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Rosebank distillery and its closure has been mourned by enthusiasts and prominent whisky writers such as Michael Jackson, Charles MacLean and Jim Murray. When you’ve sat with and experienced what this distillery was truly capable of delivering, then questions arise and its sad tale must be told.
Where else must we start but at the beginning? Founded in 1798 in the Lowland town of Falkirk, or likely much earlier depending on the possibility of illicit distilling that could go back as far as 1773. The distillery was sat alongside the Forth & Clyde canal that was a vital transportation link for incoming and outcoming shipments. The central site was to ultimately be its undoing but the original owners are noted to the Sark brothers and in the vicinity, there were others distilleries at work. Eventually there was an amalgamation of interests via inheritance and acquisitions. The location was popular due to the proximity of a nearby coal mine that offered a consistent fuel resource, a local farming community and an abundant water supply.
Needless to see the early days of Rosebank are clouded in mystery and which distillery became what we know today as Rosebank, or if there were a couple involved in establishing the sizeable site. What is clear is that by 1840, Rosebank was a successful enterprise and the owner, James Rankine, expanded and thereby laid out many of the buildings that endure today. It was subsequently rebuilt again during the 1860’s and around this time it’s believed that Rankine purchased the nearby Camelon distillery and established a maltings on its premises to support Rosebank. By 1894 its success meant the creation of the Rosebank Distillery Limited that in turn would play a prominent role in creating Scottish Malt Distillers. This was a consolidation of power amongst a select group of Lowland distilleries including Glenkinchie, Grange, St Magdalene and Clydesdale, but the economic conditions of the time prompted a takeover in 1919 by the Distillers Company Limited.
Within this group Rosebank would reside for the rest of its distilling lifetime and provided content for blends including the King George IV whisky. It also had some success as a single malt although this was never built upon or supported greatly by the owners. During Alfred Barnard’s visit during the 1880’s he describes a distillery dissected by the canal and the labour-intensive process of shipping freshly dried malt from the kiln across the waterway to the distillation site. However, compared to other distilleries Rosebank remained in operation and relatively unscathed including during World War 2, where it was allowed to continue production. The only notable changes on site were the closing of the traditional malting in 1968 and most of this has subsequently been demolished. What remains of the malting and warehousing on this side of the canal is now largely a Beefeater grill restaurant also offering accommodation, but its former purpose is easily recognisable.
Throughout its lifetime Rosebank practiced the traditional Lowland style of triple distillation and its flavour was enhanced by the use of worm tubs. The true gems of the Rosebank era are those distilled prior to the closure of its maltings, although it has to be said what it produced thereafter was still on the whole excellent. When the worldwide slump in whisky demand arrived in 1983, Rosebank survived the initial cull and continued to produce whisky until a decade later when it was mothballed. In this status, the distillery could easily be revived but due to its age and central location within a thriving town, it was sold in 2002 to British Waterways. This did not put an end to the speculation, even after residential housing was built on some of the site.
Today, Rosebank still stands despite the thieves breaking into the distillery in 2009 and removing much of its valuable copper that thereby stripped much of its production equipment. The speculation continues as recently as 2013, Arran Brewery received a grant from Historic Scotland to brew on the site and set up a visitor centre but this failed to transpire. The site was also opened for a select few visitors in 2016 and for many whilst Rosebank still stands there is hope that the distillery can be revived.
Apart from the considerable cost of restoring the distillery and returning distilling to the site. There would be the issue of the name itself with the Rosebank name being retained by Diageo. Whilst there has not been a special release of Rosebank from its former owner in recent years, stocks do exist and given it produced into the early 1990’s, we will see more in the future. The most widely available Rosebank is the Flora & Fauna 12-year-old that is a solid whisky and whilst not indicative of its true delights should be your gateway onto further discoveries.
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