Rosebank: a brand history
The whisky world was thrilled by news that Rosebank is set to rise again, thanks to Ian Macleod Distillers. Tom Bruce-Gardyne charts the Lowland distillery’s history.
*This feature was originally published in the December 2017 issue of The Spirits Business
The beating heart of any malt whisky distillery is its copper pot stills. Rosebank in Falkirk, midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow, had three of them to produce its triple-distilled Lowland spirit. They bubbled away contentedly through the 1980s when the industry was awash with whisky, but in 1993 Diageo pulled the plug on the distillery, which it had owned for almost 70 years.
Technically, Rosebank was ‘mothballed’, but the odds of reopening diminished as the years passed by, and almost vanished completely when thieves broke in and stole its stills around Christmas in 2008. It was reported that the police “were hoping an eagle-eyed passerby might have spotted the intruders”, for a pot still carried down the street is not easily missed. However, nothing was found and Rosebank was resigned to the history books.
Or so it seemed, until news broke in October 2017 of an extraordinary resurrection. It was announced that this well-loved distillery is to be brought back to life by family-owned Ian Macleod Distillers, whose portfolio includes the Glengoyne, Tamdhu, and Smokehead Scotch whiskies and Edinburgh Gin. Despite having to spend more than £10 million (US$13m) to restore it, on top of whatever deal was struck with Diageo for the trademark and remaining casks, managing director Leonard Russell can barely contain his delight. He talks of “huge warm feelings” towards the distillery, and says: “I could see that Rosebank was held in extremely high regard and was known as ‘the king of the Lowlands’. It was a huge shame that it closed in the first place when it was distilling some of the best spirit for the whisky industry.”
The distillery owes its origins to the Forth and Clyde canal, which opened in 1790 to provide seagoing vessels with a safer passage than the north of Scotland and Cape Wrath. The canal’s main cargo was coal, which fed Falkirk’s iron and steel industry, and as the town grew, so did its thirst for whisky. There was the Camelon distillery on one side of the canal, and in 1840 James Rankine took over its maltings on the other side to create Rosebank, although there may have been a distillery of that name earlier.
Under the Rankines, Rosebank flourished and was rebuilt in 1864 on the site of Camelon, which went bust three years earlier. When the Victorian whisky writer Alfred Barnard visited in the 1880s he found a bustling and thoroughly modern distillery, with a water wheel to provide power and plenty of hi-tech equipment. Curiously, Barnard made no reference to triple distillation, and wrote that “peat is mostly used for the drying” of the malt, though it is certainly not considered a smoky whisky today.
In 1914, Rosebank became part of Scotch Malt Distillers, which was later absorbed into Distillers Company Limited (DCL) to provide malt whisky for blends. While this remained its primary role, the distillery began laying down stocks for single malt in the 1970s. We know this from the Rosebank eight-year-old that joined Linkwood, Talisker and Lagavulin in DCL’s 1982 Ascot Malt Cellar, which was a belated and slightly halfhearted attempt to compete with the likes of Glenfiddich and The Macallan. A more serious attempt was made in 1988, with the six Classic Malts from the different whisky regions, but instead of Rosebank, Glenkinchie was picked to represent the Lowlands. That decision sealed the fate of both distilleries.
A Rosebank bottling from the 1990s
A GRIEVOUS LOSS
“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 late whisky writer Michael Jackson was convinced it was one of the greats, and described its demise as “a grievous loss”. Its closure had nothing to do with quality and everything to do with aesthetics and an impending £2m bill to upgrade an effluent plant. It fell victim to a cyclical downturn in whisky that coincided with a downturn in Falkirk. The Forth and Clyde canal closed in the mid1960s, and in The Whiskies of Scotland R.J.S. McDowell wrote that Rosebank “is a dismal, cramped place and roses are not conspicuous”. One can picture someone from head office nodding in agreement, while gazing at shopping trolleys in the stagnant water. By contrast, Glenkinchie lay in rolling farmland east of Edinburgh and boasted landscaped grounds, two gardeners and a bowling green for staff.
But lately Falkirk has undergone something of a transformation, with the canal dredged and returned to use, the Falkirk Wheel installed to lift boats, and the construction of ‘The Kelpies’ – a pair of giant horse-head sculptures. Russell admits the distillery “needs a lot of tender loving care to bring it back to its former glory”. He adds: “We’re going to have to rebuild some of the site from scratch, and we’re going to replace all the original equipment with like for like from the original plans.” This will include the traditional worm tub condensers, which helped make the spirit so unique and sought after. Collectors will pay £850 or more for an old bottle of eight-year-old Rosebank.
Days before Ian Macleod’s announcement, Diageo declared it would be reviving Brora and Port Ellen. Of the three, Rosebank is perhaps the most surprising news since Diageo had sold off the site to British Waterways in 2002. Yet its location is not exactly storm-tossed or far-flung. “The Lowlands have been slightly forgotten because of the misty, romantic feel of the Highlands,” says Russell, but he senses a revival that “Speyside and Highland malts will just have to get used to”.
While Ian Macleod Distillers bought the distillery from Scottish Canals – formerly a division of British Waterways – the deal also includes the acquisition of Diageo’s remaining stocks, which will be dribbled out in limited releases. The new Rosebank might not bottle its first whisky until 2030, with plans to fire up its stills in 2019. As for the old stills, if anyone happens to have one in their garage, Russell says simply: “Please give it back.”
Click through the following pages to see the timeline of Rosebank’s brand history.
1840 – Rosebank founded by James Rankine
1864 – The distillery is rebuilt
1914 – Rosebank joins Scotch Malt Distillers
1925 – SMD becomes part of Distillers Company Limited (DCL)
1982 – Rosebank 8 Year Old is picked for DCL’s Ascot Malt Cellar
1993 – Rosebank is closed
2002 – Diageo sells the site to British Waterways
2017 – Ian Macleod Distillers acquires the site and the trademark, and vows to restore Rosebank to its former glory