Distillery Focus

Dispelling the myths

This month, Diageo's £40 million complex at Roseisle opened its doors to the press, offering an insight into one of Scotland's most ambitious - and controversial distillery projects in the last decade. Neil J. Ridley lifts the lid on the distillery, poised to help take the worldwide whisky market to new heights
By Neil Ridley
Roseisle Distillery
Roseisle Distillery
Take a snapshot of the world and its drinking habits and some harsh realities are clearly being revealed. Across Europe, and North America, sales of whisky, either in the blended or single malt categories has taken a sound drubbing over the last 18 months, with lighter (and arguably more versatile) spirits dominating our glassware. A sign of the times perhaps? Well perhaps. One can argue that in the age of recession, reaching for the bottle is perhaps the most inevitable of pastimes. Unfortunately for the modern Scotch whisky business, it's just that we're apparently all reaching for the wrong bottles. But to dispel the grey cloud of negativity for a second, and an altogether rosier and dare we say, brighter outlook is beginning to emerge.

The good news is that despite our own wobbling domestic fortunes, the global Scotch whisky market remains in fine fettle with the Scotch Whisky Association reporting that international exports, predominantly of blended whisky, have risen recently by three per cent in value - to the tune of £3.13 billon. To put this figure another way, Scotch whisky now contributes £99 every second to the UK's trade balance. The 'emerging' markets so often discussed, such as China, India and Russia, not to mention the growing economies of Vietnam and Korea are now demanding even greater shares of Scottish whisky production, with projected sales on a significantly upward trajectory. The result is a challenge to produce enough spirit to satisfy this demand and it affects the entire industry.

Diageo's response to this challenge has been to create Roseisle, arguably Scotland's most comprehensive distillation project in the last 30 years and, on visiting the 3,000 sq metre site, an imposing vision of the future of whisky production in Scotland.

Kilchoman it certainly aint.

The distillery began life in early 2006, under the working title of 'Project Triumph', with plans being developed on the substantial site of the existing Roseisle Maltings, just outside of Elgin. Work began in earnest in October 2007 with the very first spirit running from the distillery's 14 stills in the autumn of 2009. Quotas place Roseisle's output on a par with Glenfiddich, with production capacity expected to be around 10 million litres per annum, increasing Diageo's malt portfolio by over 10 per cent. Brian Higgs, director of malt distilling was the man tasked with such lofty aspirations, and who describes the initial planning stages as "like being given a blank sheet of paper."

The main aim for a distillery of this magnitude was to be able to produce two distinct styles of Speyside whisky," explains Brian "to support the growing reliance on the output of our other 27 malt distilleries." Jim Beverage, Diageo's master blender and Douglas Murray, manufacturing development manager for the Diageo Group were also instrumental figures in helping Roseisle stay on track. Douglas points out that "The core of the whiskies used in Diageo blends comes from Speyside and the primary aim here is to produce both light, grassy styles of spirit, and that of a heavier characteristic."

So how exactly have they achieved this? And perhaps more importantly, has Diageo managed to create a project, which balances innovation and progress with the ethical and environmental considerations expected by an increasingly 'greener' focussing industry?

Although one's initial impressions are outweighed by the sheer enormity of the site, there is a sobering simplicity at the heart of the distillery, which perhaps masks the scale of innovation at work. Ergonomically laid out, the control room and nerve centre sits conveniently between the still house and fermentation hall, with access points all on one level. Douglas explains the reason for this style of layout was because "the large majority of injuries experienced by distillery staff were slips and falls on the metal stairways, which we clearly wanted to avoid, at all cost."

The sophisticated control software, seen in virtually every major distillery has effectively been cloned from the existing programmes used at Glenlossie and Cardhu, but taken to a new level. Rather than just monitor a distillation cycle from a desktop computer terminal, the stillmen use iPad styled mobile consoles, which means breakdowns and other technical issues can be fixed at their source, rather than requiring the operator to run back and forth between rooms.

Onwards to the fermentation hall and the two huge Lauter tuns are the first indication of just how much malt can be processed by the distillery, which is all provided by the neighbouring maltings. Up to 13 tons per vessel, per mash cycle are run through - and viewing them from above, it is no wonder that they were brought to the site as two halves for their eventual assembly. Each cycle produces 114,000 litres of a very bright, clear wort, (the waters of which are provided by four bore holes deep under the site) channelled to the 14 stainless steel washbacks by a flow of arterial pipes. Each 160,000l washback is filled to 114,000 litres, equipped with motorised switchers to counter the excessive foaming which develops from a clear wort.

Nothing unusual here you might think, other than perhaps the sheer production scale and lack of any Oregon pine on display, but two more mysterious vessels catch the eye and indicate the first signs of the distillery's novel approach to green technology. Excess heat is channelled from the other parts of the fermentation cycle and used to effectively 'pre heat' the wash before it hits the wash still, requiring less energy to be used at this stage of distillation. To use a crude analogy, it's like using the surplus hot water from your kettle to cook your pasta, rather than boiling it from scratch. Sean Pritchard, renewable energy manager for Diageo distilleries also points out that an underground pipeline runs between the distillery and the Burghead Maltings, 1.5km north of Roseisle, "providing the site with surplus heat from the distillery and helping to bring our fossil fuel neutrality to around 66 per cent."

It's an impressive figure and one which Sean and his team believes can be increased to more than 85 per cent by optimising the distillery's production efficiency. The distillery is also based around the principle of generating further renewable energy from its liquid and solid by-products, which are converted into bio gas. Brian Higgs explains that "over time, this will help reduce potential CO2 emissions by approximately 13,000 tonnes, which is the equivalent to 10,000 family cars. Our goal is to get as close to fossil fuel and water neutral as possible."

The Still room is undoubtedly the most impressive sight at Roseisle, with seven identically shaped pairs of wash and spirit stills, manufactured by Diageo's coppersmiths at Abercrombie in Alloa. Staring out at them from the viewing platform is like looking into the guts of pristine, precision-tooled V8 engine of an AC Cobra. The uniformity of the still shapes puts pay to initial speculation that the distillery had numerous experimental shaped stills up their sleeves, with the design based heavily on the type used at Cardhu. Airflow around the still house is controlled to recycle heat and help aid refluxing, which again adds to the distillery's firm commitment to fossil fuel neutrality. But the real interest lies in the condensing technology, as it is at this point the 'two distinct styles' of spirit, which the distillery aims to produce is essentially reinforced.

Several stills can switch between copper shell-and-tube condensers and those of a stainless steel construction, which part-replicate the lower, fresh copper contact of traditional worm tubs, giving the spirit a heavier, sulphury character. Although this technique has already been applied successfully at the Dailuaine distillery, heavier spirit has yet to be manufactured at Roseisle, with the distillery's current run producing that of a much lighter, grassy style.

In the future, like the other 27 Diageo distilleries, Roseisle will be bottled as a single malt, although, as yet it is unclear which distillery character it will follow - light, heavy, or possibly a combination of both? At this stage, it is all too early to tell. What's clear from a visit to Roseisle is Diageo's firm belief that a distillery of this size is critical to the future of whisky production and the projected rise in export sales. It may not adhere to the archetypal traditional look and feel shared by the majority of Speyside distilleries, but underneath the sheen of technology and innovation lies a desire to produce the best possible spirit, albeit on a global scale.

Tasting notes


New Make Unknown%

Light style:
Nose: Dried grass, peardrops and a faint note of hazelnut.
Palate: Clean, fresh and drying, with a sweet cereal note at its heart.

Unfortunately, we were unable to taste any of the heavier spirit in comparison.