Swords and Feathers

From the Newcastle ferry, where we – as many European Mainlanders – arrive with our own car, it is an almost straight West when following the whole A69 to Carlisle, where our route turns North following the M6, towards our beloved Scotland. It only takes very little time when we cross the river Sark, which forms the natural border between the North of England and the South of Scotland. From this point, it takes us less than 15 minutes to reach the picturesque Annandale distillery where we stretch our legs, have a cup of coffee and a lush piece of homemade cake.

We introduce ourselves to the tour guide on duty and shortly after we walk around the newly built distillery. Newly built, but the place still breathes the the atmosphere of an old place, as if it has always been there. The Annandale distillery has been built on the same site as the original distillery, which was officially closed in 1921. The new buildings have been built with modern building techniques, combined with original materials, precision and attention to detail, showing old elements in every corner. In the courtyard, the original site of the old still-house is uncovered and displayed next to the old chimney, standing tall, strong and proud.

20150521_113841-editedWalking around the very well and spacious set-up distillery, we were shown and told about the rich history from the start of the old distillery in 1836. In those days, the peat bogs in the vicinity were used to fire up the kilns and stills, which mainly produced spirit for John Walker’s Cardhu blends. Like many other distilleries, during the first World War, the distillery was mothballed, was used as a kettle farm, fell into decay as a distillery and never came back into production when John Walker decided to close the place indefinitely in 1921.

Besides the chimney and the pagoda which miraculously survived the elements, everything had to be rebuilt and was relocated to modern standards, under guidance of Dr. Jim Swan, who has a reputation of building distilleries which can produce a very drinkable spirit from the moment the first drops come from the stills (think Kilchoman, the Taiwanese Kavalan and the Belgian Molenberg distilleries, for example). With re-using materials from the old site building has taken somewhat more time as initially expected; instead of a two year period, the distillery took seven years to get operational, and on the 15th November 2014, after nearly 100 years, the first cask was filled on site again.


The tour starts in the old kiln – the distillery does not have an operational kiln but purchases their malt externally; their peated malt comes from Bairds in Arbroath, their unpeated from Bairds in Pencaitland. We are led up a beautiful stairs into the mill room.

Here we find another part of history; an indestructible 1946 Porteus mill, salvaged from the dismantled Caperdonich distillery. The mill runs one mash per day, six days per week. The T-shaped room we enter after passing the four malt-hoppers (two holding peated, two with unpeated barley, 15 tonnes each) reminds us a little of a small church with its high ceilings. Instead of crucifixes, an altar or nicely carved statues, a great atmosphere comes from the semi-lauter mash tun, six Douglas-fir washbacks and on the far end, the three stills.

Keeping balance in the distillery, the mash tun is used once a day, processing the milled 2.5 tonnes peated or unpeated barley. The quite standard three-water, 12.000 liters mash is delivered into one of the six Douglas Fir washbacks, which will ferment it for four to five days.


Depending on the peated or unpeated barley they started with, the recipe of the yeast is different. The unpeated wash gets 35kg of dried Mauri distillers yeast, the peated mash is fermented with a mixture of dried Mauri and M1 distillers yeast. On the “altar” at the back of the room, the three stills are setup rather different as we are used to. The wash still is tucked away in the left hand corner, with its own little safe, where all wash is distilled into a 40% low-wine. The two spirit stills are both used simultaneously, each with half the wash, in order to get as much copper contact as possible, resulting in a clean 86%, 900 litres new make spirit. All stills and distilling process do not exactly represent the still of the old days, simply because no records or drawings have been kept.

Exiting the church en route to the warehouse, we walk past the location of the old still house, where the location of the two (not three) stills is clearly visible. The site is fenced off by a beautiful wrought iron fencing, to (understandably) keep us nerds and tourists out. The stream we cross when passing the black “Tardis” is not used for the distillation, cooling or dilution of the spirit, and is merely there as an enhancement of the picture perfect location, because the distillery sadly does not have the rights to use it.

“…for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive,

never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. 

It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, 

nor honours that we are fighting, 

but for freedom – for that alone, 

which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” 

– Robert the Bruce, the Declaration of Arbroath

The distillery is very keen on their history, which they intend to reflect in the two different “rascally” new makes they produce. The Man o’ Swords, honouring Robert the Bruce, is reflected with a sword on the casks where their peated new make spirit is put to rest.



The Man o’ Words honouring Robert Burns, is presented on the casks with their unpeated style by a quill. With the difficulty of obtaining good quality casks, they are currently forced to slow down production a little, not doing any concessions to the quality they envision.

Currently, they use about 40% first fill and about 60% second fill ex-Bourbon casks. The spirit is diluted to the industry default 63,5%, and in full production they are capable of filling 48 casks per week. When we were visiting, there were about 600 casks stored.

Rested, well fed (we stayed for a good lunch as well), and enthusiastic about this new distillery we left to continue our travels towards Islay where we would join many of the #whiskyfabric for the Feis Ile activities.

We will come back for sure to this lovely distillery and explore the area a little better, we have the idea we will encounter a rich heritage and many other beautiful locations.


Annandale’s new make pure liquor.

As high spirited as tam o’shanters festivities – 

Perfect wi sangs, clatter, flirt and favour. 

Always magnificently memorable. 

A uniquely fruity experience, with fire inside. 

You can drink it on its own 

Or mix it with just about anything. 

However you drink it, you will never forget it. 

Go on. Be a rascal. Mix the fire. 

Wantonly pure… 

– Poem from the Annandale website

inspired by Robert Burns’ Tam o’ Shanter


The unpeated version, at 63,5%, has a sweet malty note combined with stewed fruit and clover honey. There is a vanilla custard pudding note to it filled with raspberry, blackberry, strawberry and blackcurrant. Some red pepper, oranges and red apple mixed with dried banana. It has soft spices and rich ripe fruits already visible in it. The finish is sweet and malty. It would be very interesting to see what this does in a couple of years.

The peated spirit is feisty, obviously a lot of malt can be found on the nose, accompanied with a good hint of smoke. A sweet and fruity, floral layer is to be found underneath, Flavour wise, the spirit is sweet like liquorice, has quite a lot floral aspects to it, and – even at the strength of 63,5%, is pretty delicate on the palate. The finish is quite floral (close to soapy), with a touch of pears.


Copyright notice: Photos by WhiskySpeller

One Comment Add yours

  1. WhiskyScores says:

    Excellent update on Annandale's journey – thank you.


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