When it comes to Scotch whisky staying power, Bladnoch has it by the bucket load. The Lowland distillery has a whopping 203 years of near-continuous operation under its belt, – and you better believe it’s primed and ready for 200 more. As the ink dries on a new distribution partnership with S.E.A Spirits, we took five with Dr Nick Savage, master distiller at Scotland’s most southerly whisky distillery…

Bladnoch distillery was founded in 1817 by the McClelland brothers, who were among the first in Scotland to acquire a license to make Scotch whisky. Some 198 years later – and around five years after it had been mothballed – the site was bought Australian entrepreneur David Prior, who set about returning the distillery to its former glory.

A little over a year later, in late 2016, Bladnoch Distillery officially relaunched, introducing three brand new expressions created from existing stocks by then-master distiller Ian MacMillan: a NAS dram named Samsara, along with 15-year-old Adela and 25-year-old Talia (now available as both a 26 and 27-year-old whisky). They were soon followed by contemporary blended bottling, Pure Scot.

After a mammoth re-fit that saw Bladnoch fitted with a five-tonne mash tun, six Douglas Fir wooden washbacks, two 12,500-litre capacity pot stills and two 9,500-litre spirit stills – enabling an annual distilling capacity of 1.5 million litres – the distillery celebrated its 200th anniversary year by restarting production. Liquid ran off the stills at Bladnoch once more.

In mid 2019, Bladnoch’s state-of-the-art visitor centre was opened by the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay – a.k.a Prince Charles and Camilla – joined by Dr Nick Savage, as he stepped away from his role as master distiller at The Macallan to join the team. With year one under his belt, we caught up with Dr Savage to find out what’s been happening at the distillery…

Dr Nick Savage in the blending room

Master of Malt: Cheers for chatting with us, Nick! Could you tell us a little bit about how you started out in the whisky industry?

Nick Savage: I did a PhD in mechanical engineering out in Melbourne in Australia, came back and lived in Sheffield looking for factory work. I was looking for something I’d enjoy. If you enjoy it, you’ll take an interest in it, and if you’re interested, everything else takes care of itself. There was an advert for optimising whisky casks and God bless all my friends, they all like whisky and they said, ‘You’ve got to try that’ – just for the perks, I can imagine. It was with Diageo, they were looking for a mechanical engineer to look at trying to reduce Angel’s share, the lifecycle of casks, how thin you can make them, and also the general design. We got a couple of patents out of that in the end. It wasn’t necessarily that I went to study to be a master distiller or anything involved in whisky – it was much more across technical skills. And then you’re immersed in the industry, the people who surround you and your customers, so to speak, they bring you in. My first manager was Jim Beveridge at Johnnie Walker. You end up on sensory panels, and you start off by nosing, and it evolves from there. You learn from the people around you. And then it was more about covering off as many parts of the industry as I possibly could, I guess. Which is how I ended up here. 

MoM: You joined Bladnoch in July 2019. Could you talk about the decision to leave one of the world’s most popular Scotch whisky producers for a recently-regenerated historical distillery?

NS: That decision wasn’t taken lightly, as you can imagine. If it had been a new build distillery then it wouldn’t have even been a question. But this came with opportunity, it’s got all the credentials to be a successful luxury single malt – 200 years’ history, stock, a beautiful estate, a great team and great brands. It had all the building blocks of a successful brand, which was one criteria. The second criteria I looked at was, ‘How am I going to do the role?’. I’ve been in Diageo, Grants, Edrington, I’ve operated with the big brands and the big corporates. This was an opportunity for me to stretch myself in a much more entrepreneurial world, higher pace, completely different challenges, and be part of a brand in its infancy rather than at its maturity. It’s a completely different environment to the one I’d been in for the last 10, 15 years. So, it had all the building blocks, and it was the next challenge for me. That’s what drew me to it. And it’s going to be a hell of a journey. 

Bladnoch 10 year old, snazzy packaging

MoM: Have you put your stamp on production in any way, or are you focused on getting into the swing of things and planning ahead for the future? 

NS: Both are key for this type of role. You inherit the stocks, so I’ve gone through each cask. We know where some of the golden nuggets are, and we know where some of the more regular releases will be – the 11 year old, the 14 year old, these are some of the regular releases that are coming out. We’re also able to look at single casks, where we showcase some of the absolute gems and anomalies in the stocks. So, understanding the stocks is one thing. And then also setting the stocks up, that future planning that you spoke about. I’m not going to be in this chair forever, someone’s going to sit in it after me. [Bladnoch] is 200 years old, and it’s going to do another 200 years, no issues. And it’s about what sort of treasure chest you lay down for the future. You’ve got to make sure you hand it over in a better position than you found it, to use a cliché. From a production perspective, getting it much more fine-tuned, more consistent in regards to the operating processes, and working with the team on that. That was the easy bit, being a brand new distillery there’s not much more you can do with it. It’s more about, ‘How can we do something different in the future, two or three years from now? What are the levers in production that we can pull?’. We’ve gone from two thirds capacity to full capacity running over the last few months. That’s a great testament to the team and to the direction of travel of the business, 24/7 production is no mean feat. And to lead the team on that during my first year is a great feather in my cap, so to speak.

MoM: What else has been going on at the distillery that you can tell us about?

NS: Well, the visitor centre opened last year – we had a great plan for this year and then Covid hit, but we managed to reopen in early August, and it’s been brilliant, the demand has been there. All tours are fully booked. It’s great to see people back on the site and enjoying the estate and learning about our whiskies. In amongst all that, we launched products – the 11 year old, the 14 year old,  we launched single casks. That type of stuff takes years in a big corporate, and we’ve done it in the last six months. One of the reasons I moved to a smaller company is that it’s much more flexible and can move a lot faster, and for me, we’re leveraging that asset. We know we can’t do big volume, we can’t do millions of cases. But what we can be is flexible and decisive. We can be honest about our brands and provide that integrity around the stories. We’ve managed to do that regardless of coronavirus, and it’s a great achievement for the team. To put it in the context of the industry, something like less than 10% of [Scotch] distilleries remained in production. We never actually turned off, we reduced for three weeks purely to give an opportunity to our employees [to adjust]. If you want to go on furlough for a three week period, we will offer that. Nothing’s held against anybody and nothing’s praised – it was a very odd time and we appreciated that. As soon as everybody came back, we pretty much went 24/7. And during a time where [so few] distilleries were operational, that’s a massive achievement. 

Bladnoch Distillery, 200 years and still going strong

MoM: What sets Bladnoch apart from other Scotch whisky producers in terms of the resources and equipment you use?

NS: When David purchased the distillery in 2015 it was mothballed and pretty much needed rebuilding inside, so all the kit is new. However, that doesn’t mean it’s all new technology. We have got some screens, but there’s no production room where the computers sort things out, it’s very much done by hand and by eye in a craftsman’s way. Our washbacks are wooden, there’s no stainless steel, no cooling in there. When David embarked on this [project], he was adamant about [inkeeping with] the traditional way of doing things. Buying new equipment doesn’t mean we have to have the latest technology. The water comes straight from Dumfries Hills, it doesn’t necessarily impact the flavour although I do think it’s important that we engage with our local environment as much as we possibly can. For example, we own a portion of the Bladnoch River, and it’s up to us to protect that, working with people like CEFAS (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science) and the Fisheries Trust. We use that water source, therefore we should be accountable for it.

MoM: Bladnoch’s new make has varied a far bit over its long history. How would you describe the distillery character now?

NS: The flavour and profile are very similar to where it was before mothballed, though it’s slightly fruitier than it was. It’s got that classic Lowland floral grassy note in the background. You’ve got this sweet malty style body, is how I describe it, almost like a biscuit-y note. On top of that, there’s this light, fruity, almost pear drop-style note. So you’ve got pear drops at the top, a big cereal body, and then a subtle grassy floral note just in the background. That allows us to be quite flexible in our cask lay down. We fill 95% first-fill barrels, only because it gives us flexibility for when casks over-perform – you don’t want them too woody, you want a second-fill there. We probably fill in the region of about 40% sherry, whether it’s Oloroso, PX or so forth, and another 40% would be first-fill bourbon. The light, fruity style with a hint of grassiness in the new make allows us to have that as a base by which we can showcase these different cask types and therefore produce different products. An 11 year old is different to a 14 year old – it’s not just an additional three years, it’s a different cask type and style. Whereas if we were very heavily peated, for example, everything is very heavily peated and it’s slightly more difficult to produce different products from one single malt distillery. That excellent new make gives us a really good base to showcase the different casks in the stocks. 

Dr Nick Savage in the stillhouse

MoM: Great stuff. Before you go, could you tell us what you’re working towards over the coming months?

NS: Ironically we’re on our peated campaign for 2020. We’ve got about three weeks of peated, so the distillery is smelling lovely at the minute, even more so than normal. In terms of releases, the 14 year old has absolutely flown, that’s a brand new release and we’ll be doing more in January, I believe. We’ll launch year two of our single cask programme in early 2021. Year one was 2020, we ring-fenced 25 casks in the stocks to be released as single casks, given their unique characters, at a rate of five per year. There are a couple more aged products coming in the same time period – I can’t say too much more on those, but they will showcase a few of our cask types at some higher ages than the 14. We’re also working on a distillery exclusive, which will be a five-year series and should be starting in October or November time. Every year a limited amount of bottles will be released primarily or exclusively through the distillery. Given Coronavirus we might release some on our e-commerce site, as we’re appreciative that not everyone can get to the distillery, but going forward, we’d like to invite everyone to the distillery to collect their bottle.

Try the Bladnoch range at Master of Malt.