Gavin Smith retraces the resurrection of Scotland's most southerly distillery, and discovers why it is being directed by an Irishman.
It’s a sad fact that de-commisioned distilleries, like old fighters, seldom make comebacks, and the last two decades of the 20th century were not kind to Scotland’s whisky-making facilities. Overall output was reduced, ‘rationalisation’ took place, and plants were mothballed, converted, or even demolished. It has therefore been a particular pleasure to see two historic distilleries coaxed back to life.Benromach on Speyside is operating once more under the auspices of Gordon & MacPhail (see Whisky Magazine Issue 4), while in the opposite corner of Scotland, spirit is again flowing at Scotland’s most southerly distillery of Bladnoch, situated on the Machars peninsula in deepest Galloway, just 30 miles as the sober crow flies from the coast of Northern Ireland.While Gordon & MacPhail has an impeccable whisky lineage, dating back more than a century, the architect of Bladnoch’s rebirth is Raymond Armstrong, an affable, energetic Ulsterman whose background is as a surveyor with the Northern Irish civil service, and latterly as proprietor of his own successful construction company in Banbridge, County Down.Armstrong has a long-standing interest in whisky, and a penchant for the elusive Irish brands of Redbreast and Green Spot. When his arm is twisted, he is also known to take the odd ball of ‘Bush’, even while in Lowland Scotch country!Armstrong has absorbed a great deal of information about whisky-making from a variety of sources, most significantly from Dr Alan Rutherford, the former UK Production Director of United Distillers, and John Herries, who worked at Bladnoch for 10 years prior to its closure by in June 1993.Herries is central to the project to get Bladnoch distilling again, and he describes himself as “stillman, mashman, and the everything else man now, too.” Armstrong is fulsome in his praise of Herries and the rest of the workforce, noting: “their flexibility is marvellous. There’s a real eagerness to see the place operating again, not just among the employees, but in the area generally.”Local goodwill towards Armstrong and his plans to resurrect Bladnoch is partly due to the fact that he has a genuine interest in the area and its people, along with a reputation for saying “yes” to anybody who needs space for an activity. Empty warehouses have played host to line dancing groups, and prior to the re-commencement of distilling, a full-size wrestling ring was located in the filling store.The cask store has been converted into a popular venue for musical concerts, wedding receptions, parties and other events, and Bladnoch is the only distillery in Scotland to boast its own record label, Distilled Records, which produces CDs of concerts held there and showcases local musical talent.Bladnoch distillery occupies an attractive site beside the river of the same name, just a mile from Wigtown, which is Scotland’s designated National Book Town, and a mecca for bibliophiles from all over the world. The climate in this corner of Scotland is sufficiently temperate for Logan Botanical Garden to thrive a few miles west of Bladnoch, and such is the lop-sided nature of the English-Scottish border that the distillery is on almost exactly the same latitude as Newcastle-upon-Tyne.While researching his epic tome The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom in the mid-1880s, Alfred Barnard visited some 28 Lowland distilleries, and the intervening century has been particularly hard on the region. The 1980s saw St Magdalene at Linlithgow and Rosebank at Falkirk fall victim to DCL down-sizing, and with the demise of Bladnoch, just Glenkinchie in the east and Auchentoshan in the west continued to fly the flag for Lowland single malts. Bladnoch has never been very well known outside of its native Galloway, which is a pity, as it is at least equal to the heavily-promoted Glenkinchie, in many people’s opinion.This south-west corner of Scotland is rich in Christian heritage sites, with strong historic links to the north of Ireland, and Christianity is thought to have arrived in the Whithorn area from Ireland before St Columba reached Iona. The secret of distilling also reputedly crossed the Irish Sea with missionaries and monks, and spread from Galloway, Kintyre and islands such as Islay.Bladnoch distillery was founded between 1814 and 1817 by Thomas McClelland, who probably ran it with his brother, John. The first time it passed out of the family’s hands was in 1930, when it was bought by the Belfast distilling company of Dunville. Its Irish legacy remains in small details at Bladnoch, such as the metal base of the grain elevator, which bears the stamp of a Belfast engineering company. Since that time, Bladnoch’s history has been characterised by numerous changes of ownership and a lengthy period of silence.Dunville’s sold Bladnoch for £3,500 in 1936, shortly before going into liquidation, and the distillery lay silent for the next 20 years. In 1956 a major programme of restoration was undertaken by the new proprietors, Bladnoch Distillery Ltd, as some of the previous equipment had been sold to Sweden. In 1966 the next owner, Ian Fisher, installed two additional stills in the workshop and boilerhouse building which adjoins the stillhouse. By the late 1980s they were in poor condition, not having been worked for some time, and were therefore removed to make way for new electrical equipment.In 1973 the American-owned company Inver House acquired the site, operating Bladnoch for a decade, before selling it to the expanding empire of Arthur Bell & Sons in 1983. Another decade later, now part of United Distillers, Bladnoch’s comparative remoteness counted against it, and the company decided to concentrate its Lowland energies on Glenkinchie, handily located within easy reach of Edinburgh. The last spirit flowed from Bladnoch’s stills in June 1993.Raymond Armstrong laughs at the suggestion that for the second time in Bladnoch’s existence the Irish have returned to do more missionary work. He has been a frequent visitor to Scotland since childhood holidays spent with a Motherwell grandmother, and for many years prior to purchasing Bladnoch, the Armstrong family had a holiday home a few miles to the east in Dalbeattie.Armstrong’s association with Bladnoch dates from 1994. He spotted the redundant site and decided to make enquiries about the possibility of buying it, intending to keep the manager’s cottage for his own use, while continuing to run the popular and potentially highly profitable distillery visitor centre, and convert the main buildings into holiday apartments. “Structurally the place was in very good condition,” notes Armstrong. “In fact, United Distillers had spent a lot of money renewing roofs and doing other work not long before they closed it.”UD had been close to clinching a deal to sell Bladnoch to the now defunct Gibson International company – then owners of Littlemill and Glen Scotia distilleries – but when this fell through Armstrong was one of very few people who expressed an interest in the site. When told the asking price, Armstrong suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that if they moved the decimal point a place to the left then perhaps it would be worth negotiating. This is pretty much what happened in the end, and in November 1994 Bladnoch was in Northern Irish hands for the second time in its history.A restrictive covenant prevented Armstrong from distilling on the site in future, but by the beginning of 1998 he was keen to explore the possibility of making whisky there once more. His decision to attempt to distil again was principally brought about by a desire to secure a supply of Bladnoch single malt to sell on site. “I wouldn’t like to find myself running out of the product for the visitor centre 10 or 20 years down the line,” he says, making it clear that he intends his association with the distillery to be a long-term one.A UD survey suggested that it would cost between £300,000 and £450,000 to get Bladnoch up and running again. Armstrong reckons to have managed the task for around £150,000.“United Distillers still had the electrical plant which they had removed from Bladnoch sitting in a warehouse up north,” he says. “It was second-hand, but still in good condition, and I was able to buy it back for £15,000 plus VAT. That saved me a lot of money, and was a deciding factor in the viability of starting to distil again. I am extremely grateful to United Distillers for that opportunity”. Protracted negotiations with UD led to an agreement whereby Armstrong may distill up to 100,000 litres of spirit per annum, a figure roughly equivalent to the weekly output of one of the major Speyside distilleries. During the 1988/89 distilling season Bladnoch produced 1.24m litres of spirit, and a century previously Barnard wrote after his visit: “the make is pure Malt, and the annual output 51,000 gallons”. That was more than twice the amount Armstrong will make, so with four acres of warehousing, which once held in excess of 33,000 casks, the latest boss of Bladnoch will not have to worry about finding space to store his new make for some time to come. “We are doing two three ton mashes per week,” says Armstrong, “and the plan is to be working for 40 weeks of the year, actually distilling on Thursday and Friday. We have John Herries and another ex-employee working on production, and there are up to eight people working on the visitor side of the business in summer.” He is encouraged by the interest expressed by brokers in the new spirit, noting that “we intend to sell it as an eight-year-old at the earliest. I think that at seven Bladnoch is still quite sharp. My favourite bottling is the UDV 10 year old. I think that’s probably its optimum age. Bladnoch is notably popular with first time whisky drinkers, who make up a fair proportion of our visitors, rather than distillery-baggers, and ladies in particular tend to take to it.”One of the joys of owning Bladnoch for Armstrong is the opportunity it affords to meet people and chat with them. It is not unknown for him to invite particularly interesting tourists into his cottage for a coffee.A visit to Bladnoch earlier this year, a few weeks prior to distillation re-commencing, saw John Herries describe with a contented smile his current duties as, “finishing connecting up all the pipework, checking the equipment, painting and cleaning. Lots of painting and cleaning.“When the distillery closed down I worked in a fish factory and a yoghurt factory,” recalls Herries, with no hint of nostalgia for those days.“ It’s great to be back at the distillery. I was involved in the last mash that was made here, so it will be nice to be involved with the first one again.”Armstrong intends the Bladnoch single malt he makes to be as similar in character as possible to the Bladnoch that went before. He points out that the water source remains the same and that all the essential plants that could affect the spirit’s character date from before the closure. “I know we have a product that should be almost exactly the same as before,” he notes. “Harold Currie was very brave when he built his Isle of Arran distillery because he didn’t know what he would get, but we do.”Armstrong has done a deal with local farmers to supply them with the high-protein draff from distilling free of charge in return for removing the effluent at the same time. “The River Bladnoch is tidal here,” he says. “And in the past all the effluent was run into the river at high tide. Of course, you can’t do that sort of thing anymore, though apparently it did attract very big mullet!”It rapidly becomes obvious during a tour of the plant that a lot of work had to be done in order that distilling could take place at Bladnoch again. Sections were cut out of almost every piece of pipework in the place, and all valves, pumps and heat exchangers were removed. Reinstating the plumbing has been time consuming and frustrating. A replacement mash tun floor has been fitted, along with a new Cochran boiler – built a few miles along the Solway coast at Annan – to provide an efficient source of steam for the stills.The six Oregon pine washbacks which date from Bell’s custody of the distillery remain in place, as do the single pair of stills. The wash still has a capacity of 13,5000 litres, and the spirit still holds some 10,000 litres. A redundant kiln has been acquired from an Islay distillery and is to be installed in the maltings. “We don’t intend to do our own malting,” says Armstrong, “but I got the offer of this for a good price, so I thought we might as well have it. You never know what we might want to do in