Over the last few decades whisky has prospered. This is especially true of single malt, which has transformed from a virtually unknown category into the Scotch industry’s golden goose. Ironically, certain popular malt whisky brands, now well-known and integral parts of whisky’s fabric, are also a reminder of darker times. Port Ellen and Brora are first and foremost. The likes of St Magdalene, Convalmore, Banff, and Glen Mhor are slightly lesser known, but still highly regarded. Even Benromach and Knockdhu, generally not mentioned because they have since reopened, were part of a momentous historic occasion four decades ago – one that reverberated across the whisky industry.
Trouble had been brewing for several years: the rise of oil prices, a global economic downturn, and a generation turning away from brown spirits. The response from the industry wasn’t swift enough. Production initially continued while sales dwindled, until things came to a grinding halt. It was 17 February 1983, and the headline on the front page of the Aberdeen Press and Journal read: “Scotch on rocks!” The newspaper reported on the latest body blow dealt to an “already crippled” Scotch whisky industry: Distillers Company Ltd (DCL, now Diageo) had decided to axe 530 jobs in Scotland. It had also shut down 11 malt distilleries and one grain distillery, Carsebridge.
These weren’t the first distilleries lost during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s, and they wouldn’t be the last, either (Rosebank, for example, closed a decade later), but DCL’s course correction was the most substantial and noteworthy signal of an ailing industry.
The closures impacted their communities hugely, but not many whisky drinkers would have been too distressed at first. Nobody was drinking Port Ellen or Brora, but rather Johnnie Walker or White Horse, and with Caol Ila and Lagavulin still producing, those blended whisky brands weren’t in danger of becoming unavailable any time soon. It wasn’t until later that people would take notice of the silent distilleries’ legacies and the whiskies they had left behind.
Sukhinder Singh, co-founder of The Whisky Exchange and a long-time collector of whisky, realised early on that some of the lost distilleries had been producing beautiful whisky. But at first, he never considered that those whiskies from Dallas Dhu, Port Ellen, or St Magdalene may be finite. In the late 1980s, bottles of these whiskies were simply around, and you could readily buy them; it didn’t feel like they might someday disappear. “They were just in front of me,” Singh says. It was not until later, when his store sold out of Kinclaith and he couldn’t re-up his order at Gordon & MacPhail, that a switch flipped. “[These whiskies] were suddenly sold at auctions for a manifold. I woke up and realised that lost distilleries are exactly what they mean, and that stock will disappear.”
Initially amassing what was believed to be the largest collection of single malt miniatures, Singh then graduated to full-size bottles. His original goal was to collect one special bottle from every Scotch whisky distillery.
Coincidentally, Singh’s first-ever purchase was a bottle of Kirkliston Pure Malt, a silent distillery near Edinburgh that closed in 1920. Years later he started targeting Port Ellen specifically – an easy decision for Singh, who had always felt a special fondness for Islay, where he’s currently building his own distillery, Portintruan. At the time, Gordon & MacPhail didn’t have much Port Ellen, and neither did Signatory Vintage. Douglas Laing was just starting to release some. “I decided to collect every Port Ellen I could get my hands on,” he explains. “What I didn’t know then was that Diageo was sitting on a sizeable number of casks. Today I have 995 bottles of Port Ellen.” Singh believes not every silent distillery is an automatic target for collectors or whisky drinkers. For him, the foremost requirement is the quality of the liquid. “Brora is not just selling for high prices because it’s a lost distillery, but because it is a nice whisky. Port Ellen, similarly.”
Bottlings from silent distilleries brought a genuine rarity to the market. Scarcity and collectability weren’t fully understood before the turn of the 21st century. As a category, single malt was still in its infancy and sales were only a few per cent of the global whisky market. But now, here was something truly rare and unique.
“It was quite transformational in the way people thought about collectability,” says Nicholas Morgan, an author, whisky scholar, and industry veteran. As former global marketing director for malts at Diageo, he was closely involved with the company’s Rare Malts Selection and its successor, the Special Releases programme, which is still released annually.
First launched in 1995, the Rare Malts included some of Diageo’s finest stock. Closed distilleries made up a big chunk of the bottlings: Glenury Royal, Millburn, Rosebank, Port Ellen, Glenlochy, Glen Mhor, and many others. “I think it added a critical, and until then missing element in the collectability of single malts,” Morgan says of the Rare Malts Selection. “To my mind, the bottlings of these closed distilleries, which other companies started doing as well, I think that really changed or was the stimulus for consumers thinking about collecting, and it was a stimulus for the secondary market… It brought in speculators too, for better or worse.” When the Special Releases were introduced in 2001, Diageo-owned distilleries with shops initially received generous allocations.
After a few years, it was discovered that one person was going around distilleries buying a case each of Port Ellen and Brora. Morgan says, “We never quite figured out who he was, but we changed our policy and you could then buy two bottles at most. It had been going on for two or three years and God knows where that whisky is now.”
Stephen Rankin, director of prestige at Gordon & MacPhail, grew up very much aware of silent distilleries – not necessarily because of his family’s company, but because he passed Glen Mhor and Glen Albyn every day on his way to primary school. Whenever he’d go into Inverness to shop, go to the football, or see friends, he would invariably go by those distilleries. He would later encounter those producers’ legacies in his family’s warehouses.
Gordon & MacPhail has longstanding relationships with many distilleries – according to Rankin, there are examples of distilleries that may have closed (earlier) if it wasn’t for Gordon & MacPhail buying their spirit. They were filling anti-cycle, so when the industry was booming, Gordon & MacPhail didn’t have the pressure of taking fillings from distilleries. It also meant the company was in a unique position to assist when times were rough. “The principle is always supporting each other at the right time. We gave them our casks, paid for the spirit, and stored a lot of our whisky at distilleries, paying rental for that. So, they’re saving on one side and have income from another two elements,” Rankin explains.
Up until Gordon & MacPhail’s 125th anniversary a few years ago, it had 26 distilleries in its portfolio that were either lost distilleries or lost distillations, such as Glencraig or Mosstowie. While Gordon & MacPhail recently announced its intention to stop replenishing its stock, the independent bottler is still sitting on decades’ worth of casks, including many from silent distilleries. Just a few months ago it launched The Recollection Series 2, totalling 18 whiskies from 15 closed distilleries. Rankin conveys a sense of responsibility to do right by these single malts and the people that made them, to ensure their reputation is not tarnished and to keep silent distilleries alive. “Closed distilleries just add more layers and textures to the category of single malt,” he says, likening them to antiques. “It’s like experiencing what it’s like to drive an old classic car, such as a Rolls-Royce, BMW, Bentley, or Jaguar. It’s an interesting space where it is about scarcity: ‘If I don’t drink it today, chances are I might not be able to taste it again, because it will be finished.’ That’s an added level of intrigue.”
By its very nature, the inventory of whiskies from silent distilleries must be down to very low levels. Rankin has this “funny feeling” that the very last Coleburn was already bottled a few years ago by Gordon & MacPhail, and there are other lost distilleries that haven’t appeared newly on the market some time. Four decades since DCL shocked the whisky industry, stocks are inevitably drying up. Meanwhile, distilleries such as Brora, Port Ellen, and Rosebank have reopened (or will very soon). There might come a point where they will no longer be thought of as silent distilleries, as has already happened to Knockdhu and Benromach. Originally shuttered in 1983, both were revived (by International Beverage and Gordon & MacPhail respectively) and now it almost seems as if they were never closed. “But I don’t think lost distilleries ever disappear from the public’s consciousness,” says Singh. “They will be part of the future. Especially the ones that are delicious, yes.” Even if a point comes when no new releases appear, Singh believes bottlings from silent distilleries will keep showing up at auctions. “People will seek them out and the good ones will do well. They will always have a special place.”