To many an afficionado there has never been a finer Lowland single malt than Rosebank. The spirit – true to traditional Lowland style – was triple distilled, and made from unpeated malt, giving the whisky a delicate, floral, and fruity character. The reasons for its closure in 1993 never satisfied curious anoraks, even though its reputation and popularity grew in the decades that followed.

Nearly a third of all of Scotland’s distilleries closed in the 1980s and 1990s, beginning in the annus horribilis of 1983. Some distilleries were shuttered forever, while a few others were more fortunate, reopening in the late 90s and in the first decade of the new millennium as the industry recovered. Rosebank was one of the last distilleries to silence its stills (1993), but 30 years after going into mothballs it is set to rise like a proverbial phoenix from its ashes in the months ahead.

Rosebank Distillery first opened its doors in 1840, near Falkirk, along the Forth-Clyde Canal. But local legend insists that a distillery known as Rosebank was operating at the hands of the Stark brothers on-or-near the present site in 1798. That may be the same Rosebank Distillery which a James Robertson was apparently running in 1817. Though it may have a more ancient heritage, the current Rosebank Distillery didn’t legally open until 1840.

Rosebank as we know it was built by James Rankine, who had previously purchased the maltings belonging the Camelon Distillery on the other side of the canal. Curiously, there are records indicating that the Stark family connected with Rosebank was running Camelon in 1827. Rosebank was quickly a roaring success and expanded its operations in 1845. In 1961, it acquired the site of the old Camelon Distillery, demolishing it to make way for a new malting plant.

The facility operated almost continuously (save for the war years) right up until 1993, when its production was deemed redundant by its owner UDV, a forbearer of Diageo (the world’s largest drinks company). UDV owned three Lowland Distilleries at the time, Bladnoch, Glenkinchie, and Rosebank, and it only needed one of them.

Rosebank was a highly regarded malt, so why did they close the only of the three distilleries that made a traditional, triple-distilled Lowland single malt?

A few years before the closure, in 1988, UDV selected six of its 30-odd distilleries to be marketed as The Classic Single Malts of Scotland, and to represent the Lowlands they selected Glenkinchie. The oldest and least likely explanation I recall hearing is that they gave preference to Glenkinchie because its name sounded more Scottish. A more plausible explanation surrounds the Forth & Clyde canal, which was in a desperate state by the early 1990s. Why build a brand and tourist attraction next to a stagnant canal?

The reasons given by the UDV at the time pertain to road access to the site, and the estimated £2m tab to repair the distillery’s effluent plant.

Whatever the reason, the distillery sat silent for decades. Persistent rumours of its imminent reopening were just the product of wishful thinking on the part of whisky enthusiasts.

As time passed, and interest in single malt grew, more and more attention came to be paid to silent distilleries like Rosebank.

The whisky had many devoted admirers, but never quite gained the same cult status of other closed distillery malts like Brora and Port Ellen. As its fame slowly grew, its buildings were mostly sold off or repurposed, and hope seemed lost that it would ever reopen.

Then, in 2017, Ian MacLeod Distillers, owners of Glengoyne and Tamdhu, shocked the whisky world by announcing they had acquired the site of the old Rosebank Distillery, and that they would be bringing it back to life. It has taken six years, longer than they had originally hoped, but Rosebank will soon begin producing spirit again. It will be years before the spirit from the restored Rosebank distillery will legally be whisky, and years more until it has the maturity to satisfy fans of the Rosebank of old. However, there will be a visitor center and a place for fans of the whisky to pay homage.

It is still possible to purchase bottles of Rosebank produced before the stills fell silent. Ian Macleod has released a couple of official bottlings since taking over, but they don’t come cheap. The most recent release of Rosebank 31 Year retails for nearly $4,000.00.

Independent bottlings are increasingly rare, but are still trickling out, and a bit more affordable than the official bottlings. Elixir Distillers has nearly depleted their stocks of their “Rosebank the Roses” releases. The most recent release, Rosebank 21 Year (it was put in to glass a decade ago) Unity is retailing for about $2,000.00 in Canada, and is sold out in the U.K., where it is selling at auction for double that! ~ Story by Andrew Ferguson

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