Most of the current crop of start-up Scotch whisky distilleries is either a new-build or a conversion of existing and architecturally interesting structures. Annandale, however, is different. It varies from the rest of the new distillery pack in that it is actually the revival of a long-lost whisky-making enterprise on its original site and utilising as many of the existing buildings as possible.
Like so many other Scottish distilleries, Annandale - located just seven miles north of the England Scotland border, and 16 miles from the historic town of Dumfries - was established in the wake of the liberalising Excise Act of 1824, being created by former excise officer George Donald in 1830. After the death of Donald, the distillery lease passed into the hands of John Gardner in 1883, and during the next decade he proceeded to upgrade the distillery quite significantly, before it was acquired by the major blending and distilling firm of John Walker & Sons.
Walker already owned Cardow (now Cardhu) distillery on Speyside, and there is a plausible theory that the company took over Annandale principally in order to secure a source of peated malt for blending purposes. John Walker & Sons operated Annandale distillery until mothballing it in 1919, finally closing it for good two years later. Their association with the distillery came to an end in 1924, after which the Robinson family took on Distillery Farm, including all the distillery buildings, ultimately using the kiln for some years as a grain-drying plant.
Then, in 2006 Professor David Thomson and his wife Teresa Church entered the Annandale story. Although based in Oxfordshire, Thomson is a native of Dumfries, and his first job was as a cereal chemist. "I've always been interested in Scotch malt whisky and in particular the technology of whisky production," he explains. "I like the blend of science and craft, and its importance to the Scottish economy."
Thomson taught consumer psychology from 1981 to 1989, and together, he and Church now head up MMR Research Worldwide Ltd, which focuses on food, drink and healthcare clients. "Essentially we do high-end market research," he says, adding that "I've been interested in the possibility of making my own whisky for quite a while, and we looked at unusual buildings that could be made into distilleries.
"Then we read about Annandale in Brian Townsend's book Scotch Missed and when we found it listed on the 'Buildings at Risk' register we realised there was still a great deal of it intact. We first saw it in June 2006 and bought it from the Robinson family the following April."
Central to the scheme to revive Annandale are distillery consultant Dr Jim Swan, who has been an acquaintance of David Thomson's since the early 1980s, and Malcolm Rennie, formerly manager at Kilchoman distillery on Islay.
Thomson first met Rennie when gaining practical experience of whisky-making at Kilchoman's five-day 'distilling experience' course. "My time spent at Kilchoman reinforced my passion for Scotch whisky and for making it," recalls Thomson. "I met up again with Malcolm some years later and he became involved at Annandale as distillery manager. It's been a huge advantage to have a manager on hand from the start. His input is very valuable."
Anyone who has watched episodes of television's Grand Designs programme will know that restoring old buildings invariably takes longer and costs more than anticipated. Although much of the production area of Annandale was
intact, including a Doig kiln pagoda, the stillhouse had been demolished many years previously, and a great deal of remedial work was required, not least on the wall of the original mash-house building, which was supported by steelwork.
It was decided to convert the mill-room into a new stillhouse, adjoining the mash-house, with Forsyths of Rothes being commissioned to build the stills. Forsyths also provided much of the milling equipment, which they had removed from Caperdonich distillery, acquired by them in order to expand their neighbouring business.
The Doig kiln has been restored, and for now its ground floor area is part of the visitor walk-through area, but David Thomson is optimistic that one day it will be used again.
The two existing dunnage warehouses, which date from the Johnnie Walker era, have also been restored, and will hold around 12 months of production. David Thomson is actively seeking more warehousing away from the site, ideally on the nearby Solway Firth coast, where a maritime influence could be imparted to the maturing spirit.
"I reckon the whole project has taken us twice as long as we expected and cost about twice as much," says Thomson. "Because the distillery is built into a slope, we had to put a great deal of time and effort into stopping water getting into the buildings.
"Another difficulty was sourcing the right kind of sandstone to match the existing stonework. It had to be dressed and aged and of the right petrographic type. We needed 300 tonnes of extra stone, and it was very hard to get hold of and extremely expensive."
The first spirit run is now just a few weeks away, with visitor facilities being in place before the end of the year, though the main thrust of public participation will come in 2015, embracing a 75-seater café/restaurant.
The restored Annandale is a very traditional distillery with hand-operated valves and all spirit cutting being performed manually by still operators. Messrs Thomson, Swan and Rennie have very clear ideas about what sort of spirit they wish to produce, and the unusual distillation regime of one large wash still and two spirit stills is a key part of creating spirit character.
"We wanted lots of copper contact, so we have the large wash still, boil balls on all the stills, tall necks and downward-sloping lyne arms," says Malcolm Rennie. "We will run the spirit stills very slowly, and are looking for a nice clean, fruity, complex spirit."
In acknowledgement of the distillery's historical whisky-making practices, both peated and unpeated spirit will be distilled. Two dedicated spirit receivers have been installed, making it easier to switch between unpeated and peated spirit production. Malcolm Rennie and his three operatives will start by making more than 50 per cent of the output from unpeated malt, evaluating the situation as time passes. The peated malt, sourced from Bairds, is peated to 45ppm. Not for nothing is Malcolm Rennie an ex-Islay distillery manager!
The peated version of Annandale will be smoky, with no iodine notes, and some will be filled into ex-sherry casks. However, as a general rule David Thomson is keen to let the spirit speak for itself without undue cask influence, noting that "We are not looking to make Glenmorangie, we don't want too much first-fill Bourbon cask influence. We will mainly use refill Bourbon casks for both unpeated and peated spirit. Discreet Bourbon notes will be part of the whisky's character."
The Annandale team starts out with the intention of making 250,000 lpa, but could double that with twice as many production staff. Currently the regime consists of one shift per day, and a six-day working week.
When spirit is flowing, Thomson plans to release a quantity of new-make, working on the basis that "I think there are enough people out there who are curious about what we are doing and what we will make, so we will sell some new-make and then further releases so that the development of the spirit can be traced. We will also sell casks to customers, with a limited number being offered at a premium price this year, after which we will keep the rest of the 2014 spirit for ourselves. Next year more casks will be sold, but I should emphasise that we won't sell any casks before we sample the spirit and can be sure of its quality."
Asked whether all the investment of time and money in the Annandale project has been worthwhile, David Thompson's response is an emphatic 'yes.' "I don't regret for a moment taking on the project," he insists, "and our aim is to have the prettiest distillery in Scotland making the best whisky!"
Malt: Unpeated and peated (to 45ppm) Concerto barley variety
Mashing: Semi-lauter mash tun - 2.5 tonne mash - 6 mashes per week
Fermentation: 6 Douglas fir washbacks - 12,000 litre capacity - 72 hours and longer fermentations
Distillation: 1 wash still (12,000 litres capacity) - 2 spirit stills (4,000 litres capacity
Distillery capacity: 250,000 lpa