As recently as the early 2000s, the Scottish whisky region known as the Lowlands had only a few remaining distilleries to its name. Historically known for the production of lighter malts and grain whiskies, many used in bigger blends, The Lowlands is a region that has always struggled to capture the public imagination in the same way as Islay, Speyside and The Highlands. But the last decade and change has slowly but surely turned more attention in the direction of the Lowlands, as a new crop of young distilleries has swelled the ranks of those producing malts in the region and expanded the definition of what “Lowland-style” might imply—what was once a style defined by just Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie and Bladnoch now includes the likes of Ailsa Bay, Daftmill, Eden Mill and others.
That infusion of energy has likewise positively impacted some of the old stalwarts, and put an impetus on experimentation and new product development. Bladnoch is one such 204-year-old brand, a distillery marked by long periods of dormancy and frequent changes of ownership, followed by periods of productivity. In recent years, the brand once again revived itself after being purchased in 2015 by Australian entrepreneur David Prior. In 2019, the company formally added Dr. Nick Savage as its new Master Distiller, formerly Master Distiller of The Macallan, and opened its Visitor Centre and Melba Cafe. The messaging is clear—the most southerly scotch whisky distillery in Scotland (physically closer to Ireland than Glasgow) wants to make a splash, and announce itself as a serious player in the single malt scene.
To that effect, the distillery has recently announced a new core collection of single malt whiskies for the U.S. market. They are the non-age-stated Vinaya, Bladnoch 11 Year Old, and Bladnoch 14 Year Old. Combining elements of traditional ex-bourbon barrel and sherry cask maturation, the three new Bladnoch bottlings claim to “perfectly showcase the signature Lowland style and range of flavors the historic distillery is known for—floral, spice and fruits, with a hint of chocolate.”
We’ve got samples of all three, so naturally, let’s get to tasting and see how these stack up. All are non-chill filtered and presented at natural color.
ABV: 46.7% (93.4 proof)
It has become common practice in the last decade for the “entry level” bottle in a distillery’s single malt collection to be a non-age-stated (NAS) brand, but this is rarely so simple as just saying “it’s a younger malt than our age-stated expressions.” Instead, the introductory NAS brands have a tendency to feature slightly higher proof points as a way to bump up their assertiveness of flavor, and many of them also feature aging techniques meant to replace some of the flavor or color they don’t get a chance to achieve through a slower, more traditional maturation. This can mean that a portion of the malt is matured or finished in wine casks such as sherry or port, or in recent years it’s also become popular to use virgin oak for some or all of these NAS expressions. In other words, these introductory brands tend to focus on bigger, less subtle flavors. Bladnoch’s Vinaya conforms to the expectation with its higher proof point, but surprisingly this 46.7% ABV is actually standard to the entire new U.S. range. Both the 11 Year and 14 Year are likewise 46.7% ABV, which is something that the whisky geeks will no doubt be happy to see.
“Vinaya,” which according to the distillery is “a Sanskrit word meaning respect and gratitude,” is the second NAS malt in the company’s portfolio, following the 2018 release of Samsara. It’s matured in a combination of both first fill ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, and bottled at the aforementioned 46.7% ABV.
On the nose, this one gives me lots of stewed fruits, with dark and dried notes of raisin, plum and prune—the sherry character here being anything but subtle. These fruity tones are met by vanilla and some crisp grain character hiding underneath it. The texture is quite slick, but a bit on the watery side. On the palate, this one is redolent in big flavors of dark fruit, with more baking spice, sweet cinnamon and hints of spicy oak, along with a slightly prickling ethanol character. The profile runs to the sweeter side, with elements of toffee and some nutty cocoa, but it feels like a case where one of the maturation casks (the sherry) has ultimately defined the vast majority of the flavors here, for better or worse. It’s not lacking for flavor or sweetness, but it also doesn’t make judging the core malt of Bladnoch very easy.
ABV: 46.7% (93.4 proof)
This first age-stated brand is more or less the polar philosophical opposite of the NAS Vinaya, being a 100% ex-bourbon cask matured single malt that is much more focused on the specific, regional subtleties of what Bladnoch refers to as “traditional Lowland style single malt.”
On the nose, this one is certainly milder than the Vinaya, without the big punch of stewed fruits and darkly caramelized sugars. Here I’m getting honeycomb and some beeswax, with faint impressions of buttered bread. Bladnoch calls out apple a lot in their tasting notes, but it’s more of a red fruit impression to me, oddly like strawberry candies. It’s a bit sharp on the palate, with some acidity that gives the fruit a brightness and suggests a slightly tropical dimension as well. At the same time, you also pick up a bit on the char of the bourbon barrel, which contributes a little drying tannin and hints of tart woodiness and green peppercorn spice. There’s a slight bitterness to the roast, akin to the bitterness of espresso without the sweetness. Bladnoch 11 Year Old finishes fairly dry, absolutely standing out as a very different dram from both sherry influenced brands that flank it.
ABV: 46.7% (93.4 proof)
Kudos to Bladnoch for holding on to the unusual 46.7% ABV even as the age statement creeps upward, as this no doubt results in an increased cost for the company. The 14 Year Old expression rolled out in 2021 is “an elegant Lowland single malt matured in ex-Oloroso sherry casks.” Unlike the Vinaya, this appears to be matured entirely in ex-sherry casks.
One might expect that to make this dram even more of a sherry bomb than the Vinaya, but in reality it’s actually a bit more balanced—possibly the result of re-used sherry casks rather than first-fill given the longer maturation, or the underlying malt whisky contributing a bit more flavor of its own. Regardless, the nose on this 14 Year Old displays warm, malty tones, slightly boozy, suggesting brandy-soaked dark and dried fruits. I’m getting hints of candied ginger and citrus, followed by a palate with lots of spice and dried fruit (raisin, prune), but also somewhat more savory and meaty tones—it’s making me think of braised meat with a sauce made from dried fruit. I’m also finding little hints of mocha, and these expressive barrels likewise contribute significant oak and spice, especially in the form of hot cinnamon candies.
All in all, a fairly rich dram, although not overwhelmingly sweet in terms of residual sweetness. I expect this will likely be the most lauded of the new U.S. collection, although I’m still finding it to be a bit thin, texturally, which may simply be an aspect of the Lowland style that I haven’t yet fully grasped. Regardless, these new Bladnoch bottles are on U.S. store shelves now, so if you want to get more of a feel for Lowland single malt, now is a great time to do so.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.