Twenty-four hours on from one of the biggest Scotch whisky announcements of the year – challenged only by news of Port Ellen and Brora‘s revival a mere day before – we caught up with Ian Macleod‘s operations director, Gordon Doctor, for the 4-1-1 on Rosebank‘s comeback.
Before we go any further, we can confirm that at the time of writing no further closed distilleries have been lined up for a grand reopening (the way this week is going you just never know!). In any case, it’s safe to say the next few years will be definitive for Scotch whisky as this trinity of cult favourites fires up its (new) stills for the first time in decades.
Rumours of a Rosebank revival have been circulating for some time, so it was the identity of brand’s new owner that came as the biggest shock to most. Ian Macleod’s name was especially surprising, since until recently Rosebank’s previous owner Diageo held trademark rights, and Scottish Canals possessed the land it once resided on.
“It’s been in the pipeline a couple of years,” Gordon Doctor, Ian Macleod’s operations director tells MoM over the phone, explaining that the two-fold double negotiations slowed proceedings. “I think maybe one or two people had heard whispers, but it’s never easy keeping these things completely under wraps. I think we managed it quite well.”
We’d be inclined to agree. But while the proverbial distillery cat is out the bag, Ian Macleod has a multitude of (albeit very exciting) hurdles to tackle in the months ahead – not least attempting to determine what the spirit should taste like when it’s fresh off the still. The overarching aim, Doctor says, is to try and replicate the original Rosebank character, and trying to find its “benchmark” new-make is key to this.
“We know what the mature spirit is like because there’s bottles of mature spirit out there; what we don’t know yet is if there’s any remaining samples of new-make lying in Diageo’s archives,” he says.
“Hopefully they’ll have records of the technical processes.” Thankfully Diageo is “the sort of company that tends not to throw things away,” he continues. “They’ve got a significant archive, I believe, so we’re looking forward to delving into that at some point.”
While the existing Ian Macleod distillation team – who will be tasked with Rosebank operations in addition to those at its existing distilleries, Glengoyne and Tamdhu – is busy figuring it out, Ian Macleod plans to tantalise taste buds by releasing existing stock acquired from Diageo. Not just yet though, since assessing all the casks remains firmly on the company’s to-do list.
“We’re looking to move the stock into one of our own warehouses so that we can sample and regauge the casks to see exactly what we have,” explains Doctor. “We’ve had random samples, but we’ve not sampled them all.” As such, the first release is likely to be next year. “I’m sure our marketing people will want to develop our own packaging, perhaps a bespoke bottle mould and so on,” he adds.
And as for the ‘new’ Rosebank…
Exciting stuff, we’re sure you’ll agree. And while we collectively whip ourselves into a frenzy over the releases, some pretty major construction work will be taking place at the site, which is located on the banks of the Forth & Clyde Canal. It currently lies derelict, but production is expected to recommence as soon as 2019.
The original stills were stolen over the Christmas and New Year period in 2008/9, but Doctor says the distillery will be built according to its historic specifications, and capacity will be capped at one million litres per year. Despite the task at hand, Doctor seems unfazed about starting from scratch.
“The thing is, stills get replaced over the years at every distillery… because they get thin,” he explains. “People always have to change their stills, and they’re never the same. Sometimes you change the [entire] still, sometimes you just change the shoulders… depending on which part becomes thin first.”
A fair point? In any case, ambition is that the new kit will be indistinguishable from the original equipment. “There’s no plans to change anything,” asserts Doctor. “It’ll be triple distillation, worm tub condensers… The stills will hopefully be the same shape, the same size, same capacity – as close as possible to how it was done in the past.”
It’ll be years before we taste the fruits of Ian Macleod’s labour, but one thing’s for sure – the whisky world is waiting with baited breath.