Rosebank Distillery revived after decades-long absence

Rosebank Distillery revived after decades-long absence

After standing silent for 30 years, the iconic Lowland distillery is finally making whisky again thanks to a significant renovation by new owner Ian Macleod Distillers which has married the old with the new

Distillery Focus | 11 Jun 2024 | Issue 198 | By Gavin Smith

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There is an old boxing adage that heavyweights never come back. Happily, this does not apply to distilling heavyweights, as three of the most highly regarded silent distilleries in Scotland are once again making their presence felt.


The distilleries in question are Brora, Port Ellen, and Rosebank: the aficionados’ top three on any wish list for revival. Of these, Brora and Port Ellen were culled as part of owner United Distillers’ 1980s rationalisation programme, while Rosebank — located beside the Forth and Clyde Canal at Camelon, on the outskirts of Falkirk — lasted in the same ownership until falling silent in 1993.


The late Michael Jackson described Rosebank as “the finest example of a Lowland malt” and considered its demise “a grievous loss”. But spirit is once again flowing through its three distinctive stills thanks to a highly ambitious revival programme carried out by new owner Ian Macleod Distillers, whose portfolio includes Glengoyne and Tamdhu whisky distilleries and the Smokehead and Edinburgh Gin brands.


After closing Rosebank, Diageo retained the trademark, and whisky making on the site was prohibited until at least 2018, by which time Ian Macleod’s managing director Leonard Russell and his team were in negotiations to buy the distillery. Russell explains, “We then did a deal with Diageo to get the trademark and the last few casks of whisky made before the distillery closed. In return, Diageo received stocks of malts that we had laid down from some of their distilleries.”

Rosebank Distillery, with its iconic chimney

The Rosebank production structures were in a poor condition. Thought was given to using canal-side buildings for whisky making, but engineers reported that would not be structurally feasible. Work on site began in 2019 with the canal-side buildings being repurposed as offices and tasting rooms, while an entirely new glass-fronted production area was constructed.


One feature that had to stay was Rosebank’s landmark 108ft chimney — a staple of the Falkirk skyline since the 1860s. When the new production facility was built, the chimney was cleverly incorporated into its front wall, so that as visitors pass from the tun room to the still room it juts out into the corridor, offering a tangible connection between the old and new. ‘Old’ is also represented by the liberal use of timbers salvaged from warehouses around the production and tasting facilities.


When it came to equipping ‘new’ Rosebank, the only surviving piece of kit was a Boby mill, which had been transferred from Port Ellen Distillery to Rosebank in 1936. The three pot stills remained undisturbed for some time after the distillery’s closure, but were stolen around Christmas 2008. However, Diageo’s in-house coppersmith company Abercrombie of Alloa had retained the still blueprints, which Forsyths set about replicating. Each is the same individualistic shape, but all are slightly larger.


The person chosen for the manager’s hot seat and tasked with creating Rosebank-style spirit from the new equipment was Malcolm Rennie. An Islay native, his distilling career began at Bruichladdich and carried on at Ardbeg and Glen Moray, before a return to Islay and the establishment of Kilchoman. He gained further valuable experience working with new distilling kit at Annandale and Lochlea, before joining the Ian Macleod team.

Leonard Russell and Malcolm Rennie at Rosebank Distillery

“I took the job because of the iconic status of Rosebank,” he explains. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to start it up again. There’s a weight of expectation on my shoulders, but I enjoy that.”


As if working with new equipment wasn’t challenging enough, recreating ‘original’ Rosebank spirit has been made even trickier because there is no new make from the previous regime with which to make comparisons. However, Rennie and the rest of the team are very pleased with the spirit that has flowed since the first distillation on 5 June 2023, almost 30 years since the stills went cold. “Our aim is to produce whisky that is stylistically very similar, but slightly better, as barley variety and yeasts have moved on since 1993,” says Russell.


Rennie describes the spirit as “very approachable and very smooth”, with citrus and floral notes. “It’s balanced and complex at the same time. Old Rosebanks tended to be spirit led, rather than showing undue wood influence, and we want to showcase the actual spirit like they did.”


The three stills are housed in a glass-fronted still room, while the trio of wooden worm tubs stand behind windows to the rear, allowing the public a first-hand look at the unique combination of triple distillation and worm tub usage, which leads to a distinctive ‘light/full’ stylistic contrast.


Rennie says this contrast extends beyond the combination of still and condenser to the stills themselves. “The intermediate still has a significant effect on spirit character because it is tall, elegant, and slender, allowing for lots of reflux. The spirit still is less elegant, quite small and dumpy. It offers much less reflux than the intermediate still.”


The distillery functions with one operative per shift and is running 24/7, with three shifts per day. It has an annual capacity of 1 million litres and will run at that level, at least for the first few years, in order to lay down stock.


Spirit is tankered away to Glengoyne to be filled to cask, with the wood of choice being fresh and refill bourbon casks, along with some sherry butts and a few experimental vessels. Rennie points out that in the past, refill bourbon casks were widely used to mature Rosebank.

One of the new tasting rooms

The likely first release date for ‘new’ Rosebank is some way off. Russell says, “We probably won’t bottle it for at least eight years. Previously, at eight it was quite widely lauded.” Meanwhile, for everyone eager to see Rosebank’s revival for themselves, it will be open to the public from June 2024 with tickets available to buy online from 25 March.


Three visitor experience levels will be on offer. The vast majority of people are expected to opt for Rosebank Reawakening, which will be available every day of the week. In addition to a tour of the production area, participants will have chance to sample new-make spirit, along with mature whisky from Glengoyne and Tamdhu to give informative stylistic comparisons. For anyone looking to sample aged Rosebank and embrace a more in-depth tour, Rosebank Rekindled and Rosebank Revered options are available.


There are no fewer than six tasting rooms, while a visitor reception and spacious retail area have been developed in one of the old warehouses, providing a showcase for the diverse Ian Macleod portfolio of spirits including limited editions.


An immersive audiovisual presentation explores the history of Rosebank and its redevelopment, emphasising the point that Rosebank is back in Scottish family ownership as it was with its original owners, the Rankine family. “Founded by the Rankines, reawakened by the Russells” is the mantra here.

A Rosebank whisky tasting flight

A small working dunnage warehouse reconstruction has been created to house about 100 casks, some filled with new spirit and others dating from 1990–93. Premium tour participants will have the option to take advantage of a Living Cask ‘bottle your own’ option using the 1990–93 stocks available.


To date, there have been 30- and 31-year-old bottlings of Rosebank in the Global Release series, with a final variant due in May, while the Vintage Series in global travel retail has so far featured 29- and 32-year-old releases, out of a planned total of five. Additionally, the launch of a distillery-exclusive bottling will coincide with Rosebank’s opening to the public. Visitors will be able to buy new-make spirit in the shop, and various ages of young spirit will be offered to tour participants as time goes by, but no work-in-progress releases are planned and there will be no cask sales.


Russell adds, “What we’ve done should make the people of Falkirk and malt lovers happy. We’ve had letters from locals saying they’ve missed the smell of whisky making over the years since Rosebank closed! The work took longer and cost significantly more than we expected, but I’m very proud of it.”


The once-decimated Lowland classification of malt whisky has seen greater expansion than any other Scottish region in recent years. Rosebank’s triumphant revival is not only a boon for the region, but also proves that big hitters sometimes do make it back into the ring.

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