I had the pleasure of visiting the historic Annandale Distillery in June. It was my second tour, with my first one being back in October 2018. While not much has changed since my last visit, I was delighted to find a wider range of relatively more affordable bottles on the shelves.
Annandale Distillery is a unique blend of old and new, dating back to its establishment in 1830. After shutting down in 1921, the distillery went through various incarnations before falling into disrepair. In 2014, David Thomson and Teresa Church revived the distillery, meticulously restoring its buildings with original brickwork and sympathetic design. Today, it stands as one of Scotland’s most picturesque distilleries.
A notable highlight is the excavation of the old still-house foundations, revealing the pits used to directly fire the pot stills during the ownership of Johnnie Walker. This fascinating glimpse into the past adds to the charm and allure of Annandale.
Before venturing into the whisky industry, David Thomson and Teresa Church owned a market research company. They brought their expertise to the creation of their new whisky, conducting extensive sensory profiling and identifying unique flavor profiles not yet available on the market. Although innovative, this approach does evoke a somewhat soulless sentiment in me.
There are a few aspects of Annandale that strike me as peculiar. The distillery appears to have limited outreach efforts, and the steep prices of their early releases, such as a 3-year-old whisky for £300, are off-putting. Additionally, the decision to name their single malts Man o’ Sword and Man o’ Words, after historical figures connected to the area, seems somewhat perplexing. Why not simply call it Annandale Single Malt? I can’t help but speculate if there are naming rights issues or trademark complications.
In an unexpected turn of events in 2021, Annandale Distillery struck a deal with VCL Vintners Ltd, a London-based wine and spirits investment specialist. This agreement grants VCL 50% of the distillery’s output for five years. While I lack investment expertise, the prospect of a substantial volume of Annandale whisky flooding the market simultaneously raises questions about the future value of these bottles. Rarity has traditionally been a driving factor in whisky’s value, after all.
Please keep in mind that my intention is not to dissuade you from purchasing a cask of Annandale whisky. If owning a cask appeals to you, go ahead, but don’t solely focus on the promise of massive financial gains. Particularly for a spirit that doesn’t seem to be generating significant buzz, flooding the market with mature Annandale whisky simultaneously might not be the most successful strategy. Approach cask ownership as an enjoyable endeavor rather than a guaranteed money-making venture. If you do decide to purchase a cask, ensure you work with a reputable broker. I can’t speak to VCL’s credibility, as I have never dealt with them personally, but conducting thorough research and seeking feedback from others who have engaged with the company is essential.
For more information on potential cask investment scams in the whisky industry, I recommend reading my article, “Beware Cask Investment Scams.”
Despite the eyebrow-raising prices and investment deals surrounding Annandale, the distillery genuinely produces excellent whisky. Man o’ Words represents their unpeated expression, while Man o’ Sword offers a peated variant.
I must credit the late Dr. Jim Swan, a remarkable distillery consultant, for his contributions in establishing and enhancing Annandale Distillery. Swan ensured that the distillery produced the kind of whisky identified through their market research project. His influence is apparent in the still-room, featuring three stills—a wash still and twin spirit stills—a unique setup that maximizes the contact between the spirit vapor and copper during the distillation process. Additionally, some of Annandale’s spirit undergoes maturation in STR casks—Shaved, Toasted, and Re-charred red wine casks that are rejuvenated before being filled with new make spirit.
The particular single malt I enjoyed is a peated Man o’ Sword bottling, matured in one of these rare casks. As a single cask release, it boasts an impressive 60.4% alcohol by volume and retails for approximately £85 at the distillery shop.
Smell: There’s nothing subtle about the peat in this Lowland whisky! It hits you right away, reminiscent of ashy bonfire smoke. Alongside, you’ll find hints of plummy red wine, stewed fruits, and raspberry jam. There’s a touch of sulphur, akin to struck matches, and a tantalizing warmth from chili powder. Adding water reveals more honey and malt notes, but it takes some time for them to emerge. Initially, it’s all about the peat and wine.
Taste: The winey fruitiness continues to dominate, but there’s a delightful layer of toffee. Black pepper and coal fires make their presence known, exhibiting the youthful fire of this whisky. You can’t ignore its strength, but a splash of water mellows the heat and creates a better harmony between the wine, smoke, and spice. As the wine influence subsides, a subtle maltiness emerges before the dry, smoky finish.
Thoughts: I must commend Annandale for their bold and unapologetic approach. This whisky stands out with its robust nature and intense flavors. At times, it almost feels like a whisky predominantly matured in red wine casks rather than an S.T.R. cask. The peat presence is powerful, and while the whisky is young and slightly fiery, with time and water, it all comes together beautifully. It may not be the most complex dram, but its prominent flavors will undoubtedly please fans of smoky whiskies.
Value for money: Let’s be honest, £85.95 for a 3-year-old whisky seems a bit excessive. However, considering that Annandale bottles everything as single cask releases, this price aligns with the cost of single casks from other newer distilleries like Kilchoman, Ardnamurchan, or Kingsbarns. Perhaps the perceived high price is due to the absence of a more affordable option. If Annandale were to introduce a standard, non-age-statement expression priced around £50, the initial pricing level wouldn’t seem as strange. Nevertheless, such an option appears unlikely in the foreseeable future. I chose to purchase a bottle of this particular Man o’ Sword expression after sampling it and deciding that it was worth the price. I always recommend trying before you buy when possible, especially when contemplating spending £85 on a single bottle. As for Annandale as a whole, the distillery remains an enigma. While it offers a great product, there seems to be no rush to expand their audience. Perhaps that will change in the future, but for now, it’s an intriguing puzzle waiting to be solved.
For more information on Annandale Distillery, visit Ratingperson.
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