Distillery Spotlight: Brora Distillery
Region: Sutherland, Highlands, Scotland
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
The 80’s wasn’t just a bad decade for the global economy. It was also a bad decade for Scotch. After a misguided sense of over-optimism that caused an overproduction in the 70’s, the Scotch industry found itself sitting on an immense amount of inventory that outstripped demand. This resulted in the closure of many Scotch distilleries, including Brora Distillery.
Fortune is a fickle friend. Several decades later, interest in smokey whiskies and rare “ghost” distilleries rekindled. Brora would make a comeback amongst whisky devotees and become known as a cult single malt.
What’s immediately unusual about Brora can be seen from its label. Examine the original bottles released by Brora Distillery and Clynelish Distillery, you would notice a number of uncanny similarities on their label.
Both bottles feature the identical trade mark of a hissing European wildcat. Both bottles were distilled and bottled in the region of Sutherland in Scotland. Both claim to have been established in 1819.
These are not mere coincidences of course- we’ll get back to this.
A posthumous claim to fame
The fate of Brora Distillery closely mirrors that of Port Ellen, which was also closed in 1983, and achieved cult status a decade after (you can read all about Port Ellen Distillery here). If posthumously-celebrated painters like Van Gogh or Johannes Vermeer were still alive, they may relate to the stories of Brora and Port Ellen.
Brora never received very special attention when it was active. It was never even officially bottled as a single malt by Diageo during its years of operation. But 12 years after Brora was mothballed, Diageo began releasing well-matured Brora expressions starting with the Rare Malts Selection in 1995 and as part of its annual Special Releases starting from 2002.
And just around the turn of the millennium, whisky drinking began to pick up again. The discerning drinker of the 21st century began to look for more obscure single malts rather than the usual household names. There is also much greater interest in the elusive and scarce nature closed distilleries that would never produce the same malt ever again.
These bottles proved to be of very good quality. On the back of Diageo’s special releases and its annual Special Releases, Brora bottlings were discovered by modern whisky lovers, and became a highly sought after distillery with a cult following.
Did Diageo expect Brora’s single malts to be so well received? Probably not. When Brora debuted as part of Diageo’s annual Special Releases in 2002, one could have purchased it at a retail price of about £150 (US$210).
A muddled history and the Ship of Theseus Paradox
Brora’s very early history is mired in naming confusion and controversy. The distillery was originally named Clynelish Distillery and founded way back in 1819 by George Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland. He was an English politician, diplomat, and such a large landowner that was at one point the wealthiest man in England.
The Duke leaves a controversial legacy in Scottish history for his role in ordering for the “Highland Clearances”. This was a campaign to evict over tens of thousands of farmers living in the Sutherland region between 1811 and 1820.
It started when the Duke and his wife were convinced by economic theories of the day that subsistence farming in Sutherland could not be sustained in the long term, and that the Duke’s estate could extract much higher rents by converting the land into extensive fields to serve as sheep farms.
This caused mass migrations of 15,000 farmers in the Scottish Highlands to the Scottish Lowlands (where factory work could be found), Canada, the United States, and Australia. Those who were allowed to remain on the Duke’s land were were put to work in the Duke’s businesses, which included our distillery here.
The distillery passed through the hands of several families before the The Distillers Company Ltd - or DCL (the predecessor of Diageo)- took full ownership of it in 1930. Through the early to mid 1900s, Brora Distillery, like many others, served the demand for popular Scotch blends.
Due to the distillery’s smaller capacity, in 1967, its owners decided to build a new and much larger distillery right beside it to expand whisky production capacity. The new distillery was confusingly named Clynelish 2 (while the old was known as Clynelish 1).
Finally, the original Clynelish 1 suffered the humiliation being re-named Brora Distillery in 1975 to comply with a law requiring distilleries to have non-identical names. The newer Clynelish 2 distillery was then framed to succeed the older distillery, and to inherit its mantle and goodwill. This explains why Clynelish and Brora expressions of today both use the same wildcat logo, and claim to have been established in the same year of 1819.
Now that Clynelish and Brora are different distilleries, which one was the distillery established in 1819? That’s a puzzle that would rival the Ship of Theseus Paradox. No one knows the answer.
The Brora character - a lightly peated Highland style with surprising waxiness
The basic distillery character can be described as a “lightly peated Highland style”- with a rich orchard fruit character with apples, mangoes and lemon, some earthiness, minerality, light smokiness and Brora’s classic viscosity described as a “waxy” texture.
There isn’t much in the public record on the distillation philosophy and methods used by Brora Distillery. However, one could refer to the methods of its sister distillery. The modern Clynelish, like Brora, is known for a fruity character and waxy texture. It is highly likely that its methods were influenced by the old Brora’s philosophy.
Long fermentation periods for a fruitier spirit
Brora Distillery is likely to have implemented a long fermentation period, just as Clynelish Distillery reportedly does.
Fermentation is a process by which yeast converts sugars in the wort into alcohol. The length of fermentation time greatly affects the final taste. Shorter fermentation (ie below 50 hours) tends to create more alcohol and cereal taste. Longer fermentation (i.e. over 60 hours) tends to result in less alcohol, but more complex and a sweeter tasting spirit.
While most scotch distilleries implement fermentation of about 48 to 55 hours, Clynelish’s typical fermentation time is much longer at 80 hours. This is said to enable a controlled growth of lactic acid bacteria which produces more esters, thus creating a bright, sweet and fruity flavour.
Heavier compounds for a waxier texture
Clynelish also has a number of unusual practices- most likely inherited from Brora- to retain thicker compounds in the spirit during the distillation process.
Wash backs being cleaned at Glenturret Distillery (Image Source: Undiscovered Scotland)
The first practice is related to fermentation. Fermentation occurs in large wooden vats known as “wash backs”. While most whisky distilleries intensively clean their wash backs every single week to remove post-fermentation residue, Clynelish cleans its wash backs only once every three weeks with steam to kill bad bacteria. This is deliberately done to allow a controlled buildup of more lactic acid bacteria and other heavier compounds that would give rise to a more viscous texture in the spirit.
The second practice comes in at the distillation stage. During the distillation process, the distilled spirit collected from the heated stills is further separated by a valve into three “cuts”: (1) the foreshots, (2) the heart, and (3) the feints. The first and final cuts (foreshots and feints) have to be collected for re-distillation in metal containers known as a “foreshot receivers” and “feints receivers”.
Once again, Clynelish does the opposite of what the Scotch industry does. While other distilleries clean their foreshots and feints receivers more thoroughly, Clynelish allows for the build-up of natural oils within the receivers. These natural oils are then re-distilled and find their way into the spirit, making the spirit oilier and waxier in texture.
Exceptions to the rule and the occasional heavily peated whisky
Yet our attempt to pin down Brora’s classic flavour profile could be somewhat playing into the parable of six blind men attempting to describe an elephant. You would recall that for most of its modern history, Brora produced whisky to serve the needs of popular Scotch blends.
This meant that in its time, Brora had to produce whisky of varying styles to meet the requirements of blends. For instance, when Caol Ila Distillery (an Islay distillery that produced peated whisky) had to be rebuilt between 1972 and 1974, DCL (the predecessor of Diageo) ordered for Brora to switch to producing heavily peated whisky during this period.
Even after that period, Brora had to occasionally produce heavily peated whisky when DCL’s Islay distilleries were disabled by long droughts in the Islay region.
The Brora Triptych, a 2021 special release with 3 Brora expressions demonstrates the varying style of Brora through its years.
The Timeless Original expression is around 38 years old and was distilled in 1982. This expression is sweet, fruity and waxy, with barely any peat- a nod to the waxy character that made Brora famous.
The Age of Peat expression is around 43 years old and was distilled in 1977. This was when Brora was making heavily peated expressions to meet requirements by Scotch blenders.
Finally, the Elusive Legacy expression is a 48 year old distilled in 1972. This expression is much more earthy, spicy with an almost savoury note.
The closure of Brora
At present, the only existing bottles of Brora single malt in the world today would have been produced during the very brief window between 1969 and 1983.
In the 70’s the Scotch whisky industry threw itself into a period of overconfidence and massive over-production. Then, in the 1980s, the industry met with its comeuppance in the form of the so-called “whisky loch” crisis where supplies of whisky vastly outstripped demand.
For financial prudence, DCL had to cut its production. In 1983, it mothballed Brora Distillery.
This closure was subsequently seen as a huge shame after the reputation of Brora’s single malts shot up since the first release in the mid-90’s. For over a decade, rumours circulated around the industry about the possibility of Diageo’s reopening Brora Distillery, but they turned out to be no more than a whisky lover’s fantasy.
Brora’s revival in 2021
But wait- the story doesn’t end here!
In October 2017, Diageo finally answered the prayers of Brora’s fans. It revealed plans to reopen both Brora and Port Ellen distilleries.
(Image Source: Diageo)
In 2021, the Brora Distillery was reopened after meticulous restoration for over three years. In May of the same year, the first batch of whisky was distilled in 38 years.
The reopening was overseen by newly-appointed Master Distiller Stewart Bowman. Stewart Bowman himself is son of Geoff Bowman, an old hand of Brora Distillery when it was still operational in the 70’s. In what seemed more like a ceremony than routine operation, Stewart himself oversaw the filling of the first cask of Brora single malt since the distillery closed its doors, and rolled it into Warehouse Number One where other casks of old Brora single malt are kept.
The revived Brora Distillery 2.0 will produce around 800,000 litres of alcohol a year and aims to be carbon neutral, entirely powered by renewable energy.
Recreating Brora’s classic character
Refurbishing Brora is comparatively easier than refurbishing other famous ghost distilleries such as Port Ellen and Rosebank. Because Brora was mothballed and not simply demolished, most of the equipment including the original copper stills are still around.
Bowman recounted the magic of how untouched the mothballed distillery was when its gates were reopened in 2018:
“When we first opened the doors at Brora we walked into a time capsule. As a historian and an archivist for malts, I had never seen anything like that before. It was unbelievable just how untouched it was: as if the guys had just finished their shift and walked out – but, of course, nobody then came back in.”
Bowman and his Diageo team took pains to completely refurbish the place to the exact conditions of the old Brora right down to using traditional rake and gear mash tuns, hiring professional coppersmiths to revamp the original Brora stills, and raising the Victorian-era pagoda roof that had collapsed. As Bowman said:
“We have gone to every effort to replicate, as closely as possible, the conditions, equipment and processes from Brora in 1983 in order to recreate the spirit for which the distillery is famous. The original pair of Brora stills travelled 200 miles across Scotland to Diageo Abercrombie Coppersmiths in Alloa where they were refurbished by hand; we raised up the original pagoda roof to conduct intricate repairs, and rebuilt the stillhouse brick-by-brick using original Brora stone to restore this historic Victorian distillery.”
But of course, bricks, mortar and steel are not enough to replicate the classic Brora profile. According to Brora’s master blender Dr Jim Beveridge OBE, they had to reverse-engineer and build a picture of Brora’s character by sampling Diageo’s “liquid archive” of old bottles of Brora and referring to historic tasting notes. Bowman also added that they referred to Diageo’s documentary archives of historic information on the previous distillation regimes of Brora for guidance in the new distillery.
When will we get to drink the new Brora Single Malt?
The essential aspect of whisky is of course its maturation. Although Brora is now an active distillery, it will take quite some time before the new Brora single malt would be bottled. Bowman says that it would be “several years before Brora will release these stocks,” and that they have not yet committed to a date.
In another interview, Bowman elaborated that they may need to “wait over a decade before we can see how close the new whiskies are to the ones sitting in [their] warehouses today”.
From the likes of it, it appears that there would not be new supply of Brora single malt in the market for the next 8 to 10 years.
The cynic in me would fixate on how extremely lucrative Brora’s revival would be for Diageo. Distillery tours are also open to the public, yet costing a pricey £300 to £600. The Brora Triptych set released to commemorate the re-opening of Brora Distillery retails for an eyebrow-raising £30,000- and they’re only 500 ml bottles.
A lot has changed in the whisky world since 1983. Now that Scotch whisky is once again booming, the resurrection of cult ghost distilleries like Brora and Port Ellen is almost predictable.
How would the expressions distilled at the new Brora 2.0 taste? Probably not the exact same as bottles from the old Brora. It may be possible to recreate buildings, copper stills and equipment. However, it would be impossible to revive the whisky-making philosophy of the old Brora staff: the master blender, maltmen, mashmen and stillmen.
It would be unfair to expect expressions distilled at the new Brora Distillery to taste exactly the same as the old Brora that was made in the 70's. So much has changed, including the species of barley available and perhaps even the strain of yeast for fermentation. What is realistic to hope for is for the new Brora’s expressions demonstrate many of the signature elements of the old Brora, including its texture and mild smokiness. And with modern equipment and science available to the new Brora 2.0's team, dare I say that that the new Brora could be even better than the old one 😉
Our favourites are:
- Brora 29 Year Old 1972, Rare Malts Selection
- Brora 30 Year Old 9th Release, Diageo Special Releases 2010
- Brora Batch 2, That Boutique-y Whisky Company