As the Victorians succumbed to the new vice of Scotch whisky, distillers throughout Scotland began to crank up production. From Rosebank in the Lowlands to Highland Park on Orkney, it was the start of the first great whisky boom, and the moment when a young Alfred Barnard embarked on the ultimate distillery tour.
Alfred Barnard’s magnum opus
Barnard visited every single distillery, all 162 of them, for his magnum opus – The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, published in 1887. In doing so, he gave us a unique and very detailed snapshot of an industry at a fascinating time. Having travelled through the Highlands and Islands, writing pages on long forgotten distilleries while dismissing others like Macallan in a few lines, he finally reached the Lowlands.
From Edinburgh he took a 40 minute train ride to Falkirk to visit Rosebank with “its lovely wooded backdrop”, a mile out of town. Today it is 25 minutes by train, and the woods have given way to Falkirk’s expansion westwards taking in the distillery which remains beside the Forth & Clyde canal. The canal was busier in Barnard’s day with its “boats and steamers constantly passing to and fro”. He clearly liked Rosebank and saw it as a modern, bustling and well-conceived distillery with its own maltings and cooperage, and a waterwheel to provide power.
A smoky Rosebank
Rosebank had been completely rebuilt twenty years earlier in 1864 and was owned by the son of its founder, James Rankine. With its three pot stills, it would have produced a triple-distilled single malt, as it did latterly, but rather surprisingly it would have been quite smoky. “Peat is mostly used for the drying,” wrote Barnard about the malted barley, and he described how the distillery had its own peat shed full of peat cut “from a good moss ground within four miles”.
Clearly, there was nothing light or insubstantial about the King of Lowland whiskies, and while Rosebank gave up being peated long ago, it never lost its complexity or character. It was always very popular with blenders, which explains why it survived, unlike so many Lowland distilleries that have disappeared for good.