The company has been in the whisky business since 1933, but only broke into distilling in 2003 with the purchase of Glengoyne in the southern Highlands. As soon as signatures were dry and money was exchanged, IMD’s managing director Leonard Russel walked into the distillery and addressed the staff: ‘Right, everybody; you know how to make Glengoyne, so please carry on and continue doing a great job.’ At Rosebank, things will not be so easy.
For years, the so-called ‘King of the Lowlands’ stood hollowed out and empty. Its gates were chained shut in 1993 with little hope they would re-open. The Forth and Clyde Canal by which it stood, in its day an artery supporting industry from Edinburgh to Glasgow, had fallen derelict and stagnant. Though it clung to life through the difficult 1980s, which saw distilleries closed and jobs lost across Scotland, years of downturn and neglect had taken their toll on the old plant. Once part of a booming economy in the Scottish Lowlands, Rosebank had wound up on the wrong side of history.
The whisky made there was never the problem, you understand. In its best years Rosebank produced elegant and richly textured spirit – all citrus peel, blossoms, and finesse. Contemporary thinking holds its triple-distilled single malt as the embodiment of a regional character – the way Springbank is to Campbeltown, or Glenfarclas to Speyside. But until very recently it seemed that this distinctive style would be lost forever.
Once the decision was made to cease operations at Rosebank, then owners Distillers Company Ltd had its remaining casks removed to centralised warehousing and the grounds were left silent. The site was sold on and rumours would occasionally surface of plans to restart production but nothing came to fruition. Further misfortune came during Christmas 2008, when Rosebank fell victim to thieves who removed the pot stills and other valuable equipment while the people of Falkirk slept. Those three stills, which had produced the best of Lowland whisky, were carved up and sold, their value then decided by the going rate for copper. An ignominious fate for the Lowland king.
With the still-house empty and the buildings in disrepair, the memory of Rosebank was preserved in the warehouses of DCL and various independent bottlers. Those casks would be the basis for what came next; the seeds in the vault, the mosquitos in the amber. Perthshire-based Signatory continued to release casks from those final, early-90s vintages. Diageo – the successor to DCL – bottled several expressions from the 70s and 80s as part of its Rare Malts series along with a 12-year-old Flora & Fauna bottling, all of which were well received by the whisky world.
By the early 2000s single malt whisky was beginning to find a new audience and the industry was optimistic once again. Rosebank’s stock was growing among enthusiasts who found its profile unique among Lowland whiskies. Slowly, the lost distillery was gaining cult status and for the first time in years there was a glimmer of hope.
In October 2017, Ian Macleod announced they had acquired Rosebank in name and deed. Because, really, Rosebank was by then owed a bit of good luck. The news came just days after Diageo told the world they planned to reopen the legendary distilleries at Brora and Port Ellen. It was the start of a new era for Scotch whisky, a time of new plants opening and old ones returning from the dead.
Along with the site, the new owners have bought themselves an enormous undertaking. Over the next two years they plan to build something that bridges Rosebank’s past and future. With no stills, no samples of new make spirit, and few records of the old distillation regime, this will be no mean feat. Like the ship of Theseus, the new Rosebank will have to embody the old Rosebank using entirely new components.
For Ian Macleod’s international brand ambassador Gordon Dundas, the key to this process will be found in the stillhouse. ‘Rosebank had a triple-distillation setup – which is pretty unusual in Scotch whisky, currently. Triple-distillation means copper contact, it means reflux, it means lightness, and potential for a whole range of floral and fruity flavours.’ Today, only Auchentoshan near Glasgow makes thrice distilled malt full-time, with a handful of others producing the style a few weeks per year.
However, Rosebank’s distinctive profile, with its almost paradoxical combination of lightness and heft, isn’t just a product of a third run through the still. It also owes a lot to the distillery’s use of worm tub condensers.
These coils of copper tubing submerged in vats of water are not the most efficient, simple, or cheap way to collect alcohol vapours, but they do contribute a certain something to the finished article. Often this takes the form of meaty, sulphur-y character, but at Rosebank they just leant a little extra weight to the spirit. ‘It’s not something you’d naturally put together with a triple distillation setup,’ he adds ‘but it’s that juxtaposition that made Rosebank so appealing. We’re very keen to at least recreate, if not better, that style.’
Abercrombie coppersmiths, now a part of Diageo, has been commissioned to remake the original equipment. They are the perfect people for the job, as the Alloa based firm was responsible for building Rosebank’s stills the last time around, and the former owners have opened up their archives to support the process. ‘The records were limited but Diageo was brilliant. They’ve been really supportive through the whole thing,’ says Gordon Dundas, ‘they want to see a successful Rosebank as much as we do.’ Work has already begun to make room for new distillery buildings, far larger in scale and scope than the originals.
Once building work is completed and the new copper is installed, IMD’s distillation manager Robbie Hughes faces what he’s described as one of the biggest challenges of his career, getting the spirit right. The process will take a matter of months and draw on all the veteran distiller’s vast experience to complete. There’s no desire to rush the process however, everyone involved is quite happy to play the long game. ‘We might not see a new whisky from Rosebank until 2030. We don’t want to rush out a three-year-old product if it isn’t ready, that’s not how we do things,’ is the word from IMD. What we do know is that once the spirit character has been established the new, new make will be filled into a combination of refill Bourbon casks and hogsheads for long maturation. If all goes to plan these less-active casks will yield close recreations of the elegant, distillate driven style Rosebank is known for. But only time will tell.
In the meantime, Ian Macleod is left with much of the remaining stocks of old Rosebank. The liquid that kept the distillery alive in spirit even as the original plant fell to ruin. Their first two single cask releases since the revival was announced were sold by ballot in February 2020. The firm remains tight-lipped about plans for what remains, but whisky ambassador Gordon Dundas has hinted that upcoming releases will be handled differently. ‘We want to see Rosebank in the best bars and hotels in the world, we want to see people actually drinking it. That’s the real focus for us because it is such an amazing whisky.’
There is also the forthcoming fifth release in the Elixir Distillers ‘Roses’ series to look forward to early next year – the latest in a total of seven expressions of 21-year-old, cask strength whiskies that shows late vintage Rosebank at its best. So, lots for Rosebank fans to enjoy while we wait for the grand re-opening.
When the day comes, in 2022-or-so at current estimates, Rosebank will re-enter a world quite different from the one it left. The jobs and income it will bring to Falkirk are indicative of a broader uptick in the region. In 1994 there were just two active malt distilleries in the Lowlands, today there are 15. Distilling in the central belt is booming and the return of Rosebank – the iconic Lowland whisky – will be an important moment in the history of the area. The Forth and Clyde Canal is in much better shape these days and is once again carrying traffic between Scotland’s east and west coasts. In time it will bring visitors to Rosebank, which will be a tourist destination as well a factory. The new layout will feature such modern considerations as a visitor centre and tasting rooms, a marker of how much the industry has evolved since the last century.
The opening will also speak of the ability whisky has to link past and future. For many years Rosebank’s essence was preserved in oak and glass even as the distillery lay ruined. When it seemed impossible that life would return to the old site, its single malt retained the ability to captivate and inspire. For most it provided a connection to what once was, but to some it represented what might be once more.