Distillery Focus

A world away

Raymond Armstrong is nothing like the average Scottish whisky distiller – and that's because he's an Irishman with a building background. Dominic Roskrow travelled to Galloway on Scotland's west coast to meet him.
Ask most people what they would expect a Scottish whisky distiller would be like, and the last person they would suggest is Raymond Armstrong. There's a very good reason for this - he's neither Scottish or a whisky distiller.

In fact he's an affable Irishman with a motor of a mouth and a direct and uncompromising approach to life that is both totally endearing and mildly scary. And he happens to own and run a Scottish whisky distillery more by luck than design.

Armstrong's a builder and architect by trade and has long family links and an emotional attachment to the South West corner of Scotland - and it was that combination that led him off his chosen career path and in to the uncertain world of making alcohol.

Bladnoch Distillery doesn't feel like it's really part of the Scottish whisky industry at all. It is situated on the edge of Wigtown, close to the English border, way down in the South west of the country, and a world away from the distilleries of Speyside and The Highlands.

The region's beautiful, among the prettiest parts of Scotland but also among the least appreciated. Its landscape of lochs, streams and woodland is more varied than other parts of the country and bears much in common with Ireland which you can see on a clear day from the region's western coastline.

The port of Stranraer is close by, making travel to Northern Ireland easier than travel to Glasgow or Edinburgh. As commuter journeys go, the ferry between the two countries isn't the most conventional, but these days it's the one Armstrong makes, living on the Northern Irish border and spending much of his time at Bladnoch. It's the perfect life for him because he's had a life-long love affair with the region.

The sense of other-worldliness stretches to the distillery, and indeed to the whisky made here, which tastes nothing like anything else from Scotland - but more of that later.

With its smart new visitor centre and shop but farmyard style buildings all neatly slotted in by a bridge over a free flowing river, Bladnoch comes over as part water mill and part craft centre, a distillery which has been dipped into a large vat of rustic charm.

It's late Autumn but there is a happy buzz about the place. The weather's been what we might euphemistically refer to as 'changeable' but today the sun's warm and visitors wander at will, lingering at the tables on the distillery's lawn overlooking the river.

The increasingly famous Wigtown book affair had a whisky theme this year so the season was extended but even without it you suspect that many would still make the long pilgrimage here. It's hard to imagine a more unspoiled and serene setting.

"And it is unspoiled," says Armstrong with a grin, "but hardly a model of efficiency. Not the best place to run a business.

"I rang up a workman a while ago and he said he'd be round but he didn't turn up. So after a week I thought I'd ring him and see if he'd bought the parts he needs because if he hadn't I'd get someone else.

"His wife answered the phone and she said he was going to get round to me but the weather had been very good so he'd taken the opportunity to get some golf in.

"Not only is that a strange attitude to work, but if my wife had said that over the phone, I'd have been absolutely furious." Wayward workers are only one of the many obstacles that the would-be distillery owner has had to overcome. When I arrive for our prearranged meeting he is nowhere to be found. When he does eventually emerge from one of the many warehouses on site, he's trying to deal with the aftermath of some very old casks that have exploded, with problems removing asbestos in the warehouses and with an overzealous representative from The Soil Association, who has been rummaging around the distillery for some six hours deciding whether Bladnoch can be credited with making organic whisky.

So how does an Irish builder end up making Scottish malt whisky? In Armstrong's case, almost by chance.

Bladnoch used to be owned by Diageo and most of its malt went in to the production of Bell's blended whiskey. But in 1993 the company decided the distillery was surplus to requirements and 'mothballed' it.

The closing of a distillery is always a sad occasion but in an under-privileged area of Britain and when involving such a pretty distillery the closure was particularly sad, especially as it was widely considered to have gone forever.

"Being such a long way from anywhere in particular, it was an expensive place to run," wrote Jim Murray in The Complete Book of Whisky."This has been officially mothballed but with virtually no chance of restarting."

Armstrong, who owned a holiday home nearby, was drawn to the old distillers' cottage on the site and approached Diageo - eventually - about buying it and converting the other buildings in to holiday homes.

The intention was always to convert the site and not make whisky, and indeed, Diageo,made it a condition of sale that no more malt was distilled there. But much as Armstrong loved the area and the people who lived there, he sensed a disquiet at his plans. And over time he regretted depriving a community of its life blood. With the backing of the local townsfolk he appealed to Diageo to let him make a token amount of whisky - 100,000 litres - to sell to visitors.

The move has given a poor region of Scotland a new impetus, firing tourism and becoming a hub for a range of activities including weddings and ceilidhs. This Autumn's book fair staged many of its events in the distillery.

More than that, it has grabbed the attention of whisky enthusiasts across the world. The Scottish Lowlands were once rich in distilleries but in recent years their numbers have dwindled to just a handful, and none anywhere near Bladnoch. The small scale of the operation, the arrival of new malt and the decision by Armstrong to open the distillery for occasional whisky schools has fired the imagination of whisky fans.

For his part, Armstrong seems to have embraced his new calling with a passion. Our tour is an unusual one, but as we go round the buildings he brings up technical details on the wash tub and stills, takes samples from different casks to show how the colour varies, and discusses his independent bottling business with passion and intelligence. It's clear he's no stay-away businessman with an eye only for the balance sheet.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is the whisky itself. Until recently the distillery relied on stocks of old malt which Armstrong acquired with the distillery. New production only began in 2000, so new whisky has been relatively scarce. But that's starting to change, and in the last couple of years a Six Years Old containing all new malt as made in to the distillery shop.

It might be a glib thing to say given Armstrong's nationality and the geographic location of the distillery, but the new whisky could almost be described as the missing link between Irish whiskey and Scotch. With some versions lightly peated and others not, the style is a mix of fresh green apples and pears - the same rounded fruitiness which you might expect from an Irish whiskey.

So Bladnoch is well and truly back on the whisky world's map, thanks to Armstrong.

But he hasn't been content to rest there. His new interest in whisky led him to seek out other business opportunities too. His independent bottling business, for instance. His range includes some of the greatest Scottish malt names - and they're on sale at remarkably low prices.

"It's pretty simple to me," he says. "I look at something and what it costs, work out what I need to make a good profit and then charge that price. With some of the bottles I've put out I've been told that they are far too cheap, but I make a fair profit from them. That's enough for me."

Armstrong is something of an enigma in whisky circles. There's undoubtedly respect for the way he has saved a distillery and helped it prosper on the one hand, but he's an independent thinker and a long way removed from much of the Scottish whisky, both geographically and mentally. He has his own agenda, and you suspect he couldn't care less about what others think.

He's not one to stand still, either. The reason for the need for Soil Association approval? Because he has agreements to bottle malt from other distilleries and one of them happens to have an organic whisky due out and Bladnoch needs to be able to handle it.

Then there are the warehouses. Armstrong has realised that he has plenty of them, far more than he needs for Bladnoch whisky, so he offers them at a highly competitive rate for rental for casks from other distilleries. He charges 89 pence a week for each cask and the economics of it is that it works out cheaper for distillers as far away as Speyside in the North East to absorb the cost of sending a lorry full of casks down to Wigtown and storing them in Bladnoch's warehouses than it is in storing them locally.

"So I'm getting about £50 a year for each cask and I have warehouses that can store 6,000 casks so that is good business for me. But it is cheap for them, too, because the few hundred pounds it costs to send the casks down is a very small amount when spread over lots of casks and many years in storage."

Armstrong has invested substantial amounts of money in Bladnoch and it is now a pretty and well-kept distillery with a good shop and warm and open atmosphere. It's clear that Armstrong's serious about the business. But clear also that he's having fun. "It is difficult being here and trying to make whisky but it's a wonderful wee spot," he says."Mind you, not all of it's so nice. Some of the equipment is ugly - typical Bell's. You know how everyone wants to talk in absolutes - the most southern distillery, the smallest, the highest and so on? Well some of ours are the ugliest."

Then he glances lovingly at the bridge, the river, and the pretty distillery buildings, smiles broadly as he realises how ludicrous what he's just said sounds in this context, and then turns to walk back to the distillery.

"Come on," he says. "I've got a soil man to sort out."