malt and yeast in reference to Edinburgh’s brewing heritage.’

Put Holyrood’s first two releases – Arrival and Embra – side by side and it’s clear they’re two completely different styles. As the new Lowland distilleries start releasing whiskies, the diversity and creativity apparent in microcosm at Holyrood is only becoming more apparent across the region. Rather than Lowland being synonymous with a particular style, the opposite seems to be true – a drinker won’t necessarily know what flavour profile to expect when they pour a Lowland dram for the first time but the surprise is certain to be a good one.