Few things in the whisky world command one’s imagination quite like a ghost distillery, a term commonly given to those shut down by whisky producers during the spirit’s slump in the 1980s and 1990s. Although closed, barrels of the good stuff remained and slowly dwindled from being used in special bottlings or blends.
As their production never restarted, many of these whiskies became highly coveted, fetching record prices from collectors. The distilleries themselves are legendary and beckon the question: can they and their flavours be replicated?
That’s a positive “yes” for two of them. Spirits giant Diageo has finally done the unthinkable and reopened Scottish Highlands ghost distillery Brora. Built in 1819 with the name Clynelish, it changed its name to its current moniker in 1967. And while it may have closed, Brora was anything but forgotten. A bottle of its 1972 Limited Edition 40 Year Old hammered for £54,450 (S$102,181) in 2019.
In 2017, Diageo announced a £35 million investment to restore both Brora and Port Ellen, another Islay ghost distillery.
And what a restoration it has been. To recreate the whisky, a highly variable product that’s as much art as it is science, distillers, archivists, blenders and whisky noses worked extensively to replicate not just the building and the equipment, but also how the latter was operated.
Diageo archivist Joanne McKerchar shares: “When we first opened the doors at Brora, it was as if we had walked into a time capsule. I’d never seen anything like it before. It was unbelievable just how untouched it was. It felt like the guys had just finished their shift and walked out.”
Untouched for 38 years, the Victorian-era distillery’s wear and tear had to be fixed. Refurbishments included rebuilding the still house with the original Brora stone and repairing the original pair of Brora stills. The distillery will also use a traditional rake and gear mash tun and malted barley from Glen Ord maltings, just like it did in 1983.
If all this isn’t proof of living history, Brora’s master distiller Stewart Bowman – who is closely involved with its opening – is the son of the distillery’s last exciseman in 1983. The Peak speaks to him about the making of Scotch whisky history.
What was the most challenging part in getting Brora going again?
The entire process of restoring it was an honour for me. While I wouldn’t say it was hard, a special part of the restoration was the original pair of copper stills that are the heart of Brora’s operation. They travelled 322km across Scotland to be refurbished by hand by Diageo’s Abercrombie Coppersmiths in Alloa.
What are the goals for the revival of the distillery?
We want to use all of our skills and knowledge to create fermentation, distillation and maturation regimes that produce whisky matching the character and quality of the illustrious Brora predecessors.
Its copper pot stills are still in existence, thanks to the careful work of the coppersmiths at Abercrombie. The Diageo Archive holds comprehensive and historic information on the previous distillation regimes of Brora that we are using to guide work in the new distillery.
The past inspires us but we also recognise that technology has moved on, so we will use innovation where appropriate to ensure we have the most energy- efficient and consistent quality possible while honouring the artistry of age-old craftsmanship that goes back two centuries.
That said, we acknowledge that we may need to wait over a decade before we can see how close the new whiskies are to the ones sitting today in our warehouses. That is part of the joyful experience of making Scotch whisky.
What expressions can we expect to see in the future?
It will be several years before Brora will release these stocks. We have not committed to a date. However, we have filled the first casks and our master blenders will carefully tend to them for several years as we eagerly await the first tastings of the new spirit. Currently, the focus is to produce single malt Scotch whisky. Others will be down to time and tasting.