When husband and wife David Thomson and Teresa Church began their journey to restoring a distillery in the south of Scotland, it was part happenstance and part luck that led them down their new path.
The owners of Annandale Distillery in Annan, Scotland had – at the time – a full focus on their Oxford based business MMR Research, which specialises in sensory research. But it was a copy of the book Scotch Missed by Brian Townsend about the distilleries lost to Scotland’s past, that helped change things for them both. Thomson is originally from Dumfries, where the nearest town is Annan. But until flipping through the book, he had no idea the town had played host to a distillery there in the 1800s.
“When my wife Teresa and I realised the site was available for sale and had just gotten planning permission…we drove through the hammering rain from Oxford and just as we got to the borders the sun came out, and we stopped and saw the distillery’s Doig pagoda through the trees. We saw enough of what the distillery had been. And Teresa said, ‘Look you’re interested in doing this, you’re from Dumfries, there’s only one distillery in Annan, what are you waiting for? Why don’t we just buy it?’” says Thomson, in this month’s VCL Vintners podcast.
The couple had to act quickly if they were to have a chance at securing the site which had just been given permission to be turned into housing use. The project turned out to be for ‘deep pockets and long arms’ says Thomson, but the extensive undertaking has been worth it.
Annandale Distillery took ten years to restore and come on-line, and today the distillery is winning accolades for its exceptional quality and unique approach to whisky making.
It’s a fact that caught the eye of the team at VCL Vintners, who approached Thomson, Church and distillery General Manager David Ashton-Hyde about purchasing a proportion of the distillery’s stock for investors.
“We ended up forming a close friendship with the distillery and started to explore the possibility of working closely together on an exclusive basis,” says Benjamin Lancaster, Director of VCL Vintners.
And, indeed, the timing couldn’t have been better with Thomson saying that there were a number of other companies which had approached them about purchasing casks around the same time.
The deal will entitle VCL Vintners to half of Annandale’s output each year – some 276,000 litres – for sale to investors. In a market that has traditionally been closed off to outsiders and newcomers, this partnership represents a revolutionary step towards transparency in whisky cask investment.
Clients of VCL Vintners will be able to receive a clear market price, for all grades of single cask single malt whiskies from Annandale Distillery. It is the first time this information has become available to the public.
“We’re excited because now that we have secured a consistent supply, our clients can benefit from casks with a high-grade premium product and an even higher potential for return on investment,” adds Lancaster.
Annandale makes both a peated and an unpeated spirit after extensive research through the couple’s other venture, MMR, located ‘holes’ in Scotland’s whisky map where other distilleries weren’t playing flavour wise. They worked with their good friend the late, great whisky expert Jim Swan to reverse engineer the flavour profile – basically, telling him what they were looking for in the flavour profile, and then figuring out how to design a distillery to fit that.
“We went to Forsyths and talked it through with [owner] Richard and asked if we could make a whisky in the footprint of the old Annandale site that fits this profile. There was a lot of chin scratching that went on and it was a difficult challenge but we got there. It’s quite unusual to start with a sensory profile and then build a distillery around it but that’s how it happened,” explains Thomson.
This unique approach to the distillery build, alongside the use of interesting yeasts to enhance the spirit’s fruitiness from the start, and the use of Jim Swan’s favourite type of cask – STR, Shaved, Toasted, Re-charred – have all worked to create the spirit they were after at the start.
“Jim’s last words to me when he left the distillery, about a week before he died were: ‘Don’t forget to place an order for the STR casks.’ And he died before I placed the order but I kept my promise,” adds Thomson.
The distillery currently focuses on single cask releases of both of its peated and unpeated whiskies under the brand names Man O’Swords and Man O’Words, with a number of them winning accolades and high praise from whisky reviewers.
All these years on from that first fateful finding of the former Annan distillery in the whisky book, Thomson says he finds incredible satisfaction in what they’ve managed to achieve.
“You can do all of the background work, use the best people, use the best equipment, but there is still something about making whisky that you just can’t quite control – and then finding that we not only like it but other people like it is extremely satisfying,” he concludes.
Find out more about the building of Annandale Distillery, its whiskies and the new partnership with VCL Vintners in this month’s podcast.