When a company lists its address as ‘The Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House’ it seems reasonable to expect something pretty special to be happening there, and the Lost Distillery Company is certainly no ordinary blending operation.
Ambitiously, it seeks to recreate malt whiskies from long-lost distilleries, and was set up by ex-Diageo employees, Scott Watson and Brian Woods, who established Crucial Drinks in 2012 to develop a rum portfolio and pursue their aim of producing blended malts with a real difference.
Both Watson and Woods were born in Ayrshire and wanted to do their bit to help regenerate the area, so the company was formed in Kilmarnock, though since 2016 it has been based at The Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House, near Cumnock. This is one of Scotland’s finest stately homes and estates, saved from falling into disrepair by the efforts of HRH The Duke of Rothesay (The Prince of Wales) in 2007, and in addition to its headquarters function, The Lost Distillery Company also boasts an attractive whisky lounge, where visitors are entertained.
In the last century, over 100 Scotch whisky distilleries have permanently closed, which I have always felt was a real tragedy.
According to Scott Watson, “Brian and I worked together nearly 20 years ago and spotted a gap in the market when we recognised that consumers and trade sought genuine craft whisky. However, through the contraction and consolidation in the market it had become increasingly difficult to find these craft whiskies. In the last century, over 100 Scotch whisky distilleries have permanently closed, which I have always felt was a real tragedy. The Lost Distillery Company was borne to bring the stories of these famed whiskies and their people back to life.”
Nikki Cumming, marketing manager for Crucial Drinks, explains the process by which ‘lost’ whiskies are recreated. “As a team there are key factors a distillery must have before we research, so we can protect its legacy. Only then do we start the archivist process in earnest.
“Our archivists will research every aspect of distillery life and supply enough information to take to our whisky making team for discussions of how we bring the flavour profile to life.
"Once a ‘debate’ has been settled, only then do we start to source single malts from 80 per cent of Scotch whisky distilleries. The archive work continues, as it takes up to a year to bring a lost distillery brand to market. Changes and discoveries can still continue long after, which we reveal on social media.”
The team identifies the 10 key components that influenced the original character of the whiskies they are interpreting as follows:
The date of the last distillation is critically important. As with most manufacturing businesses, fashions and processes change. Mechanisation brought increased consistency to the process, while expansion of the railways sponsored the construction of much bigger distilleries.
Neighbouring distilleries may have used similar sources of water, barley and yeast. They may have shared expertise that still survives today in working distilleries.
A core ingredient used to make the spirit and also to dilute the product to bottling strength. Was the water soft or hard? What was the mineral content?
The most important aspect of the barley is the phenolic content. Where was the barley grown? Was it local? Which strains of barley were used? How consistent was the yield?
Why is some sourdough bread better than others? Why do some bakers retain a starter dough for decades? Yeast matters in the process and ultimately has an impact on the final product.
Was the malted barley peated or unpeated? How much peat was used and was it sourced locally? How did this translate to the phenol content of the finished product?
What material was it constructed from? Was it open or closed, and how was the temperature controlled? Volatile temperatures would inhibit yeast activity.
These would have been made almost exclusively from Douglas Fir; chosen for its straight grain and lack of knots. While some distilleries still use these, most have converted to stainless steel versions that impart no character to the product.
The shape and size of the still deeply influence the overall character of the spirit. For example, a smaller dumpy still will typically allow more contact between the copper and the spirit meaning that it produces a heavier, more viscous spirit.
After production, what type of wood was used to store or transport the whisky to its destination? Did this have an impact on the final flavour? What did the barrel have in it before it was used for whisky? This would have had a significant effect on the whisky’s taste.”
Dalaruan is a legendary whisky of its time that sadly closed through no fault of its own but an industry downturn, borne most heavily in Campbeltown.
Such detailed research is admirable and adds to our overall knowledge of the way in which long-lost distilleries operated. However, with no original whisky samples from which to work and no currently operational distilleries producing spirits to similar specifications in terms of yeast strains and barley types, for example, it is inevitable that the expressions created by The Lost Distillery Company are ‘interpretations’ rather than reproductions. The firm describes its creations as 'hand-crafted whiskies styled on long closed distilleries.'
The actual blending is undertaken by Scott Watson, and the company’s first two releases were Stratheden and Auchnagie, followed by Gerston, Jericho/Benachie, Lossit, Towiemore, and Dalaruan. Each whisky is available in three ranges, namely Classic, Archivist and Vintage.
The latest bottling from The Lost Distillery Company is Dalaruan, its first interpretation of a whisky from the Campbeltown region where distilling took place on no fewer than 34 sites during the Argyllshire port’s illustrious past. Today, only three distilleries are active there, and Scott Watson says that “Dalaruan is a legendary whisky of its time that sadly closed through no fault of its own but an industry downturn, borne most heavily in Campbeltown. It was a highly respected malt and we hope our modern-day blended malt interpretation captures its essence.”
Although it is keeping its cards close to its chest regarding the next release, with some 50 international markets now established, and a string of awards to its credit, The Lost Distillery Company’s imaginative take on these blended malts seems to be a sure-fire recipe for success.
A line up of the current Lost Distilleries bottlings