gavin smith

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by Gavin D Smith

I had previously visited Bladnoch back in January 2000. The distillery, deep in south-west Scotland, was being prepared for production to resume after seven years of silence.

Following an evening enjoying the hospitality of distillery owner Raymond Armstrong, I went to bed in the former manager's house, oblivious to the gathering storm outside. Next morning, faces in the local coastal villages were grim. During the early hours, as I had slept, the Solway Harvester fishing boat had gone down in the Irish Sea off the Isle of Man, drowning all seven crew frm the tight-knit communities around Bladnoch.

The intervening years have not been kind to the Scottish fishing industry, and the slowly rotting carcase of the salvaged Solway Harvester lies tied up in Douglas harbour, a stark testimony to the perils of trying to wrest a living from the sea.

   By contrast, however, the same years have been kind to Bladnoch, one of the last few survivors in the Lowland classification and the southernmost distillery in Scotland.

Raymond Armstrong (left) now presides over a fully functioning plant, filling new make spirit into high quality casks, issuing distillery bottlings, and operating a busy and profitable visitor centre. Bladnoch has also become a veritable hub of the local community.

A visit to Bladnoch distillery and a meeting with Armstrong is not a venture to be undertaken with one eye on the clock. Go into a whisky warehouse anywhere in Scotland, stand and look at the casks dating back 20, 30 and more years, and you tend to get a sense of the unimportance of time as measured in hours and minutes. At Bladnoch this feeling is even more pronounced.

For one thing, Bladnoch isn't on the road to anywhere, and getting to the distillery always takes several hours. Once there, time does seem to become less relevant. Sociable as only an Irishman can be, Armstrong is a natural-born host who delights in presiding over his little bit of Galloway heritage, gaining great pleasure from sharing it with people of all nations.

"Bladnoch is massively more than just a distillery," insists Armstrong, pointing to the fact that weddings, gardening clubs, film events and many other activities are hosted in the filling store and the former maltings. The distillery also plays a key part in activities associated with nearby Wigtown's role as Scotland's designated National Book Town. Armstrong has entertained poets, playwrights and novelists just as cheerfully as Swedish whisky obsessives, eager to discover the dimensions of his mash tun.

So just how did a Northern Irish building contractor and former civil service surveyor come to own a Scottish distillery?

Bladnoch distillery was founded between 1814 and 1817 by Thomas McClelland, and it remained in the family's hands until 1930, when it was acquired by the Belfast distilling company of Dunville.

Since then, Bladnoch has enjoyed, or perhaps endured, what Armstrong calls "A very chequered history," one that has been characterised by numerous changes of ownership and two decades of silence between 1936 and 1956.

Historically, triple-distillation has been a common feature of many Lowland distilleries, and Raymond Armstrong says "Bladnoch was triple-distilled until the 1960s. The three existing stills were sold to Sweden in 1955, but three new ones went back in and were there until the early '60s at least."

Bladnoch's owners have included Inver House Distillers, who acquired the site in 1973, and operated the plant for a decade before selling it to the expanding empire of Arthur Bell & Sons Ltd. Another decade on, and now part of United Distillers, Bladnoch's remoteness counted against it, and the company decided to concentrate its Lowland energies on Glenkinchie, handily located within easy reach of Edinburgh. The last spirit flowed from Bladnoch's stills in June 1993.

That could well have been the end of Bladnoch as a productive distillery but for the arrival of Raymond Armstrong. Armstrong is a partner in the family construction business in Banbridge, County Down, and he first came across the closed distillery while holidaying in nearby Dalbeattie. Immediately he saw the potential for converting the principal buildings into holiday apartments, while running the existing visitor centre, which had survived the distillery closure.

He approached United Distillers, and when told the asking price for Bladnoch, he suggested they move the decimal point a place to the left. In the absence of much other interest in the site, that was eventually pretty much what happened, and in November 1994 Bladnoch was in Northern Irish hands for the second time in its history.

A restrictive covenant prevented Armstrong from distilling, but by 1998 the holiday apartments venture had been put on ice, and he was keen to explore the possibility of making Bladnoch whisky once more. Protracted negotiations with UD ultimately led to an agreement whereby a maximum of 100,000 litres of spirit can be distilled each year. That may sound quite a lot, but it is actually the approximate equivalent of a week's output at a major Speyside distillery.

Although structurally sound, a great deal of time and effort was required to restore Bladnoch to working order, but by the end of 2000 everything was in place, and distilling recommenced on 18th December 2000. "I was determined the year 2000 would not go out without Bladnoch distilling," declares Armstrong.

Crucial to the project to get Bladnoch up and running again was local man John Herries, who had joined Bell's at Bladnoch in 1983, subsequently acting as mashman and then stillman. "After the distillery closed in 1993 I worked in a fish factory and a yoghurt factory," he recalls, "but I didn't like being indoors all the time, so when Raymond offered me a job back at Bladnoch I jumped at it.

"I loaded the last mash back in 1983 before we closed and I did the first mash when we re-opened in December 2000, and that felt pretty good. I'm looking forward to the first bottling in about 2010."

   Bladnoch has been issuing its own bottlings for almost two years now, and sales have been made to Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Germany, France, Japan and South Africa. A number of 'Whisky Schools' are also held each year, and participants enjoy a truly hands-on experience, from malt milling to cask filling.

Armstrong makes frequent ferry crossings from his home in Northern Ireland to the Galloway port of Stranraer, en route to Bladnoch. "I spend more than half my time here," he says, "and sometimes when I'm very busy with business I wonder why I do this. But every time I drive in through the distillery gates I'm immediately happy."

Alfred Barnard visited no fewer than 28 Lowland distilleries in the 1880s when researching his epic tome The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, but today just three remain in production. With the loss of the likes of Rosebank and Littlemill, Lowlands may be down, but they are a long way from out, as Bladnoch so triumphantly proves.

The Whiskies

Diageo Flora & Fauna
10 year-old, 43% ABV Although labelled as a 10 year-old this is almost certainly 12, as the distillery ceased production in 1993. Delicate, well balanced and lemony, with a hint of sherry on the nose and palate.

Bladnoch Single Lowland Malt (distillery bottling)
13 year-old, 55% ABV, chill-filtered or unchill-filtered. Fruity and floral on the nose. The unchill-filtered expression is more popular with the buying public. Quite noticeably cloudy, and fresher than the house 15 year-old. Spicy and a little more assertive than its older sibling. Malty, with lingering wine gum notes.

Bladnoch Single Lowland Malt (distillery bottling)
15 year-old, 55% ABV, chill-filtered. Softer and more heathery on the nose than the 13 year-old, richer in body, with sweet passion fruit notes. Beautifully balanced, elegant yet no lightweight. An imposing dram for a Lowland!

John McDougall's Selection
14 year-old, 55.8% ABV Principally available in the USA, where it is the only 'official' bottling of Bladnoch, this single cask offering is more citric and bolder than the house expressions; quite assertive, with a long, spicy finish.


On the basis of sampled 'work in progress' it is abundantly clear that Herries and Armstrong are far from being 'hobby' distillers.

2001 First-fill American oak cask Bladnoch
Sweet, soft fruits, Edinburgh rock, marzipan. Malty and very spicy on the palate, with late fudge notes. A little sharp around the edges, but in time this should be a seriously good whisky.

2001 Sherry hogshead Bladnoch
Quite closed on the nose, slight hint of ash and prunes. Big and sweet on the palate, but the Bladnoch style is not submerged. Its fragrant, floral notes come through behind the sherry. The European oak casks are, not surprisingly, going to need longer than the bourbons to reach their peak.

2002 'Two and a Half Times Distilled' Bladnoch
Still very pale in colour, acetone on the nose. Little of the characteristic Bladnoch bourbon nose in evidence yet. Slightly surprising then that this is remarkably sweet and smooth on the palate. Late treacle notes. Very drinkable at cask strength, despite only being three years old.

2001 peated Bladnoch
Little smoke or peat on the nose, where sweet marzipan notes dominate, but the palate is a different matter. The smokiness is quite subtle, however, spreading through the whole palate, evenly and sensitively. An object lesson in how to produce a more highly-peated version of a non-Islay whisky without bludgeoning it to death.


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