MALCOLM RENNIE grew up on Islay, an island with a whisky distillery for almost every three hundred souls and his father made barrels for a living.
Alas, a career in the whisky trade wasn’t part of the plan. But after sailing with the merchant navy the world over, Islay - and the whisky trade - called him homewards.
Nowadays, he is heading up one of Scotch whisky’s most watched projects, the revival of the legendary Rosebank Distillery in Falkirk, whose copper stills ran cold in 1993 when the distillery was shuttered.
We sat him down with a bottle to find out how we got the gig.
Your first whisky job was at Bruichladdich on Islay, followed by neighbouring Ardbeg. What did you take away from your earliest jobs in the trade?
The importance of listening to those who have been around longer than you. There simply isn’t a better way to learn your craft than from the characters who have worked in a distillery for decades.
One thing they taught me was to use all your senses during the whisky making process; to really think about every smell, to analyse each texture and to touch and feel everything, from the barley grain to the wood you are maturing your whisky in. You can certainly identify if everything is as it should be, or something isn’t quite right not just by sight, but by listening and using your nose.
Then you were at Kilchoman, Islay’s first new distillery in 120 years, and then Annandale, which is a new distillery in old buildings. You also managed Lochlea, the Lowlands’ newest distillery. Running Rosebank should be easy, then?
Making good whisky is never easy and each distillery has its own quirks and challenges to get on top of. Here, the biggest challenge will be creating a spirit profile that will come close to the original whisky which was made here. It’ll take us a while and more than a wee bit of patience but we’ll get there.
Rosebank holds legendary status amongst many whisky drinkers and recent releases of old Rosebank stock has kept the name alive. How helpful is Rosebank’s heritage and the expectations that come with it for the new spirit you’ll be laying down?
Rosebank is quite rightly held in great reverence by so many people and with that reputation comes the weight of high expectations of the new spirit we will create. The expectations from the industry and from whisky drinkers are impossibly high and it would be no exaggeration to say that Rosebank’s revival is one of the most important things this trade has seen in decades. But we are confident, with the design of the new stills and equipment we’re installing and the team we have put in place, that we’ll craft a whisky worthy of our name.
How is the refit of the distillery coming along? Are the new stills running yet?
In all honesty, we've experienced a few delays and snags with the build. The last couple of years have been chaotic for everyone and everything has taken longer than expected. We’re hoping to be up and running later this year or early next. But much like making good whisky, we won’t rush this. We’ll not start running spirit until we know that we have everything in place to produce a Rosebank spirit that we’ll be proud of.
Production wise, Rosebank was a bit of a quirky one, right? How closely are you planning to replicate that old style?
I often describe our production set-up as “the nonsensical jigsaw puzzle that is Rosebank”. It just doesn't make sense, but that quirkiness is what ultimately defines Rosebank’s unique character.
We will do our best to recreate a very similar style to the original spirit, and to that end we have installed the three stills to the exact same shape as the originals.
Even the stills themselves are not what you may expect. The wash still - used for the first distillation in each batch process - has had its usual swan neck removed and been capped and the lyne arm stuck in the side of the neck. Our second still is an elegant, tall slim necked beauty that will produce lots of reflux and copper contact to give us that ethereal estery fruitiness Rosebank is known for. Then we have the spirit still which is on the shorter side and will help introduce slightly more body and weight back into spirit.
The real final balancing act from this unusual setup is introduced by the use of worm tubs - which condense spirit vapours back into spirit by funnelling them through pipes submerged in wanted - where we can really bring as much, or as little, depth back into the spirit by varying the water temperature and flow rates.
So we really have an orchestra of variables to play with to help us reimagine what Rosebank is as a whisky. A challenge, yes, but one we’re up for.
Best way to enjoy a whisky?
I always have a dram straight, just as the distillery intended, then often add a wee drop of water to open things up if it needs it.
It’s a cliche I know, but sharing a dram with others is undoubtedly the best way to enjoy whisky.
It definitely has a habit of bringing people together and creating lasting bonds like no other drink.
For more information on Rosebank, see rosebank.com