Bladnoch Distillery stands on the north bank of the River Bladnoch in the village of Bladnoch, a mile south west of Wigtown. With a latitude that places it level with Carlisle and Sunderland in England it is, by a wide margin, Scotland's most southerly distillery. Its setting is beautiful and it looks especially good when viewed from the road that climbs up the far side of the valley of the River Bladnoch, with the Galloway Hills in the background.
You begin your visit to Bladnoch Distillery in the large car park at the front. From here you follow signs into the complex itself, ending up in the attractive reception area and distillery shop. Here you can, as you would expect, buy bottles of the distillery's product. From the reception area a doorway leads through to a large and exceptionally well stocked gift shop offering clothing, books and a great deal more with a generally Scottish theme.
Those taking the distillery tour begin in a room dominated by a well designed display showing how the distilling process works, while next door is a small museum of artefacts from Bladnoch Distillery's past. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
The agreement with the previous owners under which Bladnoch distills its product allows it to produce up to 100,000 litres each year. This tends to mean that it does most of its production during the winter half of the year, while most visitors tour the distillery during the summer half of the year. On the one hand this means you will probably not experience the sights and, especially, the smells of the distillery actually in production. On the other it allows you to get rather closer to the elements of the production process than would be possible if they were hot and active.
Bladnoch Distillery was founded in 1817 by John and Thomas McClelland. Initial production of some 7,000 gallons or 25,000 litres per year had risen to 51,000 gallons (nearly 200,000 litres) per year by the late 1880s. During retrenchment of the industry in the 1890s, Bladnoch survived to become Dumfries and Galloway's only distillery. Bladnoch closed at the beginning of World War II, though its maltings continued in operation until 1949. The distillery reopened in 1957 and subsequently passed through a number of hands before being closed by its then owners, UDV, in 1993.
In 1994 the site was brought for its redevelopment potential by an Irish company run by brothers Raymond and Colin Armstrong and their wives, in a deal which included a covenant preventing future distilling on the site. Over time the potential of the distillery and its importance to the local community became obvious to its new owners. It took some time to reach agreement with UDV's successors, Diageo, but in 2000 Bladnoch Distillery came back to life, using equipment purchased from Diageo and operating under the 100,000 litres per year cap already referred to. The outcome ideally positions Bladnoch as a craft distillery, and 100% of its output becomes single malt Scotch whisky.
Today Bladnoch stands at the heart of the local community: and at the heart of a much wider community as Raymond Armstrong in particular has built up an international following for the distillery and its products through the Internet, as well as for its range of bottlings of the products of rare or disused distilleries elsewhere in Scotland. Bladnoch also runs intensive three day Whisky Schools.
The distillery itself is as charmingly original as they come. There have, of course, been many changes over the years, but they are far from obvious and you get the sense of somewhere very timeless. Bladnoch Distillery, like most distilleries these days, buys in its malted barley. It has, however, thankfully retained the iconic pagoda which once sat on top of the kiln that would have rounded off the malting process.
As you wander around the distillery it is easy to believe that what you are looking at would have been readily recognised by Alfred Barnard, an author who visited the distillery (and most others in Scotland) between 1885 and 1887. Much of his entry on the distillery is given over to the difficult 10 hour train journey from Edinburgh to Wigtown, and a description of Wigtown itself. But his descriptions of the malting houses and kilns are fascinating, as is his reference to the water wheel which provided the motive power for much of the distillery's operations. The mill lade which runs from a weir a mile upstream on the River Bladnoch remains important today as the source of the distillery's water, as the river where it passes the distillery itself is tidal.
The distillery contains all the elements you would expect, plus a few you might not. The tour gives a more detailed view than usual of the milling process, while a surprise in the stillroom is a spirit safe made, very unusually, of stainless steel rather than brass. Perhaps the most unexpected find in the distillery is a set of gates surmounted by a sign which proclaims the "Isle of Ronansay Distillery, Established 1897". This is a result of Bladnoch Distillery's starring role as the Isle of Ronansay Distillery, in the BBC drama series 2000 Acres of Sky, filmed in the area between 2000 and 2003. Another rare feature, not usually on the distillery tour, is a small bottling plant that allows individual casks to be bottled on site.