As the newly reopened Brora Distillery approaches its third anniversary, it presents an opportune moment to delve into the history of the original distillery and to explore a selection of its historic bottlings.
Brora, initially christened Clynelish, is distinguished as a distillery born out of the era of the Highland Clearances. Founded in 1819 by the Marquis of Stafford, who would later become the Duke of Sutherland, this distillery's inception is mired in the contentious history of the time. Alongside his wife and their estate managers, the Marquis was instrumental in executing some of the Highland's most drastic forced evictions. This movement was part of a broader economic strategy that saw 15,000 farmers from their lands alone, uprooted and either resettled along the coastlines or sent as far afield as Canada and Australia.
Those who ended up resettled at Brora were put to work in the Duke’s new business enterprises, one of which was distilling.
The distillery's early years were marked by uncertainty, changing hands several times before George Lawson assumed management in 1846. Under Lawson and his sons, the distillery flourished until 1896, when it was sold to Glasgow blender James Ainslie and his business partner, John Risk. That year, they undertook significant reconstruction of the site.
However, Ainslie's financial troubles led to bankruptcy in 1912, prompting Risk and DCL (Distillers Company Ltd) to acquire shares in the business. John Walker & Sons became involved in 1916, and by 1925, Risk was bought out, leading to DCL and Walker's merger in 1930, with DCL eventually assuming full control.
Post-WWII, the whisky world was booming, and Clynelish needed to grow. By 1967, it made more sense to build a new, bigger distillery right next door rather than trying to stretch the old one. For a brief spell, both old and new Clynelish distilleries cranked out whisky side by side. They called the new one 'Clynelish A' and the old one 'Clynelish B'. But by 1968, 'Clynelish B' was put on pause.
Then, in 1969, the old distillery got a second wind to whip up heavily peated whisky, aiming for an Islay vibe, mainly for blending. To avoid confusion (thanks to a nudge from the Scotch Whisky Association), the old distillery got a name refresh to Brora in 1975. The distillery continued to operate until 1983.
In October 2017, Diageo revealed intentions to revive the Brora distillery, culminating in its reopening in May 2021.
Following that journey through history, it seems fitting to sample a few drams...
SMWS 61.8 (Brora)
Distilled in March 1981, the whisky for this release was aged in what is believed to be a refill bourbon cask until its bottling in February 1999 at 17 years of age. A total of 290 bottles were released.
The nose opens with wet grass, candle wax, light peat smoke akin to a log fire that’s been recently extinguished. There’s a touch of old bottle funk that we expect to dissipate on time. We’re also finding some candied lemon peel, wet pebbles, a touch of orange and richer malt as you spend more time with the nose.
The palate opens with a honeyed mouthfeel, light phenolic smoke and some light peppery spice that tingles the tongue. The alcohol integration is very good, and the finish keeps on going, giving mandarin oranges, digestive biscuits, hay bales and some mineral, wet pebble flavours. There’s also some salinity appearing, alongside creamy vanilla and toffee notes on the latter palate.
We would normally add water, but there’s such a limited amount of this liquid left, we don’t want to risk ruining it. It’s great as it is. It’s a bit of a dirtier peat with some lovely refill bourbon wood flavours to complement that.
SMWS 61.18 (Brora)
Distilled in March 1982, the whisky for this release was again aged in what is believed to be a refill bourbon cask until its bottling in November 2003 at 21 years of age.
The nose opens with much more caramel than the 61.8, the bourbon wood giving considerable influence to the spirit. There’s also some butter biscuits, minerally smoke, musty sheds, engine oil and orange zest. Again, the higher alcohol percentage is very well integrated into the nose.
The palate has a creamy, milky mouthfeel, moving into upfront caramel and toffee, ginger spice and finishing with lighter earthy peat notes. The finish does stick around for a while, albeit a touch hot, with marshmallows, sea salt and shortbread. We’re also finding melon and honey as we go back for another sip.
The cask has overtaken some of the powerful Brora spirit, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but the punchy smoke and thick malty notes are a bit lost here. It’s also the slightest bit hotter than we expected, but it’s still an absolutely delicious dram.
SMWS 61.12 (Brora)
Distilled in February 1977, this whisky, similar to the others featured today, was matured in what is presumed to be a refill bourbon cask, until it was bottled in October 2002 at the age of 25 years.
The nose opens with a medicinal peat smoke, bandages, iodine, alongside more of a herbal note, hay and farmyard funkiness. There’s some apple here, more of a green baking apple before it’s been stewed down for an apple pie. Definitely coastal, with some flakes of maldon sea salt and tarry ropes.
The palate opens with a mixture of creamy vanilla custard, zesty orange and lemon moving into mocha coffee, meringue, all backed up by dirty, earthy smoke. It’s oilier than the other two, with a great mouthfeel and a long finish comprising of slightly sweetened oatcakes, menthol and pink peppercorns. We’re also finding some salted caramel and some butter pastries as we go back to it. Delicious.
This combines the best of both the other two drams, the punchy malty smoke of the 61.8, with the sweeter, cask led flavours of the 61.18. It’s a pleasure to be able to try these historical drams and we can only hope that the same quality of spirit will be coming out of the newly opened Brora.
- 10 - Perfection. One in a million
- 9 - Outstanding. Exceptional whisky.
- 8 - Great. Would seek this out.
- 7 - Good. Quality whisky.
- 6 - Above average. Happy to have a dram.
- 5 - Average. Drinkable whisky.
- 4 - Below average. Passable.
- 3 - Flawed. Noticeable negatives.
- 2 - Defective. Significant faults.
- 1 - Offensive. Pour it out.