The past few years have seen three lost distilleries announce that they’re on their way to reopening. While Port Ellen and Brora have got the most coverage – not least from me – it is the third which has taken the most positive steps and looks like it should open its doors first: Rosebank.
Along with the project to reopen the distillery, new owners Ian Macleod have also decided to release some of Rosebank’s old stock, with the first two casks already starting to trickle out into the public – a pair of bourbon hogsheads from the distillery’s final vintage: Rosebank 1993 casks #625 and #433.
A strong beginning
When it comes to the pantheon of closed distilleries, there are definitely several tiers. Port Ellen and Brora stand astride the rest, while Inverleven inspires ‘Who?’s from even ardent whisky fans. Standing just below the mighty pair, and maybe using St Magdalene’s shoulders to push itself above the herd a bit, is Rosebank.
While the distillery claims to have opened in 1798, it didn’t really get going until the mid 1800s. Sat on the Forth and Clyde canal between Edinburgh and Glasgow, it had excellent transport links and flourished in the golden age of whisky production. It was part of the portfolio of Scotch Malt Distillers when it was founded in 1914 and went on to be part of the Distillers Company Limited (which in turn went on to become Diageo) when it started in 1925.
But the Lowlands lost their lustre, and in 1993, the distillery shut, after 198 years of almost continuous operation.
In the end, it was a choice for its owners – the market was down and they only needed one Lowlander. Would it be Glenkinchie – near to Edinburgh, surrounded by fields and ripe for future expansion – or Rosebank – squashed up against the canal on an industrial estate?
The classic Lowlander
While the Lowlands is starting to fill with distilleries again, until recently, there were just three: Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie and Bladnoch, and only the first two were operating at a properly commercial level. Against that backdrop, Rosebank’s are some of the last obtainable examples of old-school whisky from the region.
While Glenkinchie does make a light, sweet and grassy dram, it’s not quite up to the standard of Rosebank and St Magdalene/Linlithgow releases of times gone by. New kid on the block Daftmill has made a solid stab at the style, but with such small production and so many bottles disappearing, unopened, into whisky collections, it’s not introducing drinkers to a taste of history.
However, the distillery’s reopening could herald a return to that style.
Back in 2017, after long-running negotiations, independent distiller, blender and bottler Ian Macleod – owners of Glengoyne and Tamdhu – finally obtained the rights to the Rosebank name from Diageo, and announced that they had acquired some of the original site and would rebuild the distillery.
Unfortunately, it’s been more than 20 years since the distillery was closed, and there’s not a lot of distillery left. The estate has been turned into a combination of apartments and a Beefeater restaurant.
But, research has been done, land has been acquired, stills have been ordered, building work is being sorted and the company hopes to (re)open the new distillery later this year – viral pandemics allowing.
New Rosebank and old Rosebank
The new distillery is based on the plans of the old one, and the three stills are to be used to create an old-school , triple distilled, worm-tub-condensed Lowland spirit. However, with the first whisky at least another three-and-a-bit years away still, the owners have another trick up their sleeve – stock from before the distillery closed.
Releases of Rosebank have become increasingly rare over the past few years. A couple of Special Releases from Diageo, an annual Roses bottling from m’colleagues at Elixir Distillers, and a few single casks all that Whiskybase remembers. Ian Macleod has decided to start the year of the new distillery by releasing a pair of single casks from its pre-closure stock.
Rare whisky is becoming increasingly hard to get hold of, as the word ‘rare’ suggests. But the interest in rare whisky has now grown to the extent that the old ‘first come first served’ approach to sales is increasingly unfit for purpose. Bottles sell out online in seconds, and people queue for hours to grab the new releases in person. The standard way to try and make things fairer is to ballot bottles, and that’s what Iain Macleod has done with casks #433 and #625.
The ballot went live in February 2020, and folks could put the name in the hat to buy each of the two bottles. There are 280 and 259 bottles available of #433 and #625 respectively, but only 100 went up in the initial ballot. They sold out despite something that shocked many whisky fans, myself included: the price – £2,500 a bottle.
Both distilled in 1993, the final year of Rosebank’s operation, they are as young as whiskies from Rosebank can be, but are also about as old as you find whiskies from the distillery – there’s not a lot of it about. Both casks were refill bourbon hogsheads, and while they are similar, as you’d expect, they are both very much their own dram.
Rosebank 1993 Cask #625
Nose: Sweet and sharp fruit. Crunchy green, floury and rich, stewed apples, with a touch of freshly-mown grass, the rhubarb bit of a rhubarb and custard sweet, crisp barley sugar, a hint of sultana and a handful of crushed spring-flower petals.
Palate: Rounded and sweet with a pleasantly oily texture. Green leaves chip away at the sweetness, with buttery toffee balancing everything out. Menthol hints rise through the middle, with banana cream, dry oak and aniseed following.
Finish: A gentle tingle of aniseed and cinnamon lingers, with toffee sweetness fading slowly to reveal pear skin.
Rosebank 1993 Cask #433
Nose: Zesty citrus – orange and lemon – with sweet meadow flowers and cut grass in tow. The citrus sweetens, and is joined by barley sugar pips, Love Hearts and travel sweets. Meringue sweetness hides at the back.
Palate: Vanilla cream and toffee starts, with sharp apple and oak spice not far behind. Darker notes of caramel and cappuccino are balanced by a touch of fruity peach. As the fruit fades, more dark notes build: damp oak and bittersweet dark chocolate.
Finish: Oaky spice, toasted fruit loaf and blackcurrant jam. Black liquorice slowly builds.
Firstly, they’re both great whiskies – I like really Rosebank’s old-school Lowland style, and these show two different but similar sides to it. Cask #625 has a solid fruitiness, with orchard fruit complemented by more zesty flavours, floral notes and a touch of green – very classic. Cask #433 delves into darker notes, with creamy coffee and liquorice joining the flower-and-grass Rosebank core.
However, there is a ‘secondly’: they cost £2,500 a bottle. That’s very expensive. Even the latest in the Elixir Distiller’s Rosebank Roses series (disclaimer: they are a sister company of my employer) ‘only’ went for £875. That was a vatting of several casks, rather than a single cask from the now-official owner of the renascent distillery, but that’s still a very big jump.
If you really like Rosebank and have the money to spend, you’ve almost certainly entered the ballot and have either a bottle or two on your shelf or in transit. Unfortunately, most Rosebank fans are very much now priced out of the market, but such is the way with the upper echelons of the closed-distillery world.
So, it seems that Rosebank might be about to sit at the lost-distillery top table alongside Port Ellen and Brora. For now, I’ll just keep bad-mouthing Inverleven until I’ve cornered the market.
With thanks to the team at Ian Macleod and Hamish Maclean at Wire for the whisky samples.