In recent times we’ve had our fill of whisky surprises and delights. The announcement that had me scurrying to check the calendar – to rule out an April Fool’s joke – was the double whammy from Diageo, who announced the resurrection of Brora and Port Ellen in October 2017. Only then to land another revelation, with the news that Rosebank had been sold to Ian MacLeod Distillers.
Shockwaves resonated across the whisky hemisphere as enthusiasts took in the news and looked ahead to the future with glee. Adam hit the nail on the head in his piece about closed distilleries and in particular, this applies to Brora and Port Ellen. Having been fortunate to visit both sites pre-revelation and internally at Brora, there’s a great deal of work to be done especially on Islay. When I was up at Clynelish in October, the amount of activity and investment visible across the road at Brora was very impressive. Diageo is deadly serious about resurrecting these 2 brands and retaining their luxury identity.
At least Brora still stands, while Port Ellen will be a homage with a modern twist. Each site requires considerable investment and this isn’t being done to save the distilleries for the nation. Nope, this is pure economics, which makes the selling of Rosebank all the more interesting.
Any whisky enthusiast worth their salt would have dropped by Falkirk and taken in the remnants of this once great Lowland distillery. Boarded up, slowly decaying and becoming encircled by weeds and new housing. Rosebank may have been forgotten by its owners, but not whisky fans. The late whisky writer, Michael Jackson, lamented the closure of as a ‘grievous loss’ and ‘if there is a God, Rosebank whisky would be produced again’. Capable of a fantastic whisky, it was never fully harnessed or respected by Diageo, or its forerunners, before being closed in 1993.
At least now Michael will have his wish, as Ian MacLeod has taken on responsibility for resurrecting the distillery. Assisted by the historical archives and a reasonable amount of maturing stock, as part of the final deal. Speaking to some of the MacLeod team, whilst attending the Glengoyne the Legacy Chapter One event, their excitement around the project and future plans were tangible.
The aspect I’ve always found interesting of the resurrected trio is that arguably Rosebank required the least work to revive. Yes, it might not have the luxury status of Brora or Port Ellen, but its potential is huge. Of the lost Lowland distilleries, Rosebank stands alone in terms of its quality and stature. Littlemill is certainly improving with time thankfully, and Linlithgow was inconsistent at best. Perhaps in the coming years we’ll revisit the deal and judge a vertical of whiskies from the resurrected trio; we’ll pencil that in for circa 2030 perhaps?
Meanwhile, I’m pleased to bring you this trio of Rosebank whiskies that I’ve purchased recently. The only exception being the Cadenhead’s sample that was kindly provided by Phil as a lovely surprise. For now, these will hopefully remind us why the prospect of a revived Rosebank should not be overlooked.
Rosebank 8 year old – review
Bottled by the Distillers Agency Limited, Edinburgh. Unblended and from the 1980s at 40% strength.
Colour: a bashed gold
On the nose: a surprising amount of character given the strength. Warm honey, caramel followed by Hobnob biscuits give this a real cereal basis. Ground almonds, caramelised apples and wood spice with all-spice all combine nicely. Freshly ground black pepper moves us onward, assisted by golden syrup and vanilla poached pears. There’s something else here though, oddly poking through now and again beneath the honeycomb.
In the mouth: less detailed on the palate but with an enjoyable oily quality that carries through to the finish. More of that withered vanilla and buttered toast, but where are those Lowland fruits? Some char, black pepper and a touch of fenugreek with a splash of lime.
Signatory Rosebank 1974 – review
Distilled on 30th November 1974 before being bottled in March 1992. This 17 year old came from cask #5061, resulting in a ridiculous outturn of 2400 bottles i.e. dinky sized a 43% strength.
Colour: apple juice
On the nose: typical Rosebank presentation with lots of ripe orchard fruits. Lime gives a citrus edge whilst icing sugar, tablet, wine gums and mango bring sweetness. Remnants in the glass reveal a touch of smoke. A vibrant teenage Rosebank for sure not massively detailed but fun and enticing.
In the mouth: beautiful balance with more of the fruit sugar and citrus vibe. A splash of white wine vinegar then towards the finish a light vanilla caramel before a gentle silver needle tea. Very moreish. Returning, grapefruit, white chocolate, smoke as seasoning and that old school fruit funk that distillates from this era were rich in.
Cadenhead’s Rosebank 9 year old
Distilled in April 1989 and bottled in September 1998, at 58.8% from an oak cask.
Colour: Pale pebble.
On the nose: A simple presentation at first with some diluted pear juice, Chinese 5-spice and wood shavings. Popcorn and a spent matchstick alongside a touch of beeswax and resin. There’s a sugary aspect that fits well with the light honey towards the end. Adding water reveals more wood spice and lemon pip.
In the mouth: A timid Rosebank despite the strength. It feels like an unfinished symphony that just needs that touch of genius to lift the whole arrangement. A touch of oil, more of the lowland meadow fruits and a twist of white pepper. Trying a splash of water showcases tablet and a dryness on the finish.
A trio of interest I hope and certainly food for thought, as we look ahead to the future. If anything, this threesome highlights the different sides of Rosebank with plenty to experience and reflection upon.
The Cadenhead’s release feels like it was snatched before its time and wasn’t fully balanced or integrated. The whisky does have potential and this is underlined by the Signatory release. The Distillers Agency Limited bottling is effectively Rosebank treading water. Given the plans that Ian MacLeod has for the distillery, I don’t think they’ll be reviving Rosebank to merely make up the numbers.