The Lowland Legend That Could Have Been: Rosebank Distillery
Distillery Spotlight: Rosebank Distillery
Region: Falkirk, Lowlands, Scotland
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
Some cult distilleries like Brora and Port Ellen are the Vincent Van Goghs of the whisky world. Love for them came only upon hindsight. Brora and Port Ellen never received any special accolade or attention when they active. No one shed a tear these two distilleries were closed. It was only several years after they were closed that drinkers began feeling sentimental and wistful about their single malts, and started scrambling for increasingly rare bottles.
This isn’t the same for Rosebank Distillery. Rosebank Distillery was already well-loved by connoisseurs when it was alive. The late Michael Jackson (a highly respected English whisky writer) considers Rosebank the “finest example of a Lowland malt”. Writer, Jim Murray, had insisted that Rosebank ought to be ranked in the “top five of all Scottish malts”.
If there is a God, Rosebank whisky would be produced again.
- Legendary whisky writer, Michael Jackson
Rosebank never reached the stature of Macallan Distillery - its production capacity was too small. It is also true that the Lowland region has historically struggled to achieve the same level of glamor as other whisky regions. However, experienced whisky critics would always point towards Rosebank single malts as an example that Lowlanders can create remarkably complex and high quality Scotch.
So when Diageo’s predecessor (United Distillers) decided to decommission the distillery in 1993, this was met with shock and disappointment amongst Scotch drinkers. Jackson bemoaned the closure and called it “a grievous loss”, and claimed that “if there is a God, Rosebank whisky would be produced again”. Many whisky drinkers felt the same way, and began scrambling for what was left of its precious stocks. For years, Rosebank seemed destined for oblivion, one bottle at a time.
Against the odds, it seems that there may well be a God. In 2017, it was announced that Rosebank Distillery would be revived by Ian Macleod Distillers Ltd around 2022. The Scotch whisky world- and particularly older drinkers- rejoiced. If all goes well, they may once again be able to taste one of the richest and most characterful single malt from from the Lowland region, which is softly floral, fruity, aromatic, crisp and contains satisfying depth.
A history tied to the Forth-Clyde canal
The town of Falkirk today is best known for The Kelpies sculpture and holds a blend of traditional Scottish elements and space age-looking infrastructure (Image Source: Country Living Magazine; Wander In Two Travel Blog)
Rosebank Distillery was built in 1840 in the town of Falkirk by one James Rankine, along the banks of the Forth-Clyde canal. It was said that roses grew out of the banks by which the distillery was built, and such was the inspiration for the distillery’s name.
Highly-regarded by drinkers and blenders, Rosebank Distillery ran almost without interruption since the 1800s. The distillery only paused briefly in World War I, was one of the few distilleries to continue through World War II, and survived several period of Scotch whisky crises including the Pattison Crash in the late 1800s, the early 1900s’ crisis, the Great Depression and the “whisky loch” crisis of the 1980s.
Yet, the ups and downs of distillery’s history have been interestingly tied to the fate of the Forth-Clyde canal by which it sat. The canal provided the distillery a source of water from the nearby Carron Valley Reservoir, which was essential for whisky distillation. The canal also historically provided a highly convenient route for shipping whisky out. Unfortunately, the canal would turn into a liability in the 1900s. Key stretches of the canal were intermittently choked by dead weeds and fallen leaves, which left an unflattering view by the distillery.
In 1988, United Distillers launched its Classic Malts selection of whiskies, which it would invest significant efforts in marketing to consumers as a set. The Classic Malts selection features a single malt from each major Scotch region in Scotland (this came to be known as Diageo’s Classic Malts). Rosebank was the presumptive “King of the Lowlands” and expected to be chosen as the Lowland’s representative.
Rosebank might not have been consigned to history had it been chosen as part of the Classic Malts. However, United Distillers selected Glenkinchie Distillery instead. This was likely a strategic commercial decision. Glenkinchie Distillery sits in a picturesque open field to the southeast of Edinburgh in a pretty estate owned by the distillery itself. In contrast, visitors to Rosebank Distillery would have been greeted with a view of the distillery sitting by a derelict canal that the town authorities neglected to maintain.
Finally, in 1993 when global whisky sales fell once again, United Distillers decided that it was appropriate to mothball the distillery because further investing would not be economically prudent. First, it costed around £2 million to upgrade the distillery’s water treatment plant. Second, Rosebank Distillery was much lower in efficiency considering that it has a smaller production capacity, and utilised triple-distillation which was more time and cost-intensive than Glenkinchie which utilised the standard double-distillation process.
But that’s not all! After heavy pressure from fans in 2008, Diageo drafted plans to re-open the Rosebank Distillery at another location in Falkirk, using the original Rosebank Distillery equipment. Yhat glimmer of hope was once again dashed when old cooper stills were audaciously stolen by metal thieves in the winter.
Defeated, Diageo abandoned plans to revive the distillery and sold the land to the government (whilst retaining the Rosebank brand). It was content to have people remember Rosebank as one of the many great closed distilleries like Port Ellen.
The Rosebank character - triple-distillation, worm tubs and refill-casks
The Lowland is a region of more gentle, floral whiskies, which leads some to believe that the region has nothing to offer in the departments of complexity and character. Rosebank’s single malt is often cited to refute such an impression.
Classic Rosebank expressions are known for a bright meadowy freshness and suppleness, even when they have been aged for over 20 to 30 years. Like many Lowlanders, Rosebank expressions are fragrant and highly floral and filled with honeysuckles. There are often malty, cereal-like notes of Marks & Spencer’s rich tea biscuits, with smooth and delicate banana notes and mild cantaloupes.
(Image Source: Marks & Spencers)
But unlike most Lowlanders, Rosebank expressions have slightly more weight on the palate.
Triple-distillation and worm tubs
The most unique aspect of Rosebank’s process is the combination of using triple-distillation and worm tubs- a somewhat contradictory combination not seen in any other Scottish distillery.
Triple-distillation is mostly an Irish whiskey maker’s practice. Apart from Auchentoshan and Rosebank, very few Scottish distilleries, even in the Lowland, use triple-distillation. While most distilleries conduct distillation twice, the use of triple-distillation by Rosebank promotes greater contact between copper and the spirit, helping ultimately create a more pure, light, estery, floral and aromatic spirit.
After the vapours rise up the pot stills, they need to be condensed and collected to create the resulting spirit. Rosebank is one of the few distilleries (including Springbank and Craigellachie) that rely on worm tubs, rather than more efficient modern instruments to condense the spirit.
Rosebank used worm tubs as this helps to produce a spirit with slightly more robust flavours and a more weight. When used properly, worm tubs very quickly turn the distilled vapour into resulting spirit. This quick conversion ensures that the copper in the worm tube does not have time to extract heavier compounds from the distilled vapour, thus resulting in a slightly weightier spirit.
This process of using triple distillation and worm tubs appears contradictory and inefficient. Triple distillation is used by distillers to produce a lighter, cleaner spirit. Worm tubs are used by distillers to produce a heavier, more characterful spirit. The result is an estery, floral and aromatic spirit that is slightly more heavy-bodied on the palate compared to other Lowland whiskies.
This unique process could also be responsible for other complexities and subtle notes in Rosebank expressions.
While this is not explicitly mentioned by the distillers, one would notice that the use of “refill casks” is also an important aspect in Rosebank’s process. Old Rosebank expressions are not overly oaked, and smell surprisingly bright, grassy and fresh.
The trouble with long-term aging is that a whisky can become “overly oaked” and the barrel could takes over the entire flavour profile of the spirit. If refill casks are used, whiskies can be aged for an exceptionally long period of time without turning too oaky since cask influence is much more understated. This allows the brightness and freshness of the spirit to still come through.
Rosebank’s revival in 2022
(Image Source: Ian Macleod Distillers)
“To bring back to life an iconic distillery and quintessential Lowland single malt is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
- Leonard Russell, managing director of Ian Macleod Distillers Ltd.
On a cold, drizzly Scottish morning in 2016, Leonard Russell of Ian Macleod Distillers read that the site that Rosebank Distillery stood was put up for sale by local authorities (recall that Diageo sold the site to the government). Russell drove up to Falkirk to look at the distillery with his teenage son. The land was intended to be sold and repurposed as a craft beer brewery.
Seeing that it was a waste for Rosebank Distillery to be closed forever, Ian Macleod Distillers decided to revive Rosebank Distillery- a project Diageo was unwilling to undertake. Ian Macleod Distillers purchased the historical site from the government. It also purchased from Diageo the rights to use the Rosebank brand and Diageo’s remaining stocks of Rosebank whisky.
Bringing Rosebank back would be no mean feat, which might explain Diageo’s reluctance to revive Rosebank despite its popularity. The old buildings of Rosebank have not been renovated since the 60s, and have now been reclaimed by nature, and are prone to collapsing. While some of the old distillery equipment are still available (perhaps, the worm tubs?), the most important original pot stills had been stolen and were not recovered.
Using the same stills would have been ideal because any slight changes in shape would alter the flavour of the whisky, and then it “wouldn’t be Rosebank”. Nevertheless, IMD hopes to restore much of the Rosewood production process, starting with replica pot stills.
Fortunately, detailed schematic diagrams of the original pot stills survived. IMD appointed professional coppersmiths to recreate the pot stills to the exact same specifications as those of the original Rosebank Distillery.
Proper pot stills, check. Triple-distillation, check. Wormtubs, check.
Yet these are just the tip of the iceberg. Rosebank’s new distillery manager, Robbie Hughes is forthcoming about the immense challenge they face in recreating Rosebank’s whisky almost from scratch.
The first challenge is restoring the Rosebank site to its former glory. Hughes points out that the site is currently “in a sad state” and need lots of “TLC”.
(Image Source: Ian Macleod Distillers)
Hughes’ team also does not have the recipe for making Rosebank. None of their staff have worked in the old Rosebank Distillery before it was closed. The former equipment can be replicated or restored, but as Hughes says, “we do not know the sequences, the temperatures and the flow rates” involved in making the original Rosebank spirit. “All these different kinds of things, we’ve got to discover that, and it’s not going to be done overnight.”
However, if anything, that the new Rosebank team is armed with a better understanding of whisky-making science than in the 90’s. Hughes quipped that they could potentially make an even better spirit than what was made by the original Rosebank:-
“Times have moved on since 1993. Our understanding of whisky production is more scientific. So we’re not going to produce a poorer quality dram, that’s for sure. We’re going to be at least that level, probably even better I would think.”
I fit the stereotype of an Asian who much prefers smooth, light, floral and aromatic whiskies over rough, peaty and gritty Scotches. Japanese whisky producers realised this of their consumers in the 1950s.
So, it’s no surprise that Rosebank expressions are one of my favourite Scotches to drink- whenever I have the rare opportunity. Mirroring many of my favourite foods in Japanese and Vietnamese cooking, I enjoy how Rosebank expressions are wonderfully light, fragrant, subtle but with a memorable complexity.
I do feel that it is a huge shame that the plug was pulled off Rosebank in 1993, and an even bigger shame that Diageo was not able to preserve proper records of the original Rosebank recipe. With the rising affluence of Asians this decade, Rosebank- with its light but complex flavour profile- could have been the premier Lowland Scottish malt that would have become extremely popular in places like Southeast Asia and China.
In any case, Ian Macleod deserves every whisky lover’s commendation for reviving a well-loved and underrated Lowland distillery. Notice that the artists’ impression of the new Rosebank Distillery compound also shows a bed of literal roses on the banks of the canal by the distillery, which is a very nice touch.
Distillery manager, Robbie Hughes, and his new Rosebank team also deserves admiration for taking up the rather insurmountable challenge of reverse-engineering and re-creating the classic flavour profile of Rosebank, without any recipe available. The fact that Diageo is eager to revive Port Ellen and Brora but made no attempt at this project seems to suggest that the high difficulty is just not worth the effort.
Whether the new Rosebank 2.0 would match up to the historical Rosebank single malt is really anyone’s guess. But I reckon many of us would be rooting for them.
We won’t be seeing any new whiskies from Rosebank 2.0 until at least 2026 (factoring in 3 years for maturation). In the meantime, it’s still possible to find original Rosebank expressions in the secondary market or at very decent whisky bars.
Our favourite expressions are:-
Intermediate: Rosebank 12 Year Old- Diageo Flora and Fauna series; Rosebank 1990 21 Year Old- Diageo Special Release 2011.
Top Shelf: Rosebank 1990 30 Year Old - Ian Macleod Release One; Rosebank 1981 22 Year Old- Diageo Rare Malts Selection; Rosebank 1979 19 Year Old- Diageo Rare Malts Selection.
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