St. Magdalene distillery, lost but not forgotten
Connosr member Stuart Robson is now a regular contributor for Connosr Distilled, both as a writer (be sure to check out his article on whisky and chocolate) and a frequent attendee on our tasting panel.
Names and Dates
There is some debate as to the founding year of the St Magdalene distillery. The first licence seems to have been taken out in 1797 but there is evidence to suggest distilling on the site as early as 1765. What we can be certain of however is that these dates represent one of the earliest known distilleries in Scotland. St Magdalene was situated in the historic town of Linlithgow and takes its name from an area known as “Saint Magdalene’s Cross”, also the site of a 12th century leper colony run by the Knights Templar of St. John of Torpichen, on which the distillery stood. The town was ideally suited for a distillery, beside the main road between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and offering a ready supply of processed Loch Lomond water from the town. The opening of the Union Canal in 1822 and the railway between the two cities, just a decade or so later, only added to the advantageous nature of the location.
From Hand to Hand
Founded by Sebastian Henderson and, in 1797, Licensed and taken on by Adam Dawson, one of the earliest licence holders in Scotland who also ran another Linlithgow distillery know as Bonnytoun situated on land adjacent to his new acquisition. St Magdalene seems to have fared well enough in these early days, staying in the same hands for over a hundred years. By 1912 however the Dawson family went out of business and three years later the distillery found its way into the hands of the Scottish Distillers company, which also owned four other distilleries; Clydesdale, Glenkinchie, Grange and Rosebank. In time this company would be known as United Distillers and finally Diageo, taking on, and dropping off a number of distilleries along the way.
Changes to the End
St Magdalene, being double distilled, tends to be removed from what we are now told is the classic Lowland style.
After leaving Dawson’s company the distillery was largely refurbished, and fully converted to mains electricity in 1927. There were more changes by 1968 when, as was the case for many other distilleries, all floor malting on site ceased and the malt instead came to be acquired via the eastern highland distillery Glenesk AKA Hillside’s maltings. 1971 saw the four stills converted to indirect firing, further adhering to trends spreading throughout the industry.
The early 80’s saw a world recession and subsequently a widely publicised downturn in whisky sales and, due to some seemingly over-optimistic forecasting, a glut of maturing stock. The resultant “whisky loch” left little room for all distilleries to continue producing, and along with now classic names such as Brora and Port Ellen, St Magdalene was mothballed in 1983. The distillery never re-opened and the bulk of the site was sympathetically converted into flats in the mid 90’s and again in 2002. Little is left to suggest a distillery once stood on the site aside from the pagoda roofs that sit atop the old distillery houses.
St Magdalene, being double distilled, tends to be removed from what we are now told is the classic Lowland style. Instead it has more in common with the old fashioned highlanders being sometimes mineral, grassy and austere with sharp citrus and farmy notes, and at others sweeter, fruitier and more feminine in character. At times, St. Magdalene can be all of the above and as such, beautifully complex.
Collect or drink
There were no official bottlings issued during St Magdalene’s working years and even today it is an infrequency bottled distillery. It could be seen as an interesting prospect for collectors, owing to the reputation attained by the first official releases in the Rare Malts series, and the comparably fair pricing of more recent independent offerings. Speaking personally however, I don’t agree with indefinitely holding whisky that is never consumed. It’s fine to save it for an appropriate occasion but the people who made it did so for a reason. They wanted you to drink and enjoy it.
St Magdalene 1979 19 Year Old (Rare Malts)
The 1979 Rare Malts release at 63.8%abv is now highly sought after, and a stunning example of the distillery and as such the price has risen considerably since it was issued.
St Magdalene 1982 27 Year Old (Old Malt Cask)
More readily available are the early 80’s examples with, among others, Douglas Laing, Signatory, Blackadder and Berry Bros and Rudd all offering quality casks, even if they aren’t all particularly easy whiskies.
Linlithgow 1982 26 Year Old - Wine Treated Butt
It is worth mentioning that St Magdalene is often seen bottled simply as “Linlithgow”, the reason for this may be personal choice on the part of the company in question, although some casks were stencilled with the name “Linlithgow” and bottlers often simply adhere to the cask labelling and customs information.