Something is stirring in the Lowlands. Back in early 2016, I interviewed Juliette Buchan of Gordon & MacPhail. When commenting about Gordon & MacPhail’s impressive range of whiskies and their contacts with distilleries throughout Scotland, she said the following about the Scotch whisky regions:
In terms of variety, we still work with about 60–70 % of distilleries, some closed, some still active; we have every region. We are very strong in Speyside because that’s where we’re based; Highland and Islay, a couple of them on Islay, although it’s maybe not the strongest point of Gordon & MacPhail. And lowland is now, well, there’s hardly anyone left…!
How things have changed. Distilleries seem to be popping up like so many mushrooms in the fall these days, all over Scotland. But the growth in the until recently mainly grain whisky-producing region of the Lowlands stands out: new distilleries and projects are everywhere. It’s getting very hard to keep track of them all. There is no doubt about it: the Lowlands will be a huge force to be reckoned with in the years to come. In a recept report about Scotch distilleries to open in 2018, Becky Paskin lists ten distilleries. Seven of them – seven! – are located in the Lowland region.
The Lowlands have a checkered history when it comes to whisky making, being a stronghold in terms of grain but very poorly represented when it came to malt whisky. Until recently, there really hardly was anyone left on the malt side: the ailing Bladnoch whose fate seemed to be sealed, and then just two distilleries: Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie. A failed and controversial distillery project in the early 2000s, Ladybank, hardly made matters better. In that decade, little Daftmill and shortly thereafter the giant Ailsa bay began distilling. After that, relative quiet. Some distillery projects were started, sure, but at least some of them seemed to drag on forever. It’s actually only in the last four years that things have completely exploded.
The region struggled through most of the twentieth century, with definitely more downs than ups. The Lowlands just never seemed to get over the shock and awe that hit it in the early twentieth century. To be sure, World War I and Prohibition struck hard at the Scotch whisky industry, but its effects were not similar everywhere. Between 1894 and 1929, no less than 26 Lowland distilleries bit the dust, a full 22 of them in the 1910s and 20s alone. Chronologically, the death toll for those hard years looks like this:
Table 1. Distillery deaths in the Lowland region, 1890–1930, both malt and grain. Chronological order.
|Dundashill||1902||possibly 1770; at least 1812|
|Glen Tarras||1914 (production ceased shorly after 1905)||1839|
|Annandale||1921 (production ceased in 1919)||1830|
|Grange||1925 (or 1927)||1786|
Sources: mainly Brian Townsend, Scotch missed: The original guide to the lost distilleries of Scotland, 4 ed. (1993; Glasgow: The angels’ share, 2015).
These distilleries are unknown to most whisky aficionados today. However, as can be seen from the founding years, many of them were old, with roots going way back to the eighteenth century.
In fact, only one proper, stand-alone malt distillery was built in the Lowland region during the whole of the twentieth century (Stronachie, founded in the year 1900 and silent already in 1928). After that, zilch, nothing, nada on the malt front until Daftmill came on stream in 2005. That’s a lot of time, folks. Sure, there were those at times called ”hidden distilleries”: small, short-lived operations which were built within huge grain complexes. With the possible exception of more long-lived but still small Inverleven (1938–1991), however, these were never significant. They remain the interest of the anoraks: historical curiosities, mostly. Life started for them in the 50s and 60s, and ended in the 70s and 80s. There were other causalties in the 1970s, 80s, and the early 90s. Those small malt distilleries and a few grain distilleries bit the dust, and also the more well-known and sadly departed St Magdalene (1983), Rosebank (1993 – though it’s now being resurrected, with new equipment) and Littlemill (1994). From the early 70s until 1994, there were twelve (or thirteen, if you count Bladnoch) distillery closures. It is almost like a mini version of the many closures of the 1910s and 20s. Other regions had several stand-alone malt distilleries founded in the boom years of the 60s and 70s. In difference to the Lowland region, however, many of these have survived. Have you heard of Clynelish, Deanston, Glenallachie and Auchroisk, to name a few?
Even while a revival had begun in the Lowlands when I interviewed Buchan, her words of ”hardly anyone left” were almost literally true. In 2014, two new distilleries had come on stream: Annandale and Eden Mill. (I know, I know, some Scotch whisky historians will say that Annandale reopened rather than that it being a new distillery. However, I’d say that with zero equipment being the same and with a production hiatus of 95 years, the new Annandale cannot even with the best intentions be said to be the same distillery just because it’s housed on the same premises.) In 2015, new make started flowing from three more new distilleries in the region: Kingsbarns, Glasgow and InchDairnie. Two years later, Bladnoch started production again after a fairly brief hiatus; Clydeside and Lindores Abbey fired up their stills; Aberargie also came on stream. Thus far this year, we have Borders coming on stream, but if all goes to plan, they will be very far from alone. Possibly, the first droplets of new make from slow-starter Falkirk will come, as well as Holyrood, Douglas Laing’s as-of-yet unnamed distillery in central Glasgow, Crafty and the discreet under-the-radar distillery Burnbrae. Seven or eight more distilleries, in all probability even more, are in the works. The full-on mushrooming of new distilleries in the once quite derelict region is hard to describe in words. So, don’t take my word for it, take this rather massive table instead:
Table 2. Malt and grain distilleries, distillery projects and distillery closures since 1950 in the Lowland region, 1772–cirka 2030. Chronological order based on when distilleries came on stream. Years for founding or when planning permits were granted within parenthesis. Distilleries which closed prior to 1950 not included (see above).
|On stream (founding year for early distilleries)||Distillery||Distillery closures since 1950|
|1798 (actually, 1840 is more correct)||Rosebank|
|1799–1804||Carsebridge (grain since 1851–1852)|
|1810 or 1813||Port Dundas (grain)|
|1817||Bladnoch (many modern periods of silence, see below)|
|1885||North British (grain)|
|1952||† Ardgowan (grain) (however, probably no grain whisky production after 1907)|
|1957||Strathmore/North of Scotland/Alloa (grain)|
|1966||Ladyburn (built 1963)|
|early 1970s||† Killyloch|
|1982||† Strathmore/North of Scotland/Alloa (grain)|
|1983||† Carsebridge (grain)|
|1983||† St Magdalene|
|1985||† Glen Flagler|
|1988||† Caledonian (grain)|
|1993||† Cambus (grain)|
|2000||Bladnoch on stream again under Armstrong brothers|
|(2002)||Ladybank founded; never came on stream|
|2008||Ailsa bay (2007)|
|(2008)||(Leven; formally established in 2013. Experimental Diageo distillery.)|
|2009||Bladnoch silent again|
|2010||† Port Dundas (grain)|
|2014||Eden Mill (2014)|
|2017||Bladnoch on stream again (2015, David Prior)|
|2017||Lindores Abbey (2017)|
|2018||Borders (Three Stills Company, cirka 2015)|
|2018…?||Douglas Laing distillery (unclear name) (2017)|
|2019…?||Port of Leith (2017)|
|2020…?||Rosebank (2017/18, Ian MacLeod)|
|cirka 2022…?||Reivers (malt and grain, Mossburn Distillers, 2013)|
|early 2020s…?||Ardgowan (2016)|
|mid-2020s…?||R&B Distillers; distillery unnamed, was planned as Borders distillery (2013)|
|2020s…?||Mossburn Distillery (malt and grain, unclear when it is about to be built, close to Reivers, same developers)|
|2020s…?||Crabbie or Crabbie's (project name), Halewood International, owners of John Crabbie & Company (2017)|
|2020s? Earlier?||Stirling (2017, makes gin, has plans for making whisky)|
Sources: I don’t even know where to start, but Malt whisky yearbook, several editions; the homepages of most of these distilleries (some of the more discreet ones don’t even have one yet); several articles in Scottish press and on scotchwhisky.com; current research I am doing for what is more and more looking to become an encyclopedia of whisky.
Let’s roll the clock back to 1994. At that point, Lowland had lost all malt distilleries save Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan. Bladnoch was bought by the Armstrong brothers, but United Distillers had a ban on distilling there. Six years later, they could fire up the stills in what was, however, to remain a tiny operation. Then Francis Cuthbert opened small Daftmill. The real awakening was when William Grant & Sons built the big Ailsa bay. (Leven, Diageo’s experimental distillery, is more of a curiosity, more or less unknown as a distillery in its own right.) Even at that point, Lowlands was a tiny region in terms of malts. Now look where we are. The mix of distilleries is astounding: almost all of them independently owned by small or smallish companies, although some much bigger than others. Some will be catering for the blended market; most hope to make it in the fierce competition that is the world of single malts.
If anybody doubted that the history of whisky shows cycles between boom and bust, the Lowlands is the ultimate example: bust in the early nineteenth century (a period not covered here), boom in the late nineteenth century, huge bust with World War I and Prohibition, prolonged contraction all the way up to the beginning of the twenty-first century with slight boom in the 60s and bust in the 80s and 90s, and now, not just boom but BOOOOOOOM!
The Lowlands are back. (Now, can we please see something similar happening in Campbeltown? Please?)
For presentations of all Lowland distilleries and distillery projects of the twenty-first century, stay tuned: a new post is forthcoming in about a week’s time.