A Famed Scotch Distillery Returns from the Dead
Do you believe in ghosts? Scotch whisky drinkers do, because they've been haunted by them for decades, left only with the memories of shuttered, bereaved distilleries. Sometimes sad stories have happy endings, though, and one distillery is now back from the dead after being dormant for nearly four decades. Brora made its grand return on May 19, as an inaugural run of new-make whisky poured off the stills and was laid down into barrels for the first time in 38 years.
"The culmination of this project offers a real sense of achievement—it was incredible, and quite emotional as well," says Stewart Bowman, Brora's master distiller. It was perhaps particularly emotional for him, as he grew up in the town of Brora, and his father served as the distillery's last exciseman upon its closing in 1983. The mid-'80s were a low point for the modern Scotch whisky industry, a period known as the "Whisky Loch," when a confluence of overproduction, economic inflation, and changing consumer tastes led to a mass whisky-market crash and the closure of approximately 20 Scotch distilleries.
Brora first opened in 1819 as Clynelish. In 1968, a sister distillery dubbed Clynelish A—still operational today as Clynelish—was opened next door to increase production. Production briefly ceased at the original distillery, then known as Clynelish B, before starting anew under the name of Brora in 1969. Brora churned away for the next 14 years until the '80s.
Absence, though, makes the heart grow fonder, and there's now a clamor for whisky from a distillery that was once seen as expendable. Remaining Brora whisky stocks, managed by parent company Diageo, were left to mature for decades after production ceased, and have gone onto become cult classics for connoisseurs.
Key to Brora's revival, then, is that the new distillery is not an imitation of the original; it basically is the original. It uses old-school worm tub condensers, rare in the Scotch world today, as well as its preexisting set of stills to produce the same spirit that was made decades ago. "The aim is to get as close as possible to how they ran their distillation regime back in the day," Bowman says.
For fans of Brora, this historically accurate approach is the most exciting part of the distillery's return. "It's coming back in its original form, and because they kept the stills, it's really coming back online, not starting new," says Bill Thomas, the proprietor of Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., and a noted whisky collector and expert. "I think people are going to be looking at how close to the original it is. It's fun, because if you like Brora, then you have a good shot at getting more Brora."
For a time, Brora's whisky was primarily used in blends. However, the focus today is on producing single malt from the distillery, offering a chance to showcase its standout quality, what Bowman refers to as "a beautiful, intense, underlying fruity character." The distillery reopens with a production capacity of 800,000 liters per year, and can vary the amount of peated malt it uses, allowing for a variety of whiskies with smoky notes ranging from soft and sultry to a booming and bold.
There's no set date for an initial release of new Brora whisky. Based on the legal requirement to mature Scotch whisky for a minimum of three years, the earliest possible release couldn't come until mid-2024. However, the distillery did release a special limited-edition set to celebrate its reopening. The Brora Triptych is a set of three expressions, each representing a prior era of the distillery's production and the different flavors that were produced. Only 300 sets are available, priced at approximately $42,000 (£30,000). More information on the release, as well as public tours and tastings, can be found at Brora.com.
Brora isn't the only sleeping Scotch giant preparing for a triumphal return. Port Ellen—the most prized and mourned of the Scotch ghosts—is being refurbished as well. The Diageo-owned distillery on Islay was shuttered in 1983, and its planned revival was announced alongside Brora's in 2017. Its peated but nuanced whiskies have become the stuff of legend over the past decade, with sought-after bottlings in the company's annual Special Releases. The pandemic slowed down Port Ellen's restoration, however, and its rebirth is now expected to be in 2023.