High Time for the Lowlands
Australian entrepreneur plays Prince Charming to help reawaken Galloway’s own Sleeping Beauty, Bladnoch Distillery
Article by Richard Goslan Photography Peter Sandground, courtesy of the May 2018 issue of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Unfiltered magazine
When Alfred Barnard visited Bladnoch Distillery in the 1880s, the author of The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom described a “weary journey of 10 hours” from Edinburgh to the far reaches of the south-west of Scotland. The same trip might take less than a third of that time nowadays, but there’s no escaping the feeling that when it comes to Scotland’s whisky regions, this is as low in the Lowlands, and as far off the whisky trail, as you can get.
Despite the journey, Barnard was quite taken with the distillery and its neighbouring settlement of Wigtown, in what is now Dumfries & Galloway. Over the years, he’s not been the only one. With its solid buildings of granite and whinstone dating back 200 years, its pagoda roof and a site on the banks of the River Bladnoch, the distillery presents an appealing prospect.
It was enough to tempt Australian entrepreneur David Prior, who had sold off his successful yoghurt business and was already planning to invest in a start-up distillery project in Fife when the opportunity to buy Bladnoch came along.
Instead of starting from scratch on a greenfield site, here was the chance to buy up a distillery with 200 years of history, 55 acres of land, 11 warehouses and a stock of around 2,500 casks, dating back to the end of the 1980s. Behind the facade, however, it quickly became clear that the distillery’s equipment was only fit for the scrapyard.
Up for a challenge
To realise the dream of running spirit again at Bladnoch, David Prior turned to whisky veteran Ian MacMillan, a man who clearly relishes a challenge.
Ian has spent 46 years in the industry, from carrying out his apprenticeship at Glengoyne in the early 1970s to almost 25 years working his way up to become head of distilleries with Burn Stewart Distillers.
“This was a challenge I couldn’t resist,” says Ian. “I’d already done something similar with Burn Stewart at Tobermory, Deanston and to a big extent at Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay, which had been badly neglected. I came down here and spent a couple of days going around, surveying it myself. But I could have written a list of what could be saved on the back of a matchbox.”
Ian’s survey found washbacks so rotten you could put your hand right through them, a cast iron mash tun with a massive crack in it which could have collapsed at any time, and stills where in places the copper was “no thicker than a Coca-Cola can”, he says. Even the warehouses were neither wind nor watertight, with inadequate lighting and fire alarm systems.
As a result, almost everything was ripped out and taken away for scrap, leaving Bladnoch as a practically empty shell. At least that presented a blank canvas, allowing Ian to redesign the whole distillery the way he wanted it.
“I knew the character of the spirit that Bladnoch had been distilling and wanted to keep it to the same Lowland style,” says Ian. “It had nice grassy and citrusy Lowland notes, but it didn’t have enough sweetness or enough weight for me. So, I got some old drawings of the stills that were in here in the 1950s, and I designed new ones with that concept in mind. We also went back from being a two-still distillery to having four stills again.”
It wasn’t only the equipment that needed replacing. As a coastal distillery on the banks of the tidal River Bladnoch, the distillery takes its water supply from above a weir over a mile upstream, which is fed to the distillery through a lade (channel). The supply was erratic because the lade hadn’t been dug out for around 20 years. As Ian says: “If you don’t have water, you don’t have a distillery”, so among the first jobs to tackle was a major project to re-establish the water source.
Meanwhile, Forsyths were contracted to build and install the equipment. Remarkably, within less than two years of Ian coming on board in September 2015, Bladnoch was distilling again.
A hands-on tradition
The distillery now has the capacity to produce 1.5 million litres of whisky a year, and is gradually building up its level of operations as new staff – mostly local hires – go through their training.
Ian has also undertaken that responsibility, imparting his years of experience to make sure the operators have a proper schooling in traditional whisky making.
“If they’re not going to learn from me, I don’t know who they’ll learn from,” he says. “I’ve done every single job in a distillery, from rolling barrels, to filling, to warehousing. I’d like to pass on as much as I can before I hang up my boots.”
There’s also little in the way of automation involved in Ian’s set-up, according to his belief that if you lose the human touch in whisky making, you risk losing part of its soul.
“I’m an old traditionalist, and I’ve always had the belief that total automation in a distillery destroys the story of what Scotch whisky is,” he says. “At Bladnoch everything has to be done manually, and I think that’s how you create a unique product.
“I also want to train people to understand not only what they’re doing but why they’re doing it. They’ll turn out to be good mashmen or stillmen because they’ll understand the process – and not just become factory operators.”
Completing the picture
The existing stock also had to be evaluated and graded, a process undertaken over many months that gave Ian the opportunity to take virtually everything from the 1980s through to 2000 and transfer it into a variety of different casks.
“A lot of the casks that had been filled at that time weren’t the best quality, but there were some superstars in there as well,” says Ian. “Re-racking the whisky has allowed me to experiment with lots of different cask types, from various kinds of sherry to madeira, marsala, sauternes and port pipes.”
As well as Bladnoch’s traditional Lowland style, there will also be heavily peated spirit produced in the future. In the meantime, Bladnoch has released a 200th anniversary bottling, taken from two ex-oloroso sherry casks distilled in 1988, blended and filled into moscatel casks – and selling for a cool £5,000 a bottle.
The final piece in Bladnoch’s resurrection will be with the completion of the distillery’s visitor centre, currently still a work in progress in what was the original warehouse number one. The age of the building has made it a major undertaking, with rotten flooring and a collapsing roof, but it may be open by the end of this year, although early 2019 is more realistic.
Whenever it does open its doors, the visitor centre and distillery is sure to welcome whisky enthusiasts from far and wide – undeterred by the length of journey and delighted to see the rebirth of a historic distillery.
Enquiries: Bladnoch Distillery, Bladnoch, Newton Stewart DG8 9AB / https://bladnoch.com/
SMWS: To join: www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership