Brora. Just uttering that single word is capable of sending shivers down the spine of most rare whisky fans. Established in 1819, Clynelish Distillery was originally created to utilise excess barley from local farmers, most of whom had been evicted from their land during the notorious Highland Clearances by the Marquis of Stafford. Such is his infamy, his statue, the ‘Mannie’ placed atop a local Sutherland hill, Ben Bhraggie, still gets vandalised to this day. (I was told locally that someone once strapped a World War Two hand grenade to it.)
The name Brora, from both the town and a distillery perspective, is very dear to me on a personal level, not least because my little boy learned to swim in the pool at the Royal Marine Hotel in Brora. While living nearby, I remember taking friends and customers to Clynelish, then having a nosy round the old Brora site. I often wondered if, one day, the pigeon poo–covered stills would ever see the life of steam again.
I remember catching up with Nick Morgan, formerly Diageo’s single malts global marketing director and, latterly, head of whisky outreach, many years ago and asking if he thought Brora would ever open again. His response was the classic adage “never say never” (for Nick is too wise to say “never-ever”), but he admitted that it was unlikely. And yet, here we are – Brora is back.
A view of Brora and its restored pagoda roof
Who knew that on Tuesday 8 June 2021, I’d be looking at freshly lacquered stills and sharing a dram with a bunch of passionate people who have breathed life into Brora Distillery once more. So, rather than tell Brora’s story solely in my own words, I thought I’d have a catch-up with some of the key people involved in the project, try some of the whisky and talk a little about collecting Brora – even the thorny topic of investment values.
Just walking through the gates of this ‘new-old’ distillery was fascinating; the Highland wildcat emblem parted and the heavy, black wrought-iron gates granted access. As I walked down the drive, with the old excise office (now a kitchen) in front of me and the warehouses on the right, I realised what a painstaking task it must have been to repair, renovate, renew and re-create the old distillery to this degree. This isn’t a skunk-works or a new ‘innovative’, differentiated, modern distillery: it’s old Brora. It was actually very emotional returning to the site and seeing it almost as it would have been more than 200 years ago.
For those who’ve been to Brora and are familiar with the old floorplan, some of the space has changed. There’s a dining room now where guests on tour can be fed and watered (Dornoch Links did the catering during my visit and knocked it out of the park in terms of quality), and there’s a lounge with an open fire too. We were there on a rare day when the weather in Sutherland was not sideways rain and 12C, so the fire was not required – but I can imagine in winter it would be a most welcoming space for visitors.
There’s also a tasting room, which, from my perspective, is home to physical evidence of one of the most significant historic ‘events’ in whisky. I’ve collected Scotch for more than 32 years and been involved with an ancient industry which never ceases to surprise, delight, and enthral me. Every day is, thankfully, still a school day. I’ve been amazingly blessed by being able to try some of the oldest, rarest, most special drams ever created and have had some life-changing experiences with the people and places of Scotch whisky.
But what I saw in that tasting room floored me: the production ledger with the ‘death certificate’ of Brora. There, visitors can view the actual handwritten pages detailing previous production volumes. Flicking back through the ledger, all looked good until one fateful day: 25 March 1983. There is an entry for the feints brought forward and then nothing more – just empty pages. That day, a distillery died. Now, years later, it has been reborn...
Now that Brora is ‘alive’ once more, the time has come to consider the legacy of the spirit and how the ‘new’ spirit might offer some continuation from the old. I’ve tried the recently released Brora Triptych (three bottlings released as a set with spirit dating from three eras of Brora production: 1972, 1977 and 1982) on two occasions now and I think it’s a really interesting concept to share these three very distinct styles of make side by side (though I don’t suggest trying to pick up the box unless The Hulk is there to help out – I think it’s even heavier than a full set of Macallan Lalique decanters!).
The 1982 is surprisingly fresh and fragrant. Dr Jim says it’s reminiscent of the local flowering gorse with that lovely tropical and coconut aroma present throughout Sutherland in May. The 1977, meanwhile, is all about sweetness and peat – specifically candies and coal smoke. It’s not massively peaty, so real ‘grow-bag suckers’ will want something younger from an in-production distillery.
Then there’s the legendary 1972. It’s one of those drams I can instantly identify as ‘that’ style of Brora. The guys at the distillery describe this style as earthy (I get that), but for me it’s classic farmyard stuff with big complexity – a truly unique style of Scotch whisky.
I remember the distillery-exclusive bottling (it’s a 39-year-old single cask with 150 bottles released at £8,500 per bottle) being stunning too, but by then we were in the warehouse after a few drams, so there was limited note taking. The official notes describe it as ‘sophisticated’ and ‘beautifully balanced’. I just remember it being awesome liquid.
From a new production perspective, there’s the intention of laying down three distinct styles of new-make spirit: peaty, waxy and earthy. It’ll be a few years before we’ll be able to see if the plan has worked and these old styles of Brora can be replicated. In my opinion, it would be a good idea to buy up any of the long discontinued five-year-old bottlings from the 1970s, as these will offer the opportunity to compare and contrast the original young spirit with contemporary production.
From a personal perspective, collecting Brora has always been quite a challenging thing to do. This is mainly because the older Rare Malts bottles – the 22 Years Old 1972, for instance – are such blindingly good liquid that I could never keep them closed. When they were £50 a bottle, it was simply good ‘hoofin’ juice’, as they say. When values started creeping up a little bit in the early 2000s, I just managed to keep a few closed. Now prices are anything between £5,000 and £10,000 per bottle at auction. I think the last time I had some of that particular liquid was at the 2 Quail in Dornoch in the late 2000s. They had a bottle open and were selling it by the dram for £5. When I went in, there was a good half bottle there, but when I left it was empty and my wallet was lighter.
Clearly, buying in at original prices was a bit of fortuitous luck, but even recent prices have been increasing, too. Being involved in Rare Whisky 101 (we publish the Brora Index), I know that prices for the pre-2012 collection of official bottles we indexed have increased by 36 per cent in the last six months alone. Demand is still very clearly evident.
Some of the most exciting bottles for collecting are the old-style Clynelish ‘red griffin’ labels, which were bottled in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Be careful with these, though, as we recently saw a re-fill for sale on a retail website for more than £6,000. From both a drinking and a collecting perspective, these older bottles are incredibly rare, becoming very expensive and are therefore becoming attractive targets for fraudsters.
In order to dip a toe in the Brora collecting waters, there’s always the Johnnie Walker Ghost and Rare bottling. Granted, it’s a blended Scotch whisky; however, the buy-in price is significantly lower than most bottles of Brora single malt. After 30-odd years of collecting Scotch whisky, I was laughing with a friend recently about the fact that Diageo had managed to get me to finally collect Johnnie Walker by releasing the Ghost and Rare series. It took them 30 years, but they finally did it! With the resurrection of Brora, I’m sure many others will find this blend leads them on their own pilgrimage to visit this special distillery that means so much to the team working there, the community and myself.STEWART BOWMAN
Master distiller, BroraWhat did Brora Distillery mean to you pre-rebuild?
"Brora Distillery was where my father worked as the last residential exciseman and he was there when it was closed. My earliest memory of Brora is as a place that I remember playing with my friends: running through the courtyard, under the worm tubs and around the shuttered warehouses. There was always a bit of an aura around those old buildings, all locked up with their dark windows."What’s your favourite memory of Brora? (Either the distillery or the town.)
"Brora distillery is so connected with the town, the community and the landscape. I have a very fond recent memory, in fact: after we filled the first cask of Brora on 19 May, I had some time away with my family, and I was camping up by Loch Brora, in the hills just a few miles above the distillery.
The gorse was in bloom and the whole hillside was yellow, and that very sweet aroma of gorse at this time of year was really noticeable in the air. After the last three and a half years of restoration work, and after everything that went into filling that first cask, it was a great moment to relax in the landscape and reflect on what we had just accomplished.
I remembered something that Dr Jim Beveridge had mentioned; when he was with us for the first cask filling, he then led a tasting of the new Brora Triptych. He said that the aroma of gorse was very apparent within the Brora 1982; it was a wonderful memory that connected the old whisky made decades before with the landscape and the cask filling. I shall remember that one for a while to come!"What do you think Brora Distillery will be like in 40 years?
"All I can wish is that justice is done to what has come before – both the incredible liquid that was made decades ago and the people that made it then. My father and the old hands at the distillery had great pride in Brora, and we have gone about our work to restore this place with this very much in our thoughts."
Stewart Bowman ringing the bell at Brora DistilleryFurther Information
Having worked for more than three years to bring Brora Distillery back into production and for the first few months crafting its new spirit, Stewart Bowman has taken the decision to move on after his work reached a natural conclusion.
“Stewart has played a crucial role in the restoration of the distillery,” commented Lisa Everingham, global luxury malts marketing manager at Diageo. “Diageo extends its warmest thanks to him for all that he has done and wishes him all the best in his future endeavours. Having played such an enduring role in the restoration, Stewart will always be a part of the Brora family.”
Diageo will announce Stewart’s successor as Brora master distiller in due course.TOD BRADBURY
Head of rare & collectible whisky, Justerini & Brooks
How do you feel about the rebirth of Brora Distillery?
"I remember trying Brora for the first time at the beginning of my career in whisky. I hadn’t tried anything quite like it before; the combination of the waxy character and whisp of smoke was something so unique and special to me. It started my love affair with the distillery. To see the gates thrown back open and the first casks filled since 1983 was a moment which will stay with me forever."JO MCKERCHAR
Diageo senior archivist for maltsWhat do you think Brora Distillery will be like in 40 years?
"In 40 years’ time I really hope Brora will continue to be a welcoming home for all those who make the effort to visit. The community at Brora hold the distillery close to their hearts, and those around the world who enjoy the whisky do the same. My dream is that everyone who visits Brora in the decades to come will fall in love with the place, the whisky and the people a little more. I also hope there will be a few more bottles added to the Ultimate Brora Collection!"ANDY FLATT
Brand home host, BroraWhat’s your favourite memory of Brora Distillery?
"During the Highland Whisky Festival several years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a tasting hosted by Ewan Gunn that encompassed five different Brora expressions. All were from the 70s and were part of the Special Releases Collection. Sitting in the old filling store, captivated by the drams and the history of the distillery, was my ‘Road to Damascus’ moment: that was when the restoration project came to life for me and I had an appreciation of how it might feel to see its rebirth. Several years later, when the opportunity arose to work as brand home host, it was that very moment that inspired me."JAMES MACKAY
Head of rare & exceptional spirits, DiageoBeyond whisky and your job, what does Brora mean to you personally?
"Brora is where my father’s side of the family are from, with my great-uncle farming the Overskibo Estate nearby. I would spend each Easter holiday together with cousins at a lovely house in Dornoch, walking and learning to play golf. On a recent visit, I found a guest book with my late parents’ writing, recording that we had all visited Brora Distillery in 1972 with my great-uncle, to see his friend who worked there – I was one year old at the time.
Once travel restrictions are lifted, the cousins plan to regroup to place my mother’s ashes to join those of my father, at their favourite spot, a waterfall on the River Cassley."DR JIM BEVERIDGE, OBE
Master blender, DiageoWhat role has Brora played throughout your career?
"Tasting Brora stocks of the 1980s was one of my early jobs at Diageo, many years ago, so before restoration began I felt a tie to the place. Over the last 40 years, I’ve spent a lot of time working to unpick how Brora and Clynelish were able to craft this waxy style of spirit – it was something that is so specific to this part of the world and has been an intriguing influence on my work as
a blender." What’s your favourite memory of Brora? (The distillery or the town.)
"Well, Brora (the place) was somewhere that as a young boy I visited with my family on holiday, and together with the recent distillery reopening event, it will always hold very happy memories for me."
Welcome to BroraBRORA TIMELINE1819
The distillery was founded as Clynelish Distillery by the Marquis of Stafford
Alfred Barnard wrote that the demand from private customers was ‘so great that the firm have for some years been obliged to refuse trade orders’1896–97
At a time when the vast majority of whisky was going straight into blends, Clynelish was being sold as a single malt and to private customers. The distillery’s capacity was substantially increased by Ainslie & Co.1967
To cope with demand, a new distillery was built next to Clynelish. The pair were known as Clynelish A and B1968
The original distillery was renamed Brora
Brora produced a heavily peated, Islay-style whisky until 1981, when its peating levels were brought into line with other mainland malts1983
Brora Distillery closed and since then the whisky it produced has become one of the most highly prized and sought-after products in Scotch whisky 2017
The decision was taken to re-awaken Brora Distillery in answer to existing enthusiasts’ hopesOctober 2018
Planning permission granted
Brora’s copper pot stills are sent to Diageo’s Abercrombie coppersmiths in Alloa, Scotland, for refurbishmentJanuary 2019
Dr Jim Beveridge began undertaking historic tastings of old Brora liquid, while the team worked through hundreds of pages of handwritten ledgers, plans and drawings stored in the company archives in MenstrieApril 2019
Removal of the pagoda roof for repairs and refurbishment to the old kiln and new mash house
Copper pot stills return to Brora
Pagoda roof re-attached
Installation of the worm tubs and wash backsMarch 2021
The first mash and still runs19 May 2021
The first cask of ‘new’ Brora is filled, the first for more than 38 yearsJuly 2021
Brora begins to welcome guests to the new distillery brand home
The restored pagoda roof