Distillery Focus

A distillery seeped in history (Clynelish)

Ian Buxton travels North of Inverness to the remote distillery at Clynelish
By Ian Buxton
Clynelish’s significance in the history of Scotland might not be fully appreciated by the casual visitor. After all, everything is peaceful enough today in the small northern Highland resort of Brora – but its name is written in infamy, wreathed in myth and clouded by decades of propaganda, spin and deeply-felt emotion.I can hardly believe I’ve written that. It seems over the top for Whisky Magazine, excessive, even florid. Yet there is no doubting the significance of the events surrounding the foundation of the distillery here and their part in the history and culture of modern Scotland. Oh, and the distillery is pretty important too.A brief history lesson is called for.Clynelish lies just to the north of Brora, itself some 70 miles north of Inverness, on the coastal plain. Go back as far as the 16th century and it was prosperous and progressive. The local landowners, the Earls of Sutherland, made it their business to establish Brora as a busy, working town.The only coal mine in the Highlands was established as early as 1529. Later, a saltworks was set up and a brick works and a quarry, from where fine sandstone was used to construct London Bridge. On the Sutherland’s 500,000 acre estate (yes, that’s 0.5 million acres, not a typing error) a flourishing crofting community of tenant farmers got on with their lives – undramatic, largely unrecorded years of toil and hard labour.Until the early part of the 19th century, that is.After the Jacobite rising in 1745-46 (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that), Scotland’s Highland clans were disbanded.Formerly ruled by chiefs who treated their subjects as members of an extended family, the collapse of the Jacobite dream was followed by the destruction of a way of life.As the century progressed many of the chiefs, blown by the twin forces of politics and economics, got a taste of a more prosperous life in the Lowlands and London. It was not enough to have the wealth of land and warriors: now they needed cash to maintain themselves in style.The answer was to ‘improve’ their land by introducing large scale sheep farming. In a process of ethnic cleansing now known as the Highland Clearances, many families were brutally evicted who had resided on the property for generations.In the county of Sutherland, the daughter of the last Earl married an English nobleman, the Marquis of Stafford, owner of a substantial estate in England (afterwards the first Duke of Sutherland).In the first 20 years of the 19th century, in perhaps the most brutal of the clearances, his estate managers removed thousands of people from their ancestral homes and burnt them down, furnishings and all. Yes, here in Britain, less than 200 years ago.The miserable inhabitants, reduced to destitution, were then either shipped off to America or Australia (often with little say in the matter), or moved to miserable dwellings along the shore, to be replaced by a few shepherds. Don’t joke about visitors from the United States coming back to Scotland looking for their family graves – this was all too real and too violent a process.Donald McLeod, a Sutherland crofter, later wrote about the events he witnessed: “The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and the helpless before the fire should reach them; next, struggling to save the most valuable of their effects. The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description – it required to be seen to be believed.” Anyway, in the midst of this carnage the good Marquis, concerned no doubt for the moral welfare of his people, found time to worry about the illegal distillation of whisky. After all, as one contemporary observed, bootlegging “nursed the people in deceit and vice,” and so clearly had to be put to a stop.In 1819 therefore, a year in which in a single night 250 crofts (that is to say, homes) were burnt to the ground, he spent £750 on building a fine new distillery to provide a market for the locally grown grain.It was a model of its kind. As history records, the spent grains were used for feed for an adjacent piggery; coal from the local mines fired the stills; the pigs’ manure helped reclaim moorland to grow more barley which was malted for the distillery which, in time, prospered. The original set up was expanded in 1846 and evidently enjoyed further success.By the time Alfred Barnard, the great Victorian chronicler of distilleries visited Clynelish in 1886, he saw an impressive operation with an exceptional reputation.Though he gives over much of his account to a toadying description of the Duke’s “most princely palace” of Dunrobin Castle he describes the distillery in some detail and concludes that the whisky is “sent out duty paid to private customers all over the kingdom, and the demand for it in this way has become so great that the firm have for some years been obliged to refuse trade orders”.This is quite some accolade. Of all the distilleries in Scotland, by the late 19th century Clynelish’s reputation was so remarkable that the entire production could be sold to private individuals.Clynelish maintained its name for exceptional quality into the 20th century.Saintsbury, a connoisseur if ever one lived, and who managed his own ‘living cask’ writes lyrically of a friend who maintained his mixed Clynelish and Glenlivet “to be the best whisky he had ever drunk”. I suspect a degree of self-effacement here – there was no ‘friend’. Saintsbury is giving his own opinion, but cloaked in modesty.Aeneas MacDonald continued the lavish praise in his 1930 classic Whisky.Yet, drop by drop, Clynelish disappeared from sight. By 1925 the distillery was in the hands of the DCL. In 1931 it closed and, for most of the period until 1945, remained silent.In the 1960s more changes – electricity and internal steam heating for the stills. But this was the heyday of blends and single malts were largely unsung. Clynelish poured into the DCL blends, especially Johnnie Walker. Though bottled as a single malt quantities were strictly limited.And then the capital sentence was pronounced on this grand old lady, built in such troubled times and with such a distinguished past. It was renamed ‘Brora’ and began producing a heavily peated whisky with a completely altered character.The name of Clynelish was transferred up the hill.Though the original distillery lingered on Death Row from 1969 to 1983, it was then closed and the majority of the plant removed.You can see the mouldering corpse to this day, lying silent in the shadow of the ‘new’ Clynelish, its worm tubs slowly decaying, cobwebs lining the windows. I suppose it was simpler to close the doors and walk away, leaving the hulk and saving the expense of demolition. Perhaps they thought then that one day it might come alive. Call me poetic, but I felt the presence of ghosts as I skirted its walls.On the hillside above it, you can see today’s Clynelish. It’s a functional enough set-up, clean and efficient in a clinically anonymous way. Much of its design is shared with Caol Ila and Glen Ord, also reconstructed by Scottish Malt Distillers at about the same time.Today there’s a pleasant shop and visitor reception space for visitors and tours are available. You’ll see eight wash backs, three pairs of stills and a busy operation, producing five days a week, primarily for blending. Water is drawn, as it always was, from the Clynemilton Burn and, though three times the size of the old operation, the proprietors maintain they have kept its distinctive style.You can judge for yourself in a range of bottlings. At long last the owners, Diageo, are promoting Clynelish more seriously as a single malt. It’s joined the ‘Hidden Malts’ stable alongside, fittingly enough Glen Ord, Caol Ila and Glen Elgin, in a 14 year old expression.Independent bottlers have been more active: with some diligent research you should be able to track down bottlings from, amongst others, Gordon & MacPhail, Adelphi, Signatory, Hart Brothers, Murray McDavid (Mission series), Hart Brothers and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. This should tell you something about the reputation of this whisky.If you want to seek out the original, then Brora is offered in Diageo’s ‘Rare Malts’ selection, with three releases documented.Signatory, Chieftain’s Choice, Dun Bheagan, Douglas Laing and Gordon & MacPhail amongst the independents offer further options, but the one to seek out is probably the official bottling of the 30 year old, from Brora’s peat period. Supplies are strictly limited though, and you’ll need to find the best part of £200 on the credit card.Today Clynelish is at the heart of Johnnie Walker Gold Label: not a bad place to be, if strangely anonymous. Like the crofters before it, it finds its way to many strange shores and foreign climes, an ambassador for the best that Scotland can offer.I make no apology for dwelling so long on the history of Clynelish and the mists of blood and smoke from which it appeared. The history of Scotland and the story of whisky are inextricably intertwined, but nowhere more so than this.When, as I hope you will, you try a glass of this ‘coastal malt’ (as Diageo now style it) remember a lost nation and drink to the souls across the water. Drink to a lost generation of Scots and a time and place long gone. Mark well the words of the crofters “You have preferred sheep to men. Let sheep defend you!” Tel: +44 (0)1408 623 000
Clynelish Distillery, Brora, Sutherland