The Resurgence of the Rosebank Distillery

21 Aug 2023

The story of Rosebank Distillery is one of perseverance, determination, and passion for producing the finest single-malt whisky.

Founded in 1840, the distillery quickly gained a reputation for producing the most elegant, floral, and refined whiskies in Scotland. However, the distillery faced numerous challenges over its long history, including economic downturns, world wars, and constant costs to upgrade the distillery. All finally leading to its closure in 1993. Despite these obstacles, the spirit of Rosebank lived on and in recent years, the story has been rejuvenated, promising to produce once again some of the world’s finest whiskies.

The story of Rosebank Distillery begins in 1840 when James Rankine established the distillery in the small town of Camelon adjacent to Falkirk. At the time, the area was home to six distilleries, and Rosebank quickly gained a reputation for producing high-quality whisky. By the 1860s, Rosebank was one of the largest distilleries in the Lowlands, producing more than 100,000 gallons of whisky each year.

One of the key reasons for Rosebank’s success was the quality of the water used in the production process. The distillery’s geography meant that it had access to a supply of exceptionally fine spring water, derived from wells on the premises, adapted for distilling and malting purposes. Additionally, the distillery’s location near the Forth and Clyde Canal made it easy to transport the finished product to market.

Over the years, Rosebank continued to grow with combinations of public flotations and shared ownership driving the business forward. Rosebank’s reputation continued to flourish, and the distillery became known for its light and fruity style of whisky. However, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to a decline in demand for whisky, and the industry struggled to recover in the post-war years. To consolidate its position Rosebank became one of the founding members of the Scottish Malt Distillers. Then in 1919, it became part of the Distillers Company (DCL).

Despite the challenges of the interwar period, Rosebank continued to produce whisky and in 1968, the distillery underwent a major renovation and expansion to capitalize on the whisky boom of the 1960s and 70s. However, within a few years, the industry experienced another economic downturn, and several distilleries were forced to close. Rosebank continued to grow its reputation but was not immune to these pressures as its parent company (DCL) was taken over and then merged to become United Distillers (now Diageo).

However, global whisky sales fell during the Nineties when the doors finally closed on Rosebank. Then owner UDV mothballed the site in 1993 because of the cost of upgrading its effluent treatment plant, as well as problems over road access. The site was sold to British Waterways in 2002 and the original stills and mash tun were stolen during the Christmas and New Year holidays of 2008/09. At this point, it appeared that the Rosebank story was going to be closing its last chapter…


The Rebirth of Rosebank

In recent years, the distillery has been given a new lease of life, thanks to the efforts of Ian Macleod Distillers (The owners of famed distilleries Glengoyne and Tamdhu among others) who are driven and passionate about reviving this iconic brand.

In 2017, with the fabric of the building crumbling, Ian Macleod Distillers prevented Rosebank from becoming a historical footnote by acquiring the derelict distillery site and breathing new life into the buildings and their surrounding community. The new distillery is being built on the original site in Falkirk and the team behind the project is committed to preserving the traditions and techniques that made Rosebank so special in the past. The distillery’s iconic chimney, old warehouses, and malt house have been restored and the new production facility will include three copper pot stills which are identical to the original stills used at the distillery.

Ian Macleod’s mission is to revive the distillery, but its interests extend beyond its walls. The distillery was highly prized locally – along with the town’s old brewery it was once Falkirk’s beating heart, generating jobs for residents who enjoyed the ubiquitous aroma of whisky distillation. The new distillery will feature a world-class visitor centre and will become a go-to destination for any whisky lover.


Collector’s Insights

Rosebank whiskies take pride of place in revered collections around the world, evoking fabulous stories from their owners… Diego Sandrin, the Venice-based owner of the largest independent bottler collection in the world (Samaroli, Moon, Cadenhead etc.), shared the following story with Beamish International.

“One time I found an open bottle of Rosebank 20YO (Note: 1980s bottling. It was produced exclusively for Italian importer, G.P. Bonfanti and his Zenith Italia distribution company) white box with red writing and I opened it and there was like 2cl in there…and I smelled it and it was like sticking your nose in a stick of vanilla…and then I smelt it again 10 seconds later and it was like sticking your head in a haystack…and then 20 seconds later it had changed again. Unbelievable. There was so little of it…who knows how long it had been sitting there, just 2cl’s in the bottle. It was like it was calling me saying “I’m good, man…I’m the best…I’m great.”  I fell in love with that bottle and since then it is one of my favourite top 5 or 10 greatest whiskies ever, for sure”.

Fellow Italian Giuseppi Begnoni has amassed over forty thousand bottles in his collection and has a deep passion for Rosebank 1938. Bottled in the 1980s at 70% proof at 757ml for Robert Stewart & Son in Edinburgh. Distilled over 85 years ago this time capsule rarely sees daylight, you could have picked one up at Bonhams Auction House in 2010 for £720 but would now expect to pay more than £10,000 for a good condition bottle with excellent levels. Giuseppi notes “Rosebank 1938 is exceedingly rare; I believe I have seen in my life four bottles not more. Two I have in my collection, one is in a major collection in the UK and one is, I believe, in the Valentino Zagatti Collection now housed in The Netherlands”.


The Insider’s view

Beamish International enjoys the privileged position to exclusively sell a limited number of Rosebank casks annually to select private clients and what better way to find out more about Rosebank and the driving force behind it than to discuss with Ian Macleod Distillers’ Managing Director and industry legend, Leonard Russell.

Can you please tell us how Ian Macleod came to acquire Rosebank?

“I saw that the distillery was for sale and was going to become a craft brewery, so on a cold, dark, drizzly day some 6 years ago, I drove out to look round it with my 16-year-old son. It was sad to see it so shut down and destined to crumble, but I could see it being alive again. When I finally heard the past owners were prepared to sell us the Rosebank trademark, I felt it was meant to be. And to be honest, I’ve never had second thoughts.”

When do you anticipate the distillery re-opening?

“We have now entered the final stage of the build with production due to start next month. Build work continues on the visitor side of the distillery which will be housed in the old Rosebank warehouses. We are also building a multi-storey car park which is due to be handed over at the end of the year. We are looking forward to welcoming everyone into Rosebank’s new home.”

What makes Rosebank so special and why does it deserve the moniker “The King of the lowlands”?

 “It was the only distillery that used both triple distillation and worm tubs. Triple distillation gives you a lighter spirit, whereas worm tubs give you lots of character. So, it’s a unique combination to create a whisky that’s quite complex, contradictory and yet genuinely delicious.”

Who does (and will) Rosebank appeal to, and how are you building the brand to reflect this?

 “Our scarce bottlings appeal to those who love discovering special editions and smaller, less well-known brands. We continue to respect Rosebank’s past, whilst also being focused on its future by telling a compelling and authentic story of the brand in a more contemporary and timeless way.

The Rosebank team have been given the time and the freedom to experiment to get it right. Blueprints of the original stills have been used to recreate the shape and style of those from the old distillery and with modern technology and a change of raw materials we are not creating an exact copy, but the new spirit will be in keeping with Rosebank’s infamous signature style.”

Why have you chosen to exclusively partner with Beamish International for private client sales?

“As a business specialising in rare whisky sales to private clients we believe the scarce Rosebank whisky stocks will appeal to Beamish clients, we are delighted to be partnering with them.”

What advice would you give to someone looking to build their whisky collection and why is it essential to have Rosebank in it?

“With the distillery being mothballed in 1993, the stills have been silent for 30 years, meaning there is very little Rosebank available. That paired with the uniqueness of the contrasting distilling techniques makes Rosebank a magical and complex whisky that earned the plaudit ‘King of the Lowlands’ of its time”.

If you could take one bottle to a desert island, Leonard, what would it be?

“My desert island bottle would be Maxwell blend, as produced by my father in the 1960s.  Two reasons: it’s an old-style, hearty, flavoursome blend (lots of Longmorn in it I believe) with huge sentimental value to me. I’d also like to take a small craft brewery if space allowed!”

The answer from Leonard on his desert island bottle really sums up all you need to know about Rosebank.  It’s about cherishing history, marrying the old and the new and paying something forward for the next generation to enjoy.  At Beamish International, we could not be happier to watch how the Rosebank evolution continues!


The Rosebank Market

The closure of the distillery in 1993 has led to a limited supply of distillery bottle releases. Just five bottlings have taken the place of salvaged casks since Ian Macleod took ownership in 2017, with two single cask releases, a 29YO travel retail exclusive and most recently, a 30YO and 31YO. Little of this stock has appeared in the famed auction houses or online and so the best way to view the market is through the lens of independent bottlers.

The holy grail of Rosebank is the 1960 bottled by Signatory Vintage at 32 years of age. Signatory Vintage was founded in 1988 and owns the Highland Distillery Edradour. Two sherry casks produced just eighty bottles at 53.3% and were bottled for an independent retailer in Cupar, Fife, Scotland. Rumour has it that the shop has one bottle left but will not sell it! A search for tasting notes reveals extraordinarily little with Whiskybase and both missing any insight. Just two bottles have ever come to auction, and this mythical bottle is unlikely to resurface again for some time.

Another highly sought-after and collectable Rosebank was bottled by Specialty Drinks, the independent bottling company owned by The Whisky Exchange. The 2016 release of Rosebank 21-Year-Old Speciality Drinks / The Roses Edition #1 ‘True Love’​ yielded 498 bottles at 55.1%. The price at its launch in 2016 was £399. Although prices have dipped from a high eighteen months ago at £9,300 the auction market still commands £7,500 and retailers north of £16,000. 1775% growth vs the online auction market and a CAGR (Compound annualised growth rate) of 52% underlines Rosebank’s credentials as a collector’s favourite and a whisky with momentum away from all the chatter that surrounds other larger distilleries.

As the distillery reopening ramps up and new spirits begin to flow, it seems likely that bottled stock (and mythical casks) will continue to become more desirable as it will be more than a decade for the distillery to bottle anything from the new make spirit and having to steadily seed pre-1993 distillate into the market. Rosebank always had a very resolute following as “The King of the Lowlands.”  This core group will remain and grow as new collectors follow Rosebank’s renaissance, creating pressure on demand and in turn, pricing. Rosebank is a blue-chip distillery where those that know…know and as such should enjoy a place in any serious collection.

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