Food & Drink: Burns' Night calls for a rare tot of grassy, sweet Lowland whisky

A surveyor more accustomed to assessing bomb-damage claims in his native Northern Ireland is reviving one of Scotland's most distinctive malt whisky distilleries. His efforts may save Bladnoch, the most southerly of Lowland whiskies and therefore the one most suitable for Monday's celebration of Rabbie Burns, who was born near Ayr and died in Dumfries.

Lowland whiskies most clearly express the fresh, grassy sweetness of barley, while Highlanders incline more to heathery, flowery flavours and the islanders to peat and seaweed.

Bladnoch was established between 1817 and 1825 as a farmhouse distillery using local barley. So remote is it that the nearest big city is Belfast.

That is where surveyor and builder Raymond Armstrong boarded the ferry one day in 1993 to visit the area in search of a holiday cottage. Unbeknown to him, a local election was underway. As he explored the gentle countryside, he was canvassed by a candidate for the Scottish Nationalists. Before Armstrong could explain that he was Irish, he was assailed with a tale of woe about the local distillery having just closed.

The Bladnoch malt whisky had for many years been used as an ingredient in the Bell's blend, but had become dispensable when that brand's owners were subsumed into a larger group, United Distillers. Armstrong's first thought was to buy the handsome stone distillery for his holiday home. The asking price was out of reach, but United Distillers dropped it greatly when he agreed not to distil there.

"But as I came to know and love the building, I realised that it should be used for its real purpose," explains Armstrong. "I talked to the owners and they realised that such a small distillery did not represent competition. On the contrary, the survival of small distilleries that can be visited by tourists helps maintain the integrity of Scotch whisky."

Most of the equipment remained, but Armstrong has spent about pounds 150,000 on restoring the distillery. Former stillman John Herries has been working on the project since last spring, and hopes to have Bladnoch in operation by May.

John's wife and his mother-in-law are organising tours, beginning mid- March. During the interregnum, tours have been provided by the local council and enterprise board. Much of the whisky will be sold to tourists at the distillery's own shop, though it will also continue to be available through specialist wine merchants (as are the examples reviewed below).

The resuscitation of Bladnoch is more significant in that other recent closures have ravaged the Lowlands as a whisky-producing region. The loss of a credible Lowlands appellation would damage overall interest in single malt whiskies, whose buyers like to explore regional styles. If Bladnoch succeeds, it may be a model for other revivals. The Littlemill distillery, at Bowling, between Glasgow and Dumbarton, also closed recently. It may date from 1772, making it one of the oldest in Scotland. Now there is a possibility that Littlemill's new owners may re-equip it to distil on a small scale.

Talks are also going on between United Distillers and British Waterways over the possible revival of the greatly respected Rosebank distillery, on the Forth-Clyde Canal at Falkirk. This would be part of a waterfront development. It is to be hoped, now that United Distillers is part of a larger corporate entity called Diageo, that its awareness of the area's industrial heritage survives.

Bladnoch tours 01988 402235

Burns' Night Lowlanders

Bladnoch Its typical lemongrass character is most evident in a 10-year-old in United Distillers' Flora and Fauna range. A 1986 Connoisseur's Choice, from Gordon and MacPhail, is fruitier and softer. A 17-year-old, bottled by Cadenhead's, is leafier and leaner. A 22-year-old, bottled by Adelphi, is drier and more rooty.

Littlemill This is usually found in the distillery's own bottling at eight years old. Its barley-malt flavours are reminiscent of toasted coconut and marshmallow.

Rosebank A 1981 distillation in United Distillers' Rare Malts range, has lots of clover and camomile. A 1988 bottling from Gordon and MacPhail has a beautiful balance of floweriness and sherry- wood. Murray McDavid, of Glasgow and London, has two bottlings of 1990 Rosebank: a lemony, honeyed example aged in fresh sherry casks, and a minty, sharp one from Bourbon casks.

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