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Bladnoch holds a special place in my heart. It was the first whisky distillery I ever visited, back when I was very much a newbie to this hobby. The distillery stands on the banks of the River Bladnoch, near Wigtown in Dumfries & Galloway, making it the most southerly distillery in Scotland. The most lowland of lowland distilleries!
Bladnoch is a survivor. It was one of only three lowland malt distilleries, along with Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie to last into modern times while all others failed. Although that isn’t quite the whole story because Bladnoch itself has flirted with oblivion more than once.
The distillery was established way back in 1817 by brothers John and Thomas McLelland. It produced whisky fairly consistently throughout its first century, with Alfred Barnard reporting in 1887 that the still house contained “three old Pot Stills consisting of a Wash Still of 13,000 gallons and two Low Wines Stills each of 400 gallons”. At that time, the warehouses were four in number and held “805 casks containing 80,700 gallons”. Barnard also described a Peat Shed that was supported on iron columns and had a slated roof. We don’t often think of peat in association with lowland malts but in fact, Bladnoch has often carried a smoky element.
The distillery closed in 1949 and didn’t reopen until 1957. From then on it passed through a series of different owners before eventually being taken over by Bell’s in 1983. The new owner was absorbed by the United Distillers Group (now Diageo) and production slowed before halting completely in 1993. The Scotch whisky industry appeared to be in decline at that time and the chances of Bladnoch returning to production seemed slim at best.
Within a year, however, two brothers from Northern Ireland purchased the site with the intention of turning it into holiday accommodation. Smitten by the history of the place, the Armstrongs had a change of heart and decided to re-open the distillery. Unfortunately, the terms of sale forbade such a move and it took six years of painful negotiation with Diageo to reach an agreement. The brothers would be allowed to produce 100,000 litres per year.
The Armstrong brothers made a valiant effort to rescue Bladnoch and some of the whisky they produced was excellent. It was under their stewardship that I paid the distillery a visit. I had only been drinking whisky for a few years by that point and fully confess that my knowledge was fairly limited. I remember, for example, being confused by a recommendation from the shop assistant when she pointed out the Distiller’s Choice bottling. She told me it was the Manager’s selection of casks, blended together and I heard the “b” word and assumed it was somehow inferior. I had no idea that single malts always (or nearly always) consisted of a blend of many casks! I cringe to think of such ill-informed snobbery now.
That aside, I have fond memories of Bladnoch. That little grouping of buildings that huddled together in the beautiful Galloway countryside had a profound effect on me. I left feeling moved by the experience, knowing within myself that my first distillery visit wouldn’t be my last. The 18-year-old single malt I purchased for around £45 has also been etched into my memory banks, along with its dark green label that featured, for no apparent reason, a picture of a sheep.
Bladnoch’s troubles weren’t over, sadly. Production halted in 2009. It turns out the 100,000 litre capacity placed on it by Diageo left the business struggling to make a profit and by 2014 it was in administration. Once again, Bladnoch was teetering on the abyss.
An unlikely saviour appeared in July 2015 in the shape of Australian yoghurt-mogul David Prior. The new owner invested heavily in refitting the distillery with new equipment and production resumed in June 2017. A range of single malts with Australian-themed names, Samsara, Adela and Talia, were created from surviving stocks and released along with a blended Scotch, largely aimed at the Australian market, named Pure Scot.
It’s great to see the distillery back in action and the whiskies I’ve encountered over the last few years have been of decent quality. Aside from some extremely questionable advertising, particularly on Instagram, which even provoked the ire of the SWA, it would appear that the rebirth of Bladnoch has been a success. It’s about time therefore, that I reviewed one of their bottlings. I found myself in Dumfries & Galloway recently and although I didn’t have time to fit in a distillery visit, I did stop by T. B. Watson’s in Dumfries and when I spied Bladnoch on the shelf, it felt like the stars had aligned!
Alinta is an indigenous Australian word that means fire. The whisky has been created using peated malt that has been matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and PX sherry casks.
Smell: Malty with honey, toffee and baking spices. Chocolate raisins. Tobacco smoke. Ashy bonfires. A bit of paprika. Walnut. Leather. Also some buttery bourbon in there and some lighter fruity notes. Apple, pear, lemon. Some pepper.
Taste: Toffee, liquorice, aniseed… Caramel. Smoke – not the medicinal peat reek of Islay, it’s woodier, more like a campfire. Burning newspaper! Honeyed apples. Vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce. Touch of citrus before the smoky finish.
Thoughts: Weightier on the palate than you’d perhaps expect from a lowland. The peat is interesting. It’s prominent without being dominant. In fact, the overall feel of the whisky is one of balance. Bourbon, sherry, peat and fruity spirit all come through in equal measure, each having its moment to shine. A good quality whisky with layers of flavours to explore.
Value for money: Bladnoch has always been capable of greatness but consistency has maybe been something of a problem in the past. It seems like maybe things have turned a corner where that’s concerned. Certainly the quality on offer here is impressive. That said, it doesn’t come cheap. A bottle will set you back around £80. Fortunately, I think it’s just about good enough to carry the price.
You can buy Bladnoch Alinta from Master of Malt
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**Other retailers are available.
For more on Bladnoch visit here https://bladnoch.com/