The ‘King of the Lowlands’ is on track to come back to life by the end of next year. Tom Bruce-Gardyne reflects on what made Rosebank so special, and what to expect when the revered distillery is restored
Derelict Rosebank photos: Peter Sandground
“If there is a God,” declared the ‘other Michael Jackson’, as the famous whisky writer liked to call himself, “Rosebank whisky would be produced again.”
After a century and a half of almost continual production, the Rosebank distillery in Falkirk closed in 1993. It was officially ‘mothballed’ by its owners, UDV (now Diageo), but in 2002 the site was sold to British Waterways, and five years later Michael Jackson died.
Had it been in some remote corner of the Highlands, Rosebank could have remained in a state of limbo for decades, but being in the built-up Central Belt, redevelopment was always more likely. Falkirk’s once renowned Aitken brewery lies buried beneath an Asda superstore, and a similar fate seemed to await its distillery.
As the years rolled by, weeds began to sprout from the cracks in the building and the roof, while the town’s answer to Banksy spray-painted the walls. Inside were eight, guano-splattered washbacks and three pot stills until copper thieves broke in during Christmas 2008 and removed them. At that point it was surely Rosebank R.I.P?
Most people thought it had gone past the point of no return, and that the building was condemned … I think we were the last chance because the building was going to fall down
But no, at the eleventh hour it was saved from extinction by Ian Macleod Distillers (IMD) who bought the site from what was now Scottish Canals, and acquired the trademark and remaining stocks from Diageo in late 2017.
A year earlier, on a cold, dreich day, Leonard Russell, the firm’s MD, and his son “were driving through Falkirk, and the distillery looked quite sad,” he recalls. “My son said ‘Oh, there’s a for sale sign’ and when I researched it, I found most people thought it had gone past the point of no return, and that the building was condemned.”
SAVED: Leonard Russell, MD of Iain MacLeod Distillers, thought that Rosebank had already been condemned
What Leonard also discovered was that Diageo’s 25-year embargo on anyone distilling whisky on the site was due to expire in 2018. A deal was struck, and Rosebank had a new owner. “I think we were the last chance because the building was going to fall down,” he says. Michael Laird Architects were commissioned and plans were submitted to marry the old and the new. The Victorian brickwork of the original maltings and warehouse is being retained to sit beside a contemporary, glass-fronted still house. Above soars the old Rosebank chimney, a Falkirk landmark for generations.
“It’ll have all the traditional kit that we are going to replace with like for like, but the layout inside is going to be different because we want to be able to show visitors round,” says Leonard. The ‘kit’ and how it was used, created a unique single malt whose production process was perverse. It was triple distilled in the Lowland tradition, which points to a clean, gentle new-make given all the extra copper contact, only to be condensed in a set of old-fashioned worms.
“Triple distillation gives you a lighter spirit character, while worm tubs give you something heavier, so you wonder why the previous owners were doing one thing at the start and then contradicting it at the other end,” says Robbie Hughes, the IMD group’s distillation manager. “It’s really quite bespoke, but it’s something we’re going to maintain.” It not only sets Rosebank apart as a supple, beguiling whisky, it helps debunk the myth that Lowland malts are merely for timid folk tiptoeing in from the world of blended Scotch.
Rosebank’s stills are due to come back to life in 2022
LOSING A BEAUTY CONTEST
For Michael Jackson, Rosebank was “the King of the Lowlands” and its demise “a grievous loss”. Others felt the same, which begs the question: why on earth did it ever close? The old Distillers Company (DCL) had sufficient faith in it to lay down stocks for a single malt in the 1970s. A Rosebank 8-year-old joined Linkwood, Talisker and Lagavulin in 1982 in DCL’s Ascot Malt Cellar – a belated, half-hearted bid to join the single malt bandwagon.
Five years later, what was now UDV made a more serious attempt with the Classic Malts, which took the concept of the whisky regions into the mainstream. There was space on the wooden plinth for one Lowlander and Rosebank was the obvious contender.
One imagines a suit from head office was despatched north to choose. He would have toured Glenkinchie with its landscaped gardens amidst rolling East Lothian farmland, before visiting Falkirk and its distillery on the banks of the Forth & Clyde canal (which had closed in the early 1960s). Staring at the stagnant water with doubtless the odd supermarket trolley poking out, the suit would have shaken his head.
There was no contest when it came to aesthetics, and so Rosebank returned to its day job of producing malt for blends while the whisky loch was full to the brim. As well as being small and cramped, there was an impending £2 million bill for an effluent plant and so it closed one sad day in June 1993 with the loss of 15 jobs. “Big mistake,” says Leonard Russell. “Being small, Rosebank was one of the more expensive whiskies to produce, but in my view that’s no reason to close a distillery.”
THE PERFECT SPOT, RESTORED
The canal was very much alive when Alfred Barnard visited Rosebank on his great distillery tour in the 1880s, and he wrote that “boats and steamers are continually passing to and fro.” Together with the nearby Carron ironworks, once the largest in Europe, the canal placed Falkirk at the heart of the Scottish industrial revolution. With a local thirst to satisfy and easy access to Glasgow and Edinburgh, it was an ideal spot for a distillery, officially founded in 1840.
The canal has now been dredged and returned to use and it boasts the Falkirk Wheel and that pair of giant horse head sculptures known as the ‘Kelpies’.
The new Rosebank will sit between them, bringing visitors to the town. While the stills will be fired up at the end of next year, “we’re not going to sing ‘happy birthday’ when it’s three-years-old and bottle it,” says Leonard. But by then the fumes of Rosebank will be drifting heavenwards for Michael Jackson to enjoy … if there is a God.
The Kelpies – mythical horse-like creatures in Scottish folklore – are sculptures by Andy Scott that are part of Helix Park near Falkirk