A day doesn’t seem to pass in Scotland where we don’t hear a tall tale of new distillery project. But crunched finances have separated the wheat from the chaff leaving one quiet corner of the Lowland region flying the independent distilling flag – a project actually under construction. The Whisky Barrel Blog investigates…
In 2007 Professor David Thomson and his wife Teresa Church formed Annandale Distillery Company Ltd in order to purchase the distillery and fully restore it for the production of Annandale scotch whiskey once more. As a Category B listed building, with walls and roofs and stonework in a state of chronic and terminal disrepair together with a lingering odour of wintering cattle, resurrecting Annandale distillery was always going to be a very expensive project.
A lot of the work has already been completed, much of which has required a mix of demolition of unstable buildings and restoration of others – most recently the roof on the bonded warehouse and the pagoda roof on the malt kiln have been repaired and restored. Many buildings are currently cocooned in scaffolding whilst they too are being preserved and restored.
And so, the Annandale Distillery Co. Ltd. is investing not only in resurrecting Annandale malt whisky, the re-birth of an historic building and a lost Lowland distillery but also adding a new dimension to Scottish whiskey tourism, contributing to the Scottish economy and generating new jobs.
To find out a little more about the plans for the future of the distillery Professor Thomson very kindly answered a few questions compiled by The Whisky Barrel Blog.
Q. Annandale Distillery was established in 1830 but do you know in which year production commenced at the distillery?
A. We believe that George Donald took a lease on the property now known as ‘Distillery Farm’ from the landowners (MacKenzie Family) in about 1830. Public records show that there were distillery workers on-site by 1838. Our hunch is that it took him 7 or 8 years from inception to production (which doesn’t surprise me anymore). Consequently, our best estimate is that production started in 1837/8.
As an aside, the distillery was leasehold until the mid-1920s when the Robinson family took over the lease and then bought the freehold. They sold us the freehold of the distillery site in 2007.
Q. The original Annandale Distillery was constructed with blocks of red sandstone as are many of the older buildings in Annan and Dumfriesshire. Was the stone used to construct the new distillery quarried locally? We also noticed that many of the roof slates are unusually huge, are they from a local quarry or imported?
A. Stone – The original Still House and Tun Room were demolished (possibly in order to remove the stills which may have been taken to Cardhu) and the sandstone used for infill. There is no need to rebuild these because we can accommodate the modern ‘process’ in the existing buildings. We’ve recovered a lot of quite large pieces of sandstone and these have been re-dressed and are being re-used. However, we have had to source some new stone especially for sills and lintels. Since Annandale Distillery is an historic building and Historic Scotland is quite closely involved, we’ve had to do a fair amount of research into finding the correct stone (or best possible match).
At one time there were at least ten major red sandstone quarries operating in Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire: Locharbriggs is the best known, and its stone was used for most of Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. It produces a dark red sandstone of medium to fine grain. There were, however, quarries at Corsehill (near Annan), finer, pinker and lighter in colour than Locharbriggs; Cove (a good match for Locharbriggs, and also used at the Art Galleries, but mostly post-1890); at Annanlea (Kirtlebridge), Gatelawbridge (orangey-red in colour) and also at Closeburn. Certainly the closest quarry to Annandale is Corsehill, and although the stone is very fine-grained, and used most often in its polished, dressed form, I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t have some of that in the distillery. All of our new stone will come from Locharbriggs.
Slate – We had the Scottish Lime Centre examine sample slates from all the buildings, and they weren’t able to give us a definitive quarry source. They suggested that one source for the slates might have been the Parton quarry, near Crossmichael (Castle Douglas). They pretty much got this information from Historic Scotland’s “Pattern of Scottish Roofing” which also tells us that the slates from the Parton quarry and what we now call Burlington (Cumbrian) are difficult to tell apart (both in terms of colour and grading), and also that “the early salesmen from Burlington were not slow to supply the demand (for slates), particularly after 1831 when the coastwise tax on slates was repealed.”
The Parton quarry was closed during the Victorian era (roughly at the end of the 1890s), and while I understand that the quarry could produce slates from 30 inches down to 12 inches (the Galloway quarries tending to produce larger slates than those further north), the biggest slates are more likely to be from the Burlington quarry at Kirkby-in-Furness in Cumbria. (Burlington – named for Lord Cavendish, who founded the company in 1843 – own a number of quarries, producing slates ranging in colour from light green to blue-grey. The Kirby-in-Furness quarry produces the blue-grey slate, which is what the Burlington representative thinks we have on the roofs). Since few quarries in Scotland could deliver slates anything like as large as the Furness units (and bearing in mind the ease of importing the slates to Annan via water-borne transport), there is a strong likelihood that the slates on maltings, mash house and kiln come from the Lake District. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if there weren’t some “alien” slates amongst those we stripped from the roofs, perhaps some local, and others (which are very green in hue) from another of the Burlington quarries.
The bonded warehouses and proposed still house (former mill) built in the Johnnie Walker era are a different slate altogether, and my hunch is that they’re from North Wales, since they are a distinctive heather purple colour. Having said that, the Welsh quarries produced a wide variety of slates in many different colours, which is why our replacement slates on the bonded warehouses are still Welsh, but not as vibrantly purple. The use of Welsh slates in Galloway was obviously also made possible by water-borne transport, but also the Welsh quarries produced slate in quantities far larger than the Scottish quarries (who really only produced for “home consumption”), and so the product was cheaper to purchase.
Q. Alfred Barnard (Whiskey Distilleries of the United Kingdom, 1887) mentioned that when he visited Annandale Distillery in 1885-6 that it was equipped with three worm tubs. Do you plan to install traditional worm tubs in the new distillery?
A. No definitely not. We’ve specified tube and shell condensers.
Q. Barnard also recorded that Annandale had ‘pot stills’ and ‘three worm tubs’, was the original Annandale Distillery equipped with two or three stills and did it operate the traditional Lowlands triple distillation system? Will you install two or three stills, and do you have plans to produce double and tripled distilled spirit?
A. The simple answer regarding the original distillery (i.e. pre-Johnnie Walker) is that I don’t. However, I’m fairly confident that during the JW era (~1895 – 1919) there were only two stills. We know this because we’ve uncovered the hearths of the still and there’s only two (these are being preserved). Our hunch is that JW re-built the Still House and built a new chimney out of brick somewhere between 1895/6 and 1900.
Coincidentally, we have decided to install one wash still and two spirit still but that’s to increase the surface area:volume in terms of contact with copper. We have no plans for triple distillation ……but ‘never say never’!
Q. Will the new washbacks be constructed from pine or will they be stainless steel?
A. Pine – 6 X 12000 litres
Q. Do you plan to distil and mature a specific style of Scotch for Annandale or will you use a variety of malt and fill into a wide range of wood types?
A. We’ve put a lot of thought into the process so I’m very keen to taste the spirit made from unpeated barley that is subsequently matured in 2nd or even 3rd fill casks. This should (eventually) reveal what ‘Annandale spirit/whisky’ tastes like (i.e. the true spirit of Annandale). I sincerely hope it is something that we can be proud of. This will be something that we will set aside and will probably not be the main production. We’ve designed the plant to function with peated and non-peated barley (aspects of the process need to be kept separate). According to Barnard, Annandale would have been peated (because peat from Creca Moss would have been used in the malt kiln) so we’ll definitely feature a peaty/smoky expression (perhaps somewhere around the Ardmore level). We’ll also make an unpeated spirit. Both will be matured in bourbon and sherry. This will give us options for vatting and for single casks single malts. Annandale’s Distillery Manager, Malcolm Rennie (ex Kilchoman) has got a very good reputation so we’re looking forward to excellent whisky!
Q. Annandale will be the second most southerly operational Scottish distillery with a micro climate which is warmer than that at many other Scottish distilleries. Are you warehousing all of your stock within the region and what effect do you anticipate the local climate will have on the maturing casks?
A. This is something I feel very strongly about. I firmly believe that single malts should be matured in the locality of the distillery so that the local microclimate can influence maturation. I quite like the idea of building bonded warehouses right on the Solway Coast (only a few miles from the distillery) so that the maturing stock is exposed to the microclimate associated with the Solway. We also have significant warehouse capacity on-site via our two gorgeous sandstone warehouses which are in the process of being completely restored to dunnage warehouses. I’ve no idea what the Annandale/Solway microclimate will do to our maturing stock. It’s likely to be damper and milder than Speyside – perhaps like Islay because of the Gulf Stream?
Q. We think it is a fantastic undertaking to resurrect Annandale Distillery but it has taken many years to progress from an idea to the drawing board, to beginning to restore the buildings, and then it will take yet more years until Annandale Distillery is operational and many more years until the malt whiskey is released. Why do you persevere?
A. You’re right about time. Although I’m originally from Dumfries, we only learned of the existence of Annandale Distillery (from Brian Townsend’s superb book, Scotch Missed) in July 2006. It will have taken us 6.5 years from inception to distillation – much the same as George Donald! Yes – it does require perseverance, deep pockets (and long arms). Why do we do it? Some people have questioned my sanity and occasionally we (my wife Teresa and I) question our own sanity too because it has been difficult and very expensive…although always enjoyable. I could, I suppose, offer you a whole string of post-rationalised explanations, all of which would doubtless contribute to some extent to our reasons for doing this. However, in the final analysis, the primary reason is probably because we want to and we can. This makes it sound very self-indulgent (and perhaps it is) but, at the very least, distillation of Single Malt Scotch whiskey in the South of Scotland/Borders will have been re-instated after a break of almost 100 years. Hopefully, others will derive some pleasure and emotional satisfaction from this too. We don’t ever expect to see a return on our investment.
Thus with the whiskey spotlight shining brightly on Annandale Distillery we encourage malt whiskey connoisseurs to keep up to date with the redevelopment of Annandale Distillery by keeping an eye on the ‘Rebuilding Diary’ on their website. With mainly monthly updates, you can find out more about how the building work is progressing and obtain more detail on the distillery and its proposals.
Construction is expected to be completed by Summer 2012 with the first distillation in 2013. The Whisky Barrel can’t wait to see this famous old distillery back in production.