The unsung saint

Gavin D Smith charts the history of one of the founding distilleries of DCL (Distillers Company Limited) that still entralls enthusiasts.
By Gavin D. Smith
For so long the ‘poor relations’ of the single malt world, Lowlands have staged something of a revival in recent years, with Fife’s existing Daftmill ‘boutique’ distillery likely to be supplemented in the not too distant future by a new small-scale venture at Kingsbarns, near St Andrews. There are also ongoing plans to create a start-up distillery in the Falkirk area, using the Rosebank name, and to redevelop the former Annandale distillery, near Dumfries.This seems an apt time, then, to take a look at one of our ‘lost’ Lowland distilleries – namely St Magdalene. The plant was located in the historic West Lothian royal burgh of Linlithgow, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots and some 20 miles west of Edinburgh.The site ultimately occupied by St Magdalene distillery was a historic one, with a leper colony operating there under the auspices of the Knights Templar of St John of Torphichen during the 12th century. The land was later occupied by a convent.By the late 18th century, Linlithgow was a noted centre for brewing and distilling,and was ultimately home to five licensed distilleries. The first of these was Bulzion, which was established in the 1750s, followed by Bonnytoun in 1795. Two years later, St Magdalene was licensed. It occupied land beside the Union Canal, which provided ready access for raw materials and the transportation of casks filled with spirit. The distillery also fronted a major road and ultimately boasted its own railway sidings.Bonnytoun had been founded by Adam Dawson, and in 1800 he purchased neighbouring St Magdalene from its founder Sebastian Henderson, creating something of a ‘super distillery,’ embracing both the Bonnytoun and St Magdalene operations.When the distillery chronicler Alfred Barnard visited St Magdalene during the 1880s,he reported annual output of around 200,000 gallons; approximately three times that of fellow Lowlander Glenkinchie and almost twice that of Rosebank. Clearly St Magdalene was then a significant and substantial Lowland malt whisky distillery.Interestingly, from a modern perspective, Barnard also noted the existence in bond of “…some very old Whisky…we saw a number of casks branded 1875 and 1877…”The older of these two parcels of ‘very old whisky’ would actually have been no more than eleven years of age at the time.The Dawson family which owned St Magdalene at the time of Barnard’s visit operated the distillery until 1912,when A&J Dawson Ltd went into liquidation, and regular readers of this series will not be surprised to learn that the firm attracted the attention of the acquisitive Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) who bought it the same year.In 1915, St Magdalene became one of the five founding distilleries of the DCL subsidiary Scottish Malt Distillers (SMD), along with Clydesdale (in Wishaw, Lanarkshire), Glenkinchie, Grange (in Burntisland, Fife), and Rosebank.StMagdalene was one of the unsung distilleries of the DCL empire, with virtually all of its make destined for the blending vats,and when it came to DCL’s rationalisation plans of the 1980s, it is not too difficult to see why St Magdalene was deemed surplus to requirements.The distillery occupied a comparatively constricted urban site, which thwarted potential expansion and which also had significant value for sale and redevelopment.Additionally, the blended whisky market required relatively small amounts of Lowland malts,and DCL continued to operate its Glenkinchie and Rosebank Lowland distilleries.While many of the distilleries that closed during the 1980s have now totally disappeared beneath redevelopment schemes, a significant part of St Magdalene found a new lease of life as apartments, and the Charles Doigdesigned malt kiln pagodas still stand solidly as an unequivocal reminder of the site’s past.Despite not having been produced for more than quarter of a century, St Magdalene single malt is not too difficult to find,and certainly seems to possess the virtue of ageing well.Three 23 Years Old expressions were released by Diageo in its Rare Malts series, followed by a 1979 variant, issued as a 19 Years Old, and in 2004 the company offered a 30 Years Old ‘Linlithgow’ as part of its Special Releases programme.Currently available are single cask bottlings of 1982 spirit from Berry Bros & Rudd, Douglas Laing & Co, the Scottish Liqueur Centre and Signatory, while Gordon & MacPhail offers a 1975 bottling in its ‘Rare Old’ line up.