One notable feature of the Scotch whisky scene in recent years has been the resurgence of the previously unloved Lowland category of single malt whisky production. From a low of two, the number of Lowland malt distilleries has now risen to 11, with several more in the pipeline. However, for most observers, the best news on the Lowland front has been the revival of Bladnoch in the far south-west corner of Galloway. Bladnoch is, in fact, celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, and thanks to the major investment of new owner, Australian businessman David Prior, it is able to celebrate in style. Prior has sunk a total of around £25 million into the purchase and restoration of Bladnoch Distillery, having earned himself $80 million from the sale of his five:am organic yoghurt business in 2014.
In terms of location, Bladnoch stands on the banks of the River Bladnoch, some 50 miles west of Dumfries, and a mile from the bibliophiles' mecca of Wigtown - Scotland's officially designated 'National Book Town.' It was established as a farm distillery in 1817 by brothers John and Thomas McClelland, gaining its first licence in 1825. It subsequently changed hands several times and experienced a number of periods of closure, being owned by the Belfast distiller Dunville & Co, who operated it until 1937, though there were several periods of inactivity during those economically troubled inter-war years.
Whisky-making recommenced in 1956 under the auspices of AB Grant & Co, and then Ian Fisher and McGowan & Cameron, with Inver House Distillers owning the distillery from 1973 to 1983. In that year, it was purchased by Arthur Bell & Sons of Perth, but Bell's was taken over by Guinness two years later, and Bladnoch found itself absorbed into the United Distillers empire. In 1993, 'UD' closed Bladnoch.
Despite the fact that Bladnoch appeared to be 'the distillery that would not die,' this time the situation seemed terminal. Then Northern Irish entrepreneur Raymond Armstrong and his brother Colin acquired the site in October 1994, initially with no intention of recommencing distilling. However, an agreement was reached with United Distillers in 2000, whereby Armstrong was allowed to distil a maximum of 100,000 litres of whisky per year at Bladnoch - a stipulation later rescinded. Accordingly, the distillery was re-equipped from the virtual shell it had become, with the first spirit flowing in December 2000.
Under the Armstrong regime, both unpeated and peated spirit was distilled, and a variety of expressions were released, including in 2009, an 8-year-old comprising only of whisky distilled since the recommencement of production at the distillery.
The fates were to continue being unkind to Bladnoch, however, with whisky-making ceasing in that same year. 2014, saw the Armstrongs - who traded as Co-ordinated Developments Services - place Bladnoch into administration, after disagreements about the future direction of the business. But once again, the distillery refused to be killed off, and in July 2015 David Prior acquired it and set about writing the next chapter in Bladnoch's chequered history.
His smartest move was to recruit the highly experienced and respected master distiller and blender Ian MacMillan to oversee the project to get Bladnoch up and running once more, and to take the distillery and its single malt brand forwards into a bigger and brighter future.
"I'd been with Burn Stewart Distillers for 25 years, but I was unhappy with the changes made once Distell took over in 2013, and I found myself looking for a new challenge," explains MacMiillan.
"David thought about building a new distillery, but was guided in the direction of Bladnoch. You have a distillery with 200 years of history and an existing brand to start with, which you don't have with a new distillery. He is very passionate and proud of what he has bought." Outlining his role, MacMillan says "I'm responsible for redeveloping the distillery, overseeing the installation of new equipment, and bringing the place back into production. "I also assess the maturing stocks and select casks for release. I thrive on a challenge, and I'd already got experience of bringing a distillery back to life with Tobermory, which Burn Stewart had bought in 1993." Nonetheless, his initial assessment of Bladnoch meant that the challenge was bigger than he might have expected. "It was really sad to see the state the place was in. Basically, it was a case of looking to see what could be saved, and the answer was very little!" he notes. "The two stills were put together from bits and pieces, and the low wines still had actually been a coal-fired wash still which had been converted. The copper was very thin - in places no thicker than a Coke can, and would have been very dangerous to use.
Only two of the wooden washbacks had been usable for a while, as the other four were rotten, and the mash tun had a stainless-steel lining inside a cast iron shell, but there was a big crack in the iron. We have 11 dunnage warehouses which can hold around 30,000 casks in total, and I had to get them all rewired and relit, and do work on the roofs and gutterings.
"Only two of the wooden washbacks had been usable for a while, as the other four were rotten, and the mash tun had a stainless-steel lining inside a cast iron shell, but there was a big crack in the iron. We have 11 dunnage warehouses which can hold around 30,000 casks in total, and I had to get them all rewired and relit, and do work on the roofs and gutterings." Another major expense was incurred ensuring that the distillery had a reliable supply of process water, as the mile-and-a-quarter-long lade which served it was silted and obstructed in places by plants and even trees. "It had just a trickle of water in it," recalls Ian MacMillan. "We spent £200,000 reinstating the water course and fitting monitoring equipment. Now we have a great supply of water."
Six new wooden washbacks have now been installed in the distillery, along with a new semi-lauter mashtun and two pairs of stills from coppersmiths extraordinaire Forsyth of Rothes. "Although latterly the distillery only had two stills, there were always four stills back in the United Distillers days," says Ian MacMillan. "The ones we've installed are slightly smaller than those. I've gone back to the traditional onion-shaped wash stills and medium bulbous low wines stills, like those in place before Raymond Armstrong's revival in 2000. The wash stills have slightly dropping lye pipes. "The new stills were designed to produce a grassy Lowland style of spirit, but with sweet malty notes, too. It's not as dry as it used to be. In time, with maturation, there should be citrus notes and light honey, along with the fruit notes and malt. We will also distil heavily peated whisky at times." MacMillan has spent a considerable amount of time and effort evaluating the several thousand casks which David Prior purchased with the distillery, and he has also bought back casks of Bladnoch distilled in the early 1990s from third parties.
"A lot of the whisky we bought with the distillery was not in good wood," notes MacMillan, "and that included spirit produced during the 1990s by Bell's. I've re-casked a great deal of whisky into active casks, including first-fill Bourbon, sherry, fortified wine and virgin oak, which I introduced at Deanston while with Burn Stewart.
"The stock we got that was distilled during 2007 and 2008 had been filled into much better wood, and most of that is fine as it is. Overall, we have lots of scope now for some interesting limited-edition releases." The first casks of Bladnoch new-make spirit distilled under the MacMillan/Prior regime were filled to cask on 6 July this year, and with a theoretical capacity of 1.3mla, MacMillan plans to produce 650,000 to 700,000 litres during 2018, and a new visitor centre is due to open in the summer of next year, based in the old No 1 warehouse.
He says that, "The spirit we're making will be used for various aged releases, plus third parties want to buy it for blending purposes, and some will go into our Pure Scot blend." Pure Scot is a prestige blended Scotch, commissioned by David Prior, and Ian MacMillan explains that, "It contains lots of older and big-hitting malts, giving a rich malt character and a smoky background. There's Bladnoch in there, too, with the youngest being eight years old. I've just produced a virgin oak version of Pure Scot, which is due for release in the USA and Australia. "In terms of Bladnoch itself, I'm looking to release limited editions, with a variety of ages, vintages and styles. For the 200th anniversary of the distillery I'm preparing a 29-year-old bottling of Bladnoch, finished in Moscatel casks. There will only be 200 bottles available, and they should be released in October." Meanwhile, three new expressions of Bladnoch with eye-catching presentation are already on the market, doing the talking for the revitalised distillery. The trio includes the NAS Samsara - matured in a mix of Bourbon casks and first-fill Californian red wine casks, and bottled at 46.7% ABV.
The two 'aged' variants are 15 Years Old Adela - matured in American and Spanish oak oloroso sherry butts, and also bottled at 46.7% ABV - and 25 Years Old Talia, which has undergone a finishing period in new American oak casks and is presented at 49.2% ABV.