A lucky visit to a mothballed legend
When you live far away but you’re a big whisky fan like I am, planning a trip to Scotland is no easy task. The biggest ‘problem’ is the range of choice. Of Scotland’s roughly 110 distilleries, with around a third having some kind of visitor’s centre or tour, how do you go about choosing the mere handful that you realistically have time to visit? As much as I wish I could somehow spin this into a job like the late, great Iain Banks and his search for the perfect dram, when you live in Australia instead of the UK you don’t have the ability to visit numerous distilleries in a series of brief, casual weekend jaunts and instead must be very careful and selective. This results in some tough choices! Do you hit up the distilleries that produce your favourite whiskies? Or do you use the opportunity to discover those you’re not so familiar with and hope to discover a new favourite? Of course then there is the risk of being underwhelmed and possibly realising that there’s a good reason you have only tried a certain distillery’s core expression once.
On our recent trip we mixed it up and planned a combination of beloved familiar faces and those we knew but were keen to explore further. Love Glenmorangie and wouldn’t miss it. Enjoyed the Caribbean Cask but haven’t had much else from the Balvenie range, so it is definitely worth a visit. Aren’t Clynelish the one with a wildcat on their logo? Sounds good and they’re right on our driving route, so on the list it went.
“Clynelish emailed me back” I called out to my husband, some months out from our trip. “It’s closed for refurbishment so we can’t tour it, but apparently we can tour Brora instead?!” Exciting stuff. Although I didn’t really know much about Clynelish and had only been vaguely aware that there was some kind of connection between Clynelish and Brora, I had heard a little bit about Brora. It is spoken of within whisky circles in the same hushed tones as Port Ellen, has an almost a cult-like following and its whiskies sell for outrageous sums of money on the primary and secondary markets. I didn’t know too much about Clynelish/Brora beforehand but after the tour I now know a lot more.
The original distillery at this Highlands site was built in 1819. It was called “Clynelish” and operated from 1820 to 1967. In 1967 Clynelish closed its doors. A new distillery opened adjacent to the old one (just a few metres away) and was identical in structure and production but a bit more modernised. This new distillery was then named “Clynelish”. However, the old, closed distillery did not stay silent for long. In 1969 it was reopened and renamed ‘Brora’. Confused yet?
From 1969 Brora produced a heavily peated whisky for blending purposes in order to make up for a shortfall in the parent company’s portfolio, apparently as a result of Islay’s Caol Ila closing and being rebuilt from scratch. Brora was only supposed to reopen for a year or so but it continued to produce whisky, albeit on a small scale, for the locals for another 12 years. It then finally closed again in 1983, never to reopen. Because of the limited production time and amounts, there is only a small, finite quantity of Brora whisky. It is now hard to get and highly sought after as every release is very much a limited edition!
When the day of our tour finally came around, we set off driving from Tain that morning with great anticipation. An ominous grey pall hung over the Dornoch Firth as we drove past but the mood was lightened by a cute sign warning of “otters crossing”! We pressed on through the picturesque ‘blink and you’ve driven through it’ town of Golspie and along the winding roads at the slopes of Beinn Bhragaidh. “Is that a statue up there on that hill?” I wondered as I took our lives in my hands and craned my neck out of my driver’s side window, only later learning (courtesy of our Clynelish/Brora tour guide) that what I was looking at was a hundred-foot statue of George Leveson-Gower. He was the first Duke of Sutherland and was an infamous historical figure for his role in the Highland clearances, something which rather overshadowed the fact that he also had a role in founding the original Clynelish distillery. Finally, we passed the turreted, Disney-esque Dunrobin Castle (well worth a stop) and got to the town of Brora. The sharp turn-off to the distillery leads down a short single-track road. Emerging from behind a grassy bank, we could see a construction site enrobing the new Clynelish distillery to the left and, just metres away, old Brora rising from the mist to the right. We were booked on the Brora Experience Tour and therefore fortunate enough to be on a private tour with our young guide. There were apologies again for not being able to tour a working distillery due to the ongoing maintenance of Clynelish but we quickly reassured our guide that we were very excited to tour Brora instead.
First stop, the warehouse. As soon as the wooden doors are unlocked and thrown open a musty, pungent smell hits you. A chthonic combination of damp, dirt, wood and the beautiful ‘angels share’, which tickles your nostrils with with a hundred years of history. Like most distilleries, the precious cargo contained in the warehouses on-site is not the entire stock of the distillery. Clynelish and Brora whiskies are stored in many warehouses around Scotland – better to spread around the risk just in case something catastrophic happens to one location, like a fire or an explosion. In fact, there were only two remaining casks of Brora on site. Two beautiful bourbon barrels with red ends, located in pride of place right at the entry point of the warehouse. A quick rap of the knuckles on the side of one of them and the hollow noise that rang out indicated the steadily decreasing amount of liquid gold inside. Our tour guide told us that contents of just one of these casks was probably worth about one million pounds!
The tour continued into the other Brora buildings, no less imposing for their advancing decrepitude. A huge filling room, complete with an empty tun, cobwebs, cracked windows, archaic rusted tools and the original stencils used to paint the ends of the Brora casks. The still room: two tarnished copper vessels, adorned in bird poop and out of commission longer than I’ve been alive, but still breathtaking in their size and presence. Their dull metal in sharp is in contrast to the gleaming stills of, say, nearby Glenmorangie or Balblair down the road, but remains magnificent nonetheless. They haven’t been taken for repurposing or scrapped but instead remain preserved, trapped in time without a job to do.
The yards of Brora were quiet but not still. A few burly blokes loaded casks into the back of a lorry. A colony of baby rabbits compromised an embankment with their burrows and peered skittishly out at us. No wildcats were to be seen, unfortunately, except on the postcards in the visitors’ centre (proceeds of the sale of which go to the conservation of these strange-looking felines).
We went inside to one of the newer Clynelish building for a tasting. We started with some very nice Clynelish expressions but I am going to skip straight to the much anticipated highlights of the tasting, a Brora 35yo (2014 release) and a Brora 37yo (2015 release). Both bottled at cask strength. Utterly sublime. Both drams, particularly the 37yo, lived up to very high expectations. The 37yo had slight touch of peat and a soft mouthfeel, with a waxiness that complemented flavours of light caramel, vanilla and lemon curd. It was warming but not spicy, peppery nor overpowering on the palate, and lingered long after swallowing. It was a whisky that I would be thinking about for days afterwards.
We left Clynelish/Brora feeling as though we had spent the morning travelling through history. Many distilleries in Scotland still operate much as they did in the last century. It is an industry very much based on tradition, determination and patience, and where a vision for the future will not bear fruit until ten, twenty, thirty years hence. I have often felt the weight of time when visiting distilleries but nowhere did I feel at as clearly as standing in the abandoned still room of Brora just metres from its shiny, new copy in Clynelish. It is a place where an obsolete distillery produced, for all too short a time, one of the world’s great single malts. And it did it within the shadow of its own replacement, within the shadow of the future.