Not too many years ago, ‘Lowland’ was very much the poor relation of Scotch malt whisky production regions, with only Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan flying the flag for malt whiskies made below the ‘Highland line.’
Now, however, the situation is very different, thanks to the fact that the promoters of many recent start-up distilleries have seen the attractions of making whisky closer to centres of population. There are advantages in terms of transport links, access to specialist services, and the fact that there is a likelihood of increased visitor numbers across a broader spread of the year than in more remote areas with relatively short tourist seasons.
Going from being the ‘Cinderella’ of whisky regions, the Lowlands has become home to no fewer than 17 malt whisky distilleries in recent years, of which Falkirk is the latest to come on stream. Located just off the M9 motorway, between Glasgow and Edinburgh in the Central Belt of Scotland, it’s an imposing and even beautiful piece of traditional-style whisky-making architecture, whitewashed with ‘Falkirk Distillery Company’ emblazoned on the wall in time-honoured fashion, and topped with twin copper pagodas.
The distillery"s production areas
Falkirk is the brainchild of colourful veteran local businessman George Stewart, who has an electrical engineering background and presides over successful electrical and house-building companies. This is very much a family venture, however, and daughter Fiona now undertakes much of the day-to-day running of the distillery.
The distillery project has cost around £18 million, all of it ‘family’ money, with the exception of a modest Scottish government grant. When asked why he decided to embark on such a major new project at an age when most people with some money in the bank would be relaxing on a beach somewhere exotic, Stewart replies, “I think it was a dream… or maybe a dram too many… possibly a combination of both.”
That dream threatened to turn into a nightmare at an early stage, however, when after initial planning permission was granted for the 11-acre site on Grandsable Road in Polmont during 2010, the project came up against issues relating to the proximity of a section of the Antonine Wall.
The Wall was constructed over a 12-year period from AD142 between the Firth of Clyde in the west and the Firth of Forth in the east, marking the northernmost extent of Roman occupation. Archaeological investigations, followed by the outbreak of Covid-19, meant that it was the summer of 2020 before construction of the Stewarts’ distillery was completed, equipment installed and the site ready to make spirit.
Despite the local presence of remnants of the Antonine Wall, actually situated below the nearby A9 road, Stewart felt that his new distillery needed a tangible association with the past. “We wanted to create a beautiful distillery building and I wanted some heritage, too, which is why we bought the old Caperdonich stills and mash tun,” he explains. The pair of stills was acquired from copper-smithing legend Forsyths of Rothes in Speyside, which had purchased the silent Caperdonich Distillery that adjoined its premises and subsequently demolished it in 2010, salvaging all the equipment within. One of the two pairs of stills was subsequently acquired by the Belgian Owl Distillery.
The pair acquired by Stewart are some 40 years old, and the copper-topped mash tun is of the traditional ‘rake and plough’ kind. Forsyths undertook the installation and also supplied a new mill, stainless-steel washbacks and all ancillary equipment. A 1958 Abercrombie spirit safe, purchased from Diageo, completes the pleasing mix of old.
“The water was the key to choosing the site,” declares Stewart, with two boreholes having been discovered by a water diviner. In terms of the chosen spirit style, he says, “I like a whisky that is quite light, one that will appeal to people who don’t necessarily drink whisky and associate it with big peaty characteristics, as well as whisky connoisseurs.”
The man charged with delivering that spirit is distillery manager Graham Brown, a native of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, where he continues to have his home. Brown’s father was manager of Tobermory Distillery and his son followed in his footsteps, also working at Deanston, in Perthshire “Our main aim here is to focus on the quality of the spirit,” Brown explains. “There is no rush to just put anything out to market that we aren’t immensely proud of and we believe that will show in the final product.”
Stewart says that there will probably be a number of ‘work in progress’ bottlings, pointing to Kilchoman’s successful programme of early expressions, and its triple pack of one month, one-year and two-year-old miniature bottles to illustrate the spirit’s evolution.
Most of the Falkirk ‘make’ is being filled into first-fill bourbon barrels, along with some first-fill oloroso sherry casks, and the team intends to offer small-batch limited releases during the early days. A general release of Falkirk single malt may not happen until the whisky is five years old, reckons Brown, who considers that any earlier releases may well be of sherry cask-matured spirit, as it is likely to be more precocious than that being aged in ex-bourbon wood.
In the meantime, casks are maturing in a beautifully crafted brick warehouse, which operates on the dunnage principle of casks stacked three high, and bottling will be undertaken on site when the time is right.
George Stewart filling a cask with Falkirk spirit
In the meantime, some casks of six-year-old Loch Lomond single malt have been acquired and this whisky will be bottled and offered for sale to the public while the Falkirk spirit waits to come of age.
Falkirk Distillery should be open to the public by August of this year, and a great deal of effort has gone into ensuring that the visitor experience is first class. Wide walkways capable of accommodating wheelchairs are in situ, along with a lift, and a spacious gift shop and 120-cover restaurant adjoin the production area. A total of around 80 people will be employed on site when all facilities are up and running, and annual visitor numbers are expected to be around the 80,000 mark.
For those who would like rather more than a one-off distillery visit, it is possible to become a member of the Founders’ Club, which allows access to products not on general sale, your name on the ‘stave wall’ and a 200ml bottle of new spirit. For those who are even more serious, it is possible to purchase either a first-fill bourbon or first-fill sherry cask of Falkirk spirit. “We sold cask number 88 to a person in Hong Kong, as eight is the luckiest number in Chinese culture,” declares Stewart cheerfully. “Cask 888 is now on the market for £100,000 and we are looking for another Hong Kong buyer.”
The story of Falkirk Distillery to date has principally been about patience and resilience, allied to a determination to produce top-quality spirit and create local employment, while adding a new visitor attraction to the area the Stewarts call home.
As Stewart says, “I am proud of what we as a family have achieved and hope the local community can now share in our pride in bringing whisky distillation back to Falkirk.”