Lost and found distilleries in the Lowlands
A Sunday trip with Justine around the Lowlands looking for lost distilleries (this time, requiring a car and a very knowledgeable friend!)
(Missed the other trips in and around Edinburgh? Here they are: One/Two/Three)
There was a time when the Lowlands had less than a handful of single malt distilleries left, mainly Auchentoshan, in Glasgow, and Glenkinchie, near Edinburgh. Until it was purchased by Richard Prior in 2015, Bladnoch had a very tormented history, with many stop-and-go. Other very popular distilleries closed during the whisky loch, such as Rosebank (closed in 1993), Littlemill (1992), Inverleven (1991), and St. Magdalene (1983). While the first is in the process of being rebuilt, the other ones are gone forever.
Many grain distilleries experienced a very similar fate. During the whisky loch and in later years Caledonian (closed in 1988), Cambus (1993, now Diageo’s cooperage), Dumbarton (2002), and Port Dundas (2011) closed down, while the production got progressively concentrated in the few remaining, like Cameronbridge (Fife), North British (Edinburgh), Strathclyde (Glasgow), Starlaw (Livingston), and Girvan (Ayrshire).
Scottish whisky went through several ups and downs in its history, and already during the 19th century saw massive plants closing down. One of these was the Kennetpans distillery, near Alloa.
This distillery was funded by the Steins family in the first half of the 1700s, and was followed a few decades later by the Kilbagie distillery. The two plants were massive for the time. They were connected by a canal and a railway, and were the first exporting bulk spirit outside of Scotland. The family was related through marriage to the Haig, of Cameronbridge, and the Jamesons, of the famous Irish whiskey. Following an increase in duties on spirit in the late 1780s and after a bribe attempt, John Stein and his family fell in disgrace, and the Kennetpans distillery was sequestered, sold, and finally closed in 1825, probably made obsolete by the invention of the Coffey column still. For you history buffs, there is a great website dedicated to Kennetpans (see here or below).
We were totally unaware of this “ancient” history, until a Sunday in September 2021 when our friend Justine (Kask Whisky) proposed to go there. Had already done our weekend run, we happily joined her! The site is a few km from the village, kind of in the middle of nowhere. We left the car a few hundred meters away, and we slowly explored what is left of the building. It was not possible to get very close because of safety fences, and the thick vegetation partially covered the building. However, it was possible to get a sense of the size of the plant, which at the time must have been massive indeed! As it was still early afternoon, and having being lucky with a very sunny and warm day, we decided to stay a bit in the area and take our exploration further.
The trend of distilleries shutting down slowed down in the late 1990s and it was actually reverted in the 2000s, in particular for single malt distilleries. In 2007 the gigantic Ailsa Bay distillery was commissioned and built in just 9 months (12 millions of alcohol liters per annum produced). This is owned by Grant & Sons and is on the same site as the Girvan grain distillery. Almost a decade later, it was followed by a plethora of new distilleries, opening all over the place south of the Highland line. We already talked about a few of those, such as Holyrood (Edinburgh, 2019), and the Borders (Hawick, 2017). Another one, the Falkirk distillery, had been in plans for almost a decade, and in 2020 finally started producing spirit. We drove there, and we were able to take a few pictures from the gate. We found the building quite beautiful, with the few remaining works mostly limited to the parking lot. We are definitely looking forward to visit it!
Not far from there, another distillery that will be firing its stills soon is the missed Rosebank, still in Falkirk. Ian McLeod (already owners of Glengoyne and Tamdhu) purchased the trade mark back in 2017 together with some old stocks, and the construction is happening as we write. On that day we could just see the skeleton of the building, which didn’t look much like a distillery yet. Now works are well ahead, as you can see from their social media accounts.
Fourth and last stop of the day was the old St. Magdalene distillery, in Linlithgow. It closed down in 1983 and, similarly to Caledonia and Dean distilleries in Edinburgh, was made into flats a decade later. However, the structure of the building, including the pagoda roof and the warehouse, is still admirable from the street. Being in Linlithgow, we decided to stop at Du Vin Bouchers, a very nice wine and whisky bar, for cheese and drams. The bar is very cosy, and the choice of whiskies is excellent, in particular from the Dram Fool independent bottler range. They also host Jolly Toper tastings. As the day was getting to an end, Justine slowly drove us back to Leith, ending this day full of whisky history!
Thinking about all this whisky history, made of ups and downs, and of spirit first flowing, then stopping, and now flowing again, many questions popped in our heads. One is, how many of these new distilleries would survive a potential whisky loch? How many distilleries are too many? And, once maturity is reached, will these spirits be different enough for each to find their ecological niche in the whisky landscape? These questions are just food for thoughts right now, and they are not definitely ours to answer. At the moment we feel extremely lucky to witness a new golden era of whisky, and being spoiled for choice! Long live the Lowlands malt, slainte!