Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Roseisle Distillery, near Elgin

Right, where were we?  Ah yes, Elgin and its surrounds, which were home to just three distilleries when Barnard visited in 1886.  A further five were operational in the area by 1900 followed by a gap of over seventy years before Mannochmore joined them in 1971.  Our next stop is at Roseisle to the northwest of Elgin where we find the most recent but one distillery opened in Scotland.

The name Roseisle is given to a number of features and settlements in this area, and Rose is a prefix to a few more.  The name appears on maps from antiquity but one 20th century addition is Roseisle Forest which is a large plantation inland from Burghead Bay.  Here there are woodland walks, miles of sand and the remains of many war time defences along the shore.  Burghead sits at the top of a spit of land jutting into the Moray Firth, land on which there once stood one of the largest Pictish forts in Scotland.  Diageo’s Burghead Maltings was built in the town in 1966.

Roseisle Maltings
Diageo’s Roseisle Maltings and Distillery sit just a couple of miles away from Burghead and about a mile inland from the beach.  The maltings was built in 1980 and construction of the distillery started in October 2007 on ground beside it.  The first spirit ran in 2009 and it has a capacity of 10m litres p.a., the largest capacity of any Scotch malt whisky distillery ever built at the one time.  There are 14 stainless steel washbacks and 14 stills which produce ‘Speyside style’ whisky, but there is a variable here.  Most of the stills have copper shell and tube condensers but some can switch between either copper or stainless steel condensers, the latter producing a heavier spirit more akin to that produced when using worm tubs.

The press release on the official opening of the distillery commented on its environmental sustainability, noting that the majority of the by-products will be recycled on site in a bioenergy facility that helps the distillery to generate most of its own energy.  This must also cut down on the amount of road traffic that would otherwise be required to supply services to the facility and I also heard rumour that Diageo had looked at the possibility of reopening the railway line that once connected Burghead to the main line near Elgin and which runs right past the west side of the plant.  There used to be a siding into the Maltings when it was built but the whole line is currently disused and overgrown.

Roseisle Distillery
You can see from the photos that the plant looks like no other distillery in Scotland.  This is over a century away from the ‘classic’ Charles Doig style layout with accompanying pagoda roof (then functional, now mostly aesthetic).  Roseisle is industrial scale shed distilling and it doesn’t need to have any mock Victorian styling draped around it.  It is off the tourist trail, only a few corporate visitors and dignitaries will likely see inside (unfortunately I’m not corporate enough) and the whole ethos appears forward looking.  This is very much 21st century distilling and a world away from the distilleries that Barnard witnessed but, as we shall see later, the reason for building it was not that far removed from similar considerations in his time.

There were two distilleries in Scotland with comparative production volumes when Barnard toured - Port Dundas with 11.6m litres annual production and Caledonian producing around 9.1m litres – but both were mainly producing grain whisky from Coffey Patent Stills.  There were no comparable malt whisky only distilleries, the largest few being around 1m litres p.a.  I wonder if any of them ran continuous production on a shift pattern to achieve that, contrasting with the computer controlled batches running 24/7 at many distilleries today.  Roseisle production can be run by just 2 operators at any time with around 25 jobs created in total.

One question all this raises - does Roseisle represent the future of distilling, or only a part of the future?  On my many distillery visits I have sensed a huge amount of optimism that extends through the industry at the moment, with many distilleries, including a number of others owned by Diageo, expanding or gearing up for 24/7 production.  In addition, at the very opposite end of the scale, is the re-establishment of small ‘farm’ style distilleries not dissimilar in output to those that dotted the landscape of Scotland in the 19th century; Abhainn Dearg and Daftmill the most recent welcome additions to the pantheon with Annandale and others to follow.

The opening of farm distilleries may have been unthinkable in the 1980s/90s, and the new wave of optimism and broad investment, together with recent reports from the SWA and others regarding the projected growth in export markets, suggest that underproduction rather than over may now be a bigger issue in the years ahead.  Hopefully there will be an accompanying demand for variety to continue support for a broad range of distillery styles and sizes; the increasing popularity of whisky festivals around the world and the healthy chat on the forums indicate that there should be.

Roseisle Distillery (left) and Maltings (right)
At the 2010 official opening of Roseisle, Diageo Chief Executive Paul Walsh noted that “Economic growth and consumer demographics present a great opportunity for the Scotch whisky industry and for Diageo’s outstanding brands, especially in the developing markets”, Roseisle being built as part of a response to that.  When handing over the Chairmanship of the SWA at the end of last year he announced that “the value of exports over the first nine months had totalled almost £3billion – an increase of 23% on the same period of 2010.”  The generation and growth of new overseas markets is therefore clearly fundamental to the ongoing success of the industry.

Intriguingly, the same considerations were discussed in Barnard’s time, albeit with very different markets in mind.  At the beginning of his book he includes an anonymously authored article discussing the origins of whisky and the methods of distillation and it ends with an interesting discourse on the future opportunities for whisky at that time.  I have included a section of it here as it offers an interesting comparison with the position of the industry today:

“… there remains for us only the somewhat risky, yet not unnecessary, duty of attempting to forecast the future of this extensive branch of our native industries. … At the present moment the Whisky Trade stands in possession, broadly speaking, of the key of the situation.”

The article then notes that Brandy is discredited after the outbreak of the phylloxera blight, “Rum, for some occult reason, nobody that is anybody drinks, except for the medicinal treatment of a cold”, and Gin drinkers were an old and dwindling population.  From this the article concludes that:

“The opportunity of Whisky is, therefore, overwhelming.  What will it do with it?  England is the market in which both Irish and Scotch Distillers are contending for the pre-eminence…so that the Saxon taste is the pivot upon which, in these days, hangs the prosperity of the Distilling Trade of either nation.  To this we have to add the by no means unimportant weight of our Colonial taste, and the fact that wherever on the face of the civilised world Englishmen do congregate, a “good tap” of Whisky is found to be irresistible to the British…Thus it may be said that even in its greatest markets, at home or abroad, Whisky is still in its youth, while in certain still scarcely-penetrated regions it is yet in its infancy.”

England, then, was considered a developing market for the growth of whisky, together with the inchoate markets in colonial lands (but still driven by demand from the British).  Today, Scotch has arguably found its place as the king o’ drinks1 in the English speaking world, and also in some parts of continental Europe and Asia, the youthful blends and industry of yesteryear both having developed, although fitfully, into maturity.  Its new greatest markets are the fast growing economies in Asia, and South and Central America, particularly the BRIC block where Scotch whisky consumption is still in its youth, and other newer regions where yet in its infancy.

Compared to the drivers of opportunity noted in Barnard’s time, Rum now seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance and there are some stunningly good gins currently being produced in or alongside whisky distilleries, and finding new drinkers who appreciate the craft that was not always apparent in the blinding spirit of the 18th century.  Regardless, the "opportunity of Whisky" once more seems overwhelming, and the response is the huge investment in the industry in recent years to meet an anticipated shortfall as developing economies with huge populations generate new demand through increased affluence.

Of course we can also bring this full circle and recall that the bad ol’ days of the 1980s are not that far from memory, and I’m not talking about New Romantics and an overuse of hairspray here (*shudder*).  Overcapacity then was a major factor contributing to the closure of around 20 distilleries in that decade that are now mostly demolished or redeveloped into something less useful.  That little ditty “Oh Campbeltown Loch, I wish you were whisky” may have been an imbiber’s dream but it could also be a metaphor for an economic nightmare, much like the EU butter mountain and milk lakes which became regular sound bites in the mid 80s.

Your wish list for this New Year needs to include a request for those dark days not to be repeated.  Thankfully those new markets have budded and begun to blossom since then and I, for one, remain optimistic and will happily continue to do my bit to keep good whisky in demand while welcoming the current expansion in the industry to supply that anticipated future.  In fact, it’s time for a top-up to carry me through to the next story.  Happy New Year!

ps. If you have space in your garden you might consider planting some oak trees come spring, we are going to need them!

1 Robert Louis Stevenson, The Scotsman's Return From Abroad, 1887.