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Usually, when I visit a distillery for the first time, I arrive equipped with a degree of foreknowledge, gained over a few years of fact-gathering. When I found myself crunching down a gravel path towards Annandale in early October however, it dawned on me just how little I knew about the place. Amongst the maelstrom of shiny new distillery openings and the resuscitations of long slumbering giants, this charming little site near the Scottish border had rather passed me by.
I must confess to being somewhat smitten by its location and the walk from the car park provides ample opportunity to admire the little cluster of red stone buildings which lie across a lush green field, huddled amongst woodland which had just begun to show the first signs of Autumn at the time of my visit.
At the end of the path stands an ornate, wrought-iron gateway, through which another pathway rounds the original onsite warehouse and deposits the visitor in front of the distillery proper for the first time.
Annandale has a traditional distillery profile, complete with a Doig-Esque pagoda roof. Its buildings are arranged around a central courtyard with a shop to the right and a cafe to the left. The scene is rather dominated by a large stone chimney, at the foot of which lies what appears to be some sort of archaeological excavation. Closer inspection reveals this to be the site of the old distilleries pot stills with brickwork and fire-pits still clearly visible.
The original Annandale distillery was built in 1830 by George Donald of Elgin. Unusually for the region, it was renowned for producing a heavily peated spirit and as such, it attracted the attention of John Walker & Sons, who eventually bought the site outright in 1896. Times change, however, and in 1919 it was decided that Annandale was no longer crucial to the plans of this most famous of blenders. The site was closed in 1921 and stripped of its equipment.
Over the long years that followed, the empty buildings fell into disrepair and it looked to all the world like the distillery’s story was at an end. Then, the site came to the attention of David Thomson and Teresa Church, owners of market research company MMR Group. The pair became fascinated by the history of the place and set out on a course that would eventually see them bring distillation back to this part of Scotland. It took seven long years to restore the buildings to their former glory but with the expert assistance of the late Dr Jim Swan, the distillery was producing spirit by November of 2014.
Distillery tours commence from the old kiln, under that magnificent pagoda, but soon move on to the production area which has a practical, everything under one roof feel to it. Inside an elongated chamber stands both mash tun and washbacks, while the far side culminates in a trio of elegant pot stills, arranged in the Dr Swan trademark set-up of one wash to two spirit stills.
My tour of the distillery was enjoyable and very informative, helping me to fill in the shameful gaps in my knowledge of this rather historic site. The owners, it has to be said, deserve great credit for its sympathetic restoration as standing once again in the courtyard after the conclusion of the tour, one could almost be forgiven for thinking little has changed since the distillery first sprang to life almost 200 years ago.
Since its rebirth, Annandale has produced two individual single malt brands named ‘Man o’ Words’ and ‘Man o’ Sword’ after Robert Burns and Robert the Bruce, both of whom have links to the area. Bottled as limited edition single cask expressions, they have thus far retailed at what can only be described as a premium price point, though it seems safe to assume prices will drop as more stock becomes available in the coming years. At the current time, however, they remain a little rich for this reviewer and I shall bide my time until a more affordable version of this admittedly interesting malt becomes available.
In the meantime, curious observers can get a hint as to the quality of the Annandale spirit by turning their attention to ‘Rascally Liquor’, a bottling of New Make available in 5cl miniature format, bottled at a whopping cask filling strength of 63.5%.
Rascally Liquor New Make Malt Spirit
Smell: Orange and Berries, Malty Biscuits
Taste: Orange, White Pepper, Biscuit and a touch of Honey
Value for Money: It’s not expensive, but like all new make bottlings, I find myself wondering what exactly I would use it for. It’s in no way unpleasant when sipped neat, but I can’t really imagine any occasion where I would ponder long over which dram to enjoy… before reaching into the cabinet and drawing forth a bottle of new make. As a curiosity, and a glimpse into the nature of a new distillery, it is an interesting proposition but as a dram in its own right, I suspect it would always be overlooked.
Rascally Liquor New Make Peaty Malt Spirit
Smell: Earthy Peat, Apple and Pear, Liquorice.
Taste: Salty at first, then a little Honey, noticeably more viscous on the palate than the unpeated version. Lots of fiery Pepper.
Value for Money: Water, or possibly even ice, is required in quite generous doses to make this a little more palatable (well it is 63.5%!). Sipped neat, it is a big fiery mouthful of spirit that is absolutely not for the faint of heart.
Of course, it goes without saying that new make spirit isn’t really designed to be a delicious drink from the off. Instead, it is crafted to give it all the characteristics it needs to mature into a fine whisky and in that respect, Annandale seems to have got things right.
Such robustness of flavour would possibly make for an interesting cocktail component, however, and I suspect it is here that Rascally Liquor would really shine. Indeed, the team at the distillery were happy to supply a couple of recipes for me to try out at home. I haven’t experimented as yet, but keep an eye on my social media feeds for future updates.
It’s perhaps worth noting that newer bottlings of Rascally Liquor have been released at the reduced strength of 46% which would no doubt make for a gentler drinking experience but I suspect its niche will always be as a mixing drink.
Annandale is a fascinating distillery to visit and if their New Make Spirit is anything to go by, their malt is going to be one to watch in the years ahead.
Like many new distilleries, Annandale is offering buyers the opportunity to invest in their own cask of ageing spirit. Further information can be found here.