A grievous loss (Rosebank)

In the latest of our series Gavin D Smith looks at the history behind Rosebank
By Gavin D. Smith
For many aficionados, Rosebank remains the quintessential Lowland single malt, although the distillery stopped producing spirit 14 years ago.Michael Jackson describes Rosebank as “The finest example of a Lowland malt…” and considers its demise “…a grievous loss.” Overall, time has not been kind to the Lowland classification of single malts, with just four currently in production, while back in the mid-1880s Alfred Barnard visited no fewer than 28. The reputation of Lowland whiskies has become diminished, and there is an influential view that they are drams for novices or ‘the ladies.’ In reality, they possess subtle charm, and none is more charming than the elegant, floral, aromatic Rosebank, produced by a triple distillation process in the traditional Lowland manner.Rosebank distillery is located beside the Forth-Clyde Canal at Camelon, on the outskirts of the industrial town of Falkirk, midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow.Its origins are confused, with claims being made for an establishment date of 1798, when the Stark Brothers were apparently running a distillery called Rosebank. The name crops up again in 1817 when a Rosebank distillery was in the hands of James Robertson.What we know for certain is that James Rankine constructed a distillery on the present site in 1840, based on the maltings of the Camelon distillery, which operated principally on the opposite bank of the Forth-Clyde Canal.The canal-side location facilitated the delivery of barley, coal and other distilling requirements, as well as the removal of casks of spirit. Business was clearly brisk, since Rankine expanded the distillery in 1845, going on to purchase Camelon distillery in 1861. Three years later his son rebuilt Rosebank, subsequently demolishing most of Camelon and keeping only the maltings, which he connected with Rosebank by way of a swing bridge across the canal.In 1914, Rosebank, along with the fellow Lowland distilleries of Clydesdale, Glenkinchie, Grange and St Magdalene, merged to form Scottish Malt Distillers (SMD), which became part of The Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) five years later. When DCL was taken over by Guinness Plc in 1986, Rosebank was absorbed into United Distillers (UD).That same year, UD selected a range of single malts to represent the various whisky producing regions under its new Classic Malts banner, and Rosebank lost out to Glenkinchie. It can be argued that the selection of Glenkinchie as the Lowland representative had less to do with the respective quality of the two drams and more to do with other factors.Rosebank’s best friends could hardly claim it was in an attractive location. At the time when the Classic Malts were selected, the Forth-Clyde Canal was not working, and presented a far from appealing sight. Glenkinchie, on the other hand, was situated near the picturesque village of Pencaitland, just a few miles south of Edinburgh.Ironically, two decades on from the Classic Malts creation, the area around Rosebank is now a magnet for visitors keen to see the Falkirk Wheel, a landmark rotating boat hoist which links the revitalised Union and Forth-Clyde Canals.Rosebank had survived DCL’s drastic closure programme of 1983 and ‘85, but ultimately it was doomed, being one of four UD distilleries mothballed in mid-1993.Rosebank’s exclusion from the Classic Malts range clearly counted against its survival, plus the distillery required investment, and its urban site was extremely valuable for development purposes in a way that many rural distilleries were not.In May 2002 Rosebank was purchased by British Waterways, which subsequently sold off some of the property to Westpoint homes for conversion into a series of canal-side apartments. Twenty thousand square feet of distillery malt stores and bonded warehouses have also been transformed into offices and a pub/restaurant to complement the existing Rosebank Beefeater restaurant and pub, located in the remaining part.Current bottlings of Rosebank include a 12-yearold in Diageo’s Flora & Fauna series, along with a 20-year-old in its Rare Malts range. There is also a 1992 Cooper’s Choice version and an interesting 1990 Gordon & MacPhail cask strength expression matured in refill sherry butts.