Approaching the entrance to Clynelish Distillery, visitors are greeted by a life-size figure of the Johnnie Walker ‘Striding Man.’ Wearing a textured, honey-coloured jacket, top hat and riding boots, he is intended to represent the waxy and honey-rich character of Clynelish single malt. But the man is not alone. Close by is a life-size model of a Scottish wildcat, linking the distillery and its whisky to the Sutherland clan, whose emblem is a wildcat, and who were actually responsible for creating Clynelish Distillery.
Clynelish was established in 1819 by the 2nd Marquess of Stafford, who married Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, ultimately becoming
Duke of Sutherland in 1833. The distillery was built principally to provide an outlet for grain grown by tenants on the Sutherland estate.
It stands just over a mile to the north of the coastal village of Brora, some 60 miles north-east of Inverness, and close to the busy A9 road which carries traffic from Inverness on the heavily promoted ‘North Coast 500’ route.
But this really is a tale of two distilleries, as the original Clynelish site was ultimately renamed Brora, with the present ‘sister’ Clynelish Distillery being constructed almost a century and a half after the original in 1967.
If the impetus behind the creation of the first Clynelish was a need to process locally grown barley, the motivation for the creation of its new and much larger neighbour was the post-Second World War boom in Scotch whisky. By the 1960s, demand – especially from the US – was in danger of far outstripping supply, and the result was an industry-wide programme of distillery expansion, reconstruction and new-build ventures.
By this time, Clynelish had long been owned by the Distillers Company Limited (DCL), which proceeded to grow capacity across much of its distilling estate, often incorporating the distinctive glass-fronted stillhouses that are a trademark of this period and are to be seen at distilleries such as Aberfeldy, Craigellachie, Glen Ord, Royal Brackla and Caol Ila.
‘New’ Clynelish was constructed in just such a style, with its modern lines and six stills contrasting with its stone-built, pagoda-capped neighbour, equipped with a single pair of stills. The new distillery was named Clynelish A, while the old plant was designated Clynelish B. The latter was mothballed in August 1968, but revived under the Brora name the following year, operating until its closure in 1983. (As readers of issue 178 of Whisky Magazine will be aware, the Brora story ultimately has a happy ending.)
Inevitably, the single malt from ‘new’ Clynelish was destined principally for the blending vats. This is still the case, though under the present Diageo regime, a 14-year-old expression was released in 2002, and subsequent variants have followed. Today, Clynelish is being marketed as ‘The Highland Home of Johnnie Walker’ in its recently acquired role as one of Diageo's ‘Four Corners of Scotland,’ along with Glenkinchie Distillery near Edinburgh, Cardhu in Speyside, and the work-in-progress Caol Ila on Islay.
As Ewan Gunn, senior global brand ambassador, explains, “This is now a multi-sensory experience, where previously it was a straightforward distillery tour and tasting. We’re now into flavours and how to appreciate the whisky, including chocolate pairing and a cocktail list. It’s good for people who don’t already know and love whisky, as well as those who do. Future tour options will include more expressions to try, and more detail for those who want it.”
The current ‘Clynelish Flavour Journey’ tour lasts around 90 minutes and starts in the production area, where the guide sets the scene by explaining the various pre-fermentation processes at a ‘station’ located close to the mash tun. Explanations are accompanied by visual aids such as samples of growing and germinating barley, a miniature malt kiln and a miniature mill, all leading up to the mashing stage.
Successive processes of whisky making are explored beside the eight Oregon pine washbacks, which were augmented in 2016/17 by two stainless steel vessels to increase distillery capacity to 4.8 million litres per year, and within heat-range of the six stills. Fermentations are lengthy, and, most unusually, the spirit stills are larger than the wash stills. The former are short and wide, and are run slowly, allowing time to rest between distillations to rejuvenate the copper.
Clynelish is invaluable to Diageo as it is the company’s only site producing spirit that is classified as ‘waxy' (honey and tropical fruits are also characteristics of the single malt). According to Gunn, “Clynelish is essential for our blenders as no other Diageo distillery can give that,” and in particular the whisky is an important component in Johnnie Walker Gold Label, where the waxiness is a vital part of the mouthfeel.
So just how is ‘waxy’ spirit achieved at Clynelish? Gunn describes it as a “trade secret,” and complete scientific understanding of the process was only achieved during the early 1990s. Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge OBE observes, “Clynelish
has a much-prized waxy quality that long defied understanding. Various theories on the source of the waxy smoothness emerged, with some believing it was brought out by the water from the Clynemilton Burn, which was used for distilling.”
However, analysis revealed that the principal cause of Clynelish's waxy character is the way the distillates are collected. Unlike most distilleries, which have one combined vessel for low wines and feints and foreshots, Clynelish has a separate low wines receiver as well as a foreshots and feints tank.
The low wines from the wash still are pumped into the low wines receiver, and from there into the spirit still via the spirit still charger. The foreshots and feints from the spirit still are collected in a tank and then briefly added into the low wines in the spirit still charger.
Because of the comparatively long time the liquid sits in both the low wines receiver and the feints and foreshots tank prior to being mixed
to create the spirit still charge, a build-up of waxiness occurs. The wash distillation is similar in technique to that required to make ‘fruity’ spirit character, but the use of the intermediate tanks ensures the low wines develop waxiness as a result of the spirit still distillation.
From the production area, the distillery tour moves into a room hidden behind a door masquerading as a bookcase. This is where the interactive part of the tour really begins. It encompasses the story of the distillery itself and the history of the surrounding area, which are told in an innovative and immersive way, courtesy of a skilled guide with a sense of theatre and some clever technology from BRC, the brand design and production company behind all the ‘Four Corners’ visitor experiences.
A new bar and tasting area have been created in a first-floor extension built onto the front of the distillery, giving visitors the opportunity to enjoy great views towards the sea while sampling the three drams provided as part of the tour. On offer are the core 14-year-old (half American and half European oak cask-matured), a distillery-exclusive Bourbon barrel-matured NAS bottling and Johnnie Walker Gold Label – with the mouthfeel influenced by its Clynelish component.
Clynelish malt whisky first appeared in the Johnnie Walker inventory book in 1904, and throughout the tour, the links between the distillery and the world’s best-selling blend are emphasised, as at Glenkinchie and Cardhu.
Beyond the three sample drams, visitors may wish to continue enjoying the view and purchase whisky from the fine range available, or have the barman make them a whisky cocktail and opt for one of the food platters on offer.
Downstairs once more, the distillery shop is a bright, airy and warmly welcoming space, with a range of branded items and other gifts on show. An array of Johnnie Walker blends is joined by bottles of 16-year-old Glenkinchie and Cardhu ‘Four Corners’ single malts, only available at the participating distilleries and via www.malts.com, and warmly recommended.
Alongside these, of course, is the excellent Clynelish ‘Four Corners’ expression, the distillery-exclusive bottling included in the sampling session, and a bottle-your-own option. Other expressions of Clynelish include a Distillers’ Edition variant, which has undergone a period of secondary maturation in oloroso sherry casks, Clynelish Reserve House Tyrell Game of Thrones Limited Edition, and a Clynelish 1993 expression from Diageo’s highly prestigious Prima & Ultima collection.
The extremely limited edition 26-year-old Prima & Ultima variant, which has been matured in refill American oak casks, is considered to
be Clynelish at its very peak and is suitably exclusive and elusive. Whether or not your budget stretches to a 1993 vintage version, Clynelish is a very fine single malt, deserving of greater attention, and Diageo’s northernmost distillery is now more worthy of a visit than ever.