One of the rarer malts, St Magdalane otherwise known as Linlithgow closed its doors in 1983 and was sadly never to reopen. The distillery still stands today partially with its rock-solid stone exterior playing host to residential housing in this sleepy town midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. The distinctive sign of any distillery – a pagoda – has been retained as a trio and is visible from the train as you speed past this former lowland distillery.
Distilleries from the Lowland region were becoming an increasingly rare commodity as for a while only Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie remained and neither of these have the same illustrious reputation as Littlemill, Rosebank, St Magdalene and the variable Bladnoch that has since returned to life. However, the recent whisky boom has created an onslaught of new Lowland distilleries that are each trying to recapture the classic flavours and balance displayed by their predecessors. In the case of St Magdalene, its reputation was somewhat variable with many whiskies lacking the qualities shown by Rosebank in the nearby town of Falkirk. Further maturation and some rarer bottlings have revealed a distillery capable of a gorgeous fruit-laden whisky experience. Nowadays, releases of St Magdalene are exceptionally rare and what stock remains must now be close to the end of its period of maturation.
The distillery itself can be traced back to 1795 - if not beyond this official date - making it one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland. The location has an interesting history as a former leper colony, then as a place of worship and is known as Linlithgow. Prior to all of this in the 12th century the Knights Templar opened a hospital on the grounds so the location has always been in use and very popular. Today the town is dominated by the palace that was used by the monarchs of Scotland from the 15th and 16th centuries and this remains a popular tourist attraction, although its remains are more of a shell than anything else. The monarchs had departed long before distilling started with Sebastian Henderson being the founder of what we know today as St Magdalene. The site he selected offered the convenience of transportation with the main road that linked the towns to the capital city passing nearby and also the presence of the aforementioned railway. The Union canal was also in the vicinity and this would offer another route to market and a source of cooling water during production.
It was situated beside an existing distillery amazingly called Bonnytoun and with changes in ownership and expansion, a merger created a larger distilling enterprise. Unlike many other distilleries it was fairly active and stayed within the ownership of the Dawson family until the formation of a limited company in the late 1800’s. Then like so many other Scottish distilleries the harsh economic realities of the early 1900’s forced St Magdalane to close in 1912, but it was only a short lull as new owners arrived a couple of years later in the form of the increasingly powerful Distillers Company Limited. A forerunner of Diageo, this company morphed into the Scottish Malt Distillers powerhouse that would dominate Scotch during this era.
St Magdalene would not close again – apart from during the 2nd World War - and remained in operation until 1983 when the global downturn in demand for whisky and the spectre of overproduction forced its then masters to close many of their aging, inefficient distilleries. Eventually sold to developers who gutted the interiors of the iconic stone buildings to create residential accommodation. As these buildings retain c-listed status they are preserved and St Magdalene will always be preserved for future generations. It’s an impressive sight and experience to walk around the remaining buildings today, maybe with a wee dram of the whisky to toast this fallen distillery.
Most of its output was destined for blend content but thankfully the independent bottlers until the last few years, bottled St Magdalene on a regular basis including Cadenhead’s, Douglas Laing, Gordon & MacPhail and Signatory. The most common official bottlings came as part of the Rare Malts series with a 19-year-old and a duo of 23-year olds. A release under the Linlithgow name arrived in 2004 as a 30-year-old expression and hopefully more releases however few will follow.