Distillery Focus

First and Last

Neil Wilson visits a vision in the making
By Neil Wilson
Almost always it remains an unfulfilled dream. A couple of whisky lovers happen upon a defunct distillery over 180 years old, they covet it and manage to buy it, then they set about the really hard part, bringing it all back to life and achieving that lifelong ambition.

For David Thomson, a former cereal chemist, and his wife Teresa Church, both co-owners of the multi-national MMR market research company, that ambition is now being fulfilled on the outskirts of Annan in Dumfriesshire. They met while he was studying for a doctorate in consumer psychology at Bristol University in the late 1970s and they went on to create MMR which now has sensory science centres in China, USA and the UK. Employing almost 150 people, MMR has an annual turnover of over $35m and has afforded them the means to underwrite the costs of rebuilding the picturesque Annandale Distillery, established in 1830, at Northfield. In doing so Annandale will become the first distillery visitors crossing the border from England encounter, and the last as they return south.

I first visited Annandale in 1987 when I was preparing a broadcast for BBC Radio Solway which followed in Alfred Barnard’s footsteps as he toured through the region taking in Langholm, Glen Tarras, Annandale and Bladnoch distilleries. Back then I was shown round by one of the Robinson family who owned the farm and distillery and I was surprised by the generally good state of preservation of the place.

Today, looking at the amount of work now being done as the rebuilding programme enters its 14th week of a projected 52, it is clearly going to be a massive financial undertaking for them. I ask David about the cost.

‘I don’t like discussing that,’ he responds affably, ‘but take it from me, it’s a multi-million pound project.’ Teresa then expands on their motivation. ‘This is not an investment. There are no plans to repay the capital outlay and profits will be re-invested in the distillery. It’s all about David’s vision and making that come true. We are fortunate to have access to the necessary finance, but David is from Dumfries and this is his local distillery so when he found out he could acquire it, he felt it had his name on it.’

Once the rebuilding and commissioning are completed the distillery will have been kitted out by Forsyths of Rothes with Browns of Dufftown supplying the Douglas Fir washbacks. Malcom Rennie has been employed fulltime for 14 months since moving from Kilchoman to ensure that things are done in the correct order from the word go. What is very evident from the range of work being carried out on site is that this is no bit-at-a-time, see-how-it-goes operation, but a properly managed and funded project that is meeting its objectives on a day-to-day basis. Everything is falling into place to finally re-introduce malt whisky drinkers to the style of medium-peated whisky which was produced when Barnard visited. At that time the distillery was leased by John Gardner of Liverpool who was to remain in business until 1896 when John Walker & Sons took over until final closure in 1919-20. The freehold on the farm and distillery was eventually secured by the Robinsons from the local Mackenzie family some years later.

Dr Jim Swan has been working closely with David and Malcolm to create the correct distillery specifications along with the proposed styles of malt, as the plan is to have a principal ‘Bowmore-style’ with phenolic levels around 20-25ppm and a secondary ‘Glenlivet-style’. Wood policy will be first and second-fill ex-bourbon with some ex-sherry finishing very probable. Spirit should be running in the late autumn of 2012 and further down the line there are plans for the floor maltings to be reinstated along with a cooperage as well. A visitor reception area will employ two or three staff and the recently discovered foundations of the original stillhouse will be preserved and act as a focal point for visitors.

Architects from the School of the Built Environment at Edinburgh Napier University have submitted three designs to incorporate the excavations into the visitor experience and Historic Scotland is providing grant aid towards particular aspects of the rebuilding work.

In the meantime there is going to be a long funding gap before mature stocks can be sold so income will be generated by selling bought-in fillings.

It’s difficult not to admire the sheer dedication and commitment that David and Teresa have put into bringing Annandale back to life. In a moment of candour David admitted to me that a lot of people think he’s ‘mental’. As a Dumfries-born man myself, I prefer to think of him as something else … David, you’re a local hero.

Distillery info

Owner: Annandale Distillery Company Limited
Founded: 1830. Closed 1919/20. Re-established 2011/12
Capacity: 250,000 lpa
2 x 4,000-litre spirit still
1 x 12,000-litre wash stills
6 x 12,000-litre washbacks
1 x 2.5 tonne semi-Lauter mashtun
Web: www.annandaledistillery.com