Day 8 was mostly a travel day, but I did manage to incorporate one distillery tour which also helped to breakup the driving. My departure from the Orkney Islands was on a different ferry service than the one by which I had arrived, primarily so I could see a greater variety of scenery. While I had considered visiting another of the historic sites before leaving the islands, I wisely opted for a leisurely breakfast, stress-free organizing and repacking session, and an unrushed drive with an early arrival to check-in for the 11:50 ferry.
The St Margaret’s Hope to Gills Bay crossing actually departs from the island of South Ronaldsay rather than the Orkney Mainland. After the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow at the onset of WWII, which I discussed in my previous post, Winston Churchill ordered the construction of a series of defensive barriers to protect the strategic body of water. Known as the Churchill Barriers, these four structures connect the Orkney Mainland to the smaller islands of Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm, and then to Burray and finally South Ronaldsay. Today these barriers serve as causeways, connecting the five islands via the A961 road.
While the views on this ferry crossing were quite nice, they certainly weren’t as spectacular as those on the Stromness to Scrabster crossing. This was, however, a shorter and less expensive ferry trip at 60 minutes and about $70 (one way, for a car and single passenger). By comparison, my outbound voyage lasted 90 minutes and cost about $95. The two routes are operated by different companies, Northlink and Pentland. The shorter crossing is on a smaller, more utilitarian ferry, while the longer one is on a larger vessel with more upscale accommodations. The island terminals are about equidistant from Kirkwall, but the two companies’ crossing schedules differ significantly.
From the port at Gills Bay it was a three hour drive to Inverness, where I would spend the night. Fortunately, the Clynelish distillery was on my path and about midway between the end points. After departing the ferry terminal I was treated to some new views of northern Scotland’s eastern coast from the A99 until I reached Wick. From there I went back down the road I had followed north the week before. Just ahead of the settlement of Brora I turned off of the A9 and started to head inland, going just a short distance before reaching Clynelish.
As planned, I arrived shortly before the 3:00 tour. I started toward the Clynelish visitor center, which was actually the only accessible part of the distillery building; the rest of it was surrounded by a temporary chain-link fence, segregating it as a construction area. When doing my pre-trip research I had seen on the Clynelish website that mechanical and electrical upgrades at the distillery, which were to last 10 months, had begun in April of 2016. Since this work meant that there could be no visitor access to the production areas of the distillery, tours were instead being offered of the old Brora distillery, which is onsite but had previously been closed to the public.
I was visiting a week into May of 2017, so I had assumed everything would be back to normal by the time I got there. Once inside, I was a little surprised to learn that the work was still ongoing and that I would be getting a tour of Brora rather than Clynelish. The
Brora distillery was actually the original Clynelish distillery, and
the two facilities had overlapping periods of production.
My tour guide started off with a little local history. The late 1700’s and early 1800’s saw a transition of the rural Scottish economy as raising sheep became a more profitable agricultural activity than farming. This resulted in aristocratic landowners evicting large numbers of tenant farmers during that period, in what became known as the Highland Clearances. While some people ended up relocating to the poorest quality farmland, many emigrated out of the Highlands, going to the Scottish Lowlands or even as far away North America and Australia.
The Clynelish distillery was founded by one of the more notorious figures involved in the Clearances. George Leveson-Gower, who was known as The Marquess of Stafford until he became the 1st Duke of Sutherland shortly before his death in 1833, is estimated to have been the wealthiest man of the 19th century. His land holdings increased dramatically when he married the Countess of Sutherland, Elizabeth Gordon in 1785. In 1807 they had their agents begin evicting subsistence farmers from their more valuable land and relocating them to the coast, where it was assumed that they would take up fishing as an alternative to farming. Patrick Sellar was hired as their factor (essentially a land manager) in 1809 and oversaw the “improvements” to their lands. Sellar’s methods were particularly brutal, even for the standards of the time, and he carried out extensive clearances between 1811 and 1820.
George Leveson-Gower established the Clynelish distillery in 1819. No doubt it would be a profitable business, but the fact that the distillery would purchase barley from local farms guaranteed that rent was paid by the few tenant farmers who remained on Leveson-Gower’s poor quality land. The distillery was leased by a variety of parties through the 1800’s before being purchased outright in 1896. By 1930 Clynelish was solely owned by Distillers Company Limited, which eventually morphed into today’s Diageo.
As a major contributor to the Johnny Walker blended whiskies, there was enough demand for Clynelish during the boom period of the 1960’s that its owners decided to build a new, much larger distillery next to the original. Construction began in 1967 and the new facility was producing whisky the next year. Once it was up and running, the original Clynelish distillery was mothballed.
But circumstances changed quickly. What I was told on the tour was the simplified version of the story; that the old Clynelish distillery was brought back online in 1969 and heavily peated whisky was produced there to cover for the Caol Ila distillery, which is owned by the same parent company, while is was completely rebuilt. The original Clynelish distillery was renamed as Brora after the town in which it is located, and distillation continued there until 1983. I’ll detail the more historically accurate version of these events in a follow-up post.
Of course, the soft demand that followed through the 1980’s and 1990’s meant that a decent number of Brora casks were spared from the blending hall. There have been many independent bottlings of Brora which date back to at least 1995, but the first official bottling from Diageo came out as a 30 year old in 2002. Since then it has become a mainstay of Diageo’s annual special release group, with cask strength offerings in the 25 to 38 year range and typically about 3000 bottles per release. As the cult status of this whisky has risen, so has its price, with the latest release pushing well past the $2000 mark.
From the visitor center we walked away from the Clynelish still house and toward the Brora distillery buildings, with the old kiln’s pagoda roof standing out above everything else. We passed by a row a seven connected warehouses in the traditional dunnage style, and it appears that no modern warehouses were added to the site when the new distillery was built.
Once inside the Brora still house, we were confined to a small viewing area from which most of the distilling space could be seen through Plexiglas panels. The near-hermetic sealing made me wonder if the space had asbestos issues.
In spite of this restriction, it was still very cool to see the stills that produced such an iconic whisky. The Lyne arms are cut off just before where they would have passed through the exterior wall and much of the plumbing was disconnected from the stills, but they still look glorious. The spirit safe is in position as well as the two receivers it fed, one of wood and the other of cast iron.
I have since learned that Brora used to operate with six wooden washbacks at 29,500 liters each and a similarly sized mash tun. I think it’s safe to assume that those vessels had been located in a room not far from the stills, and wish I had thought to ask if they were still on-site.
Next we stepped back outside and I tried to have a look behind the still house. The area was fenced off and other structures blocked most of the view, but I did catch a glimpse of the large concrete blocks that likely once supported the worm tubs.
A short walk took us to an adjacent building where we entered the former cask filling room. The wooden holding tank is still there along with its pair of hoses and filling nozzles, which rest in a pair of casks dating to 1983 according to the stenciling on their heads.
Speaking of which, the old sheet metal stencils were on display in a small office room off of the filling room. There was also a ledger on a desk here, where all of the information about each cask was entered as they were filled; date, cask number, weight of the empty cask, weight of the full cask, weight of the contents, volume of contents in gallons, strength, gallons at proof, etc.
From there we went back across to the row of warehouses and entered one of them. The seven contiguous warehouses are rather narrow and they vary in length as their rear walls terminate at a road that runs 45 degrees to their orientation. But the longest of them is exceptionally long. Together they currently hold about 6300 casks. Among the many Clynelish casks, two Brora casks were clearly visible; a 1977 and I believe the other was dated 1982. Of course Diageo has a policy of storing a variety of casks from their many distilleries at any given site, so there’s no way to get a sense of how much aging Brora they still possess (and I suspect that most of their employees have no idea either).
We did discuss a few other Brora facts along the way, revealing that Brora had modernized in the 1960’s, at least a little. The stills were converted from direct fired to internal steam heating in 1961. Mechanical power had come from a steam engine and a water wheel until electric motors replaced them in 1965. That was also the last year in which the traditional floor maltings were used. In 1966 the coal-fired boiler was upgraded so it could burn fuel oil instead. While Brora had a maximum capacity of just over 1 million liters per annum, it only produced about 40,000 liters in its last year of production.
We also talked a little bit about Clynelish. When operational they use a long-ish fermentation time of 80 hours and typically run 18 to 19 mashes per week. The distillery is a major contributor to the Johnny Walker range of blends, with 95% of its production going there and only 5% being bottled as single malt. The current capacity is 4.8 million LPA and even though the upgrades being performed are extensive, they are not expanding the production levels.
The project includes replacing three of the six stills and four of the 10 washbacks. Two of the 10 washbacks are stainless steel, but they will be replacing the wooden ones with new wooden ones. Other new pieces of equipment include the mash tun, the draff hopper and the water cooling tower. The project also includes the building of a new yeast room, as well as a new roof for the control room.
My guide also mentioned that Teaninich (another Diageo owned distillery), which lies about 40 miles to the south, is considered to be the sister distillery to Clynelish. When it was rebuilt in 1970 the designers essentially copied the blueprint of the new Clynelish plant. Teaninich is actually located just a few thousand feet away from Dalmore, on the other side of the A9, but is apparently much less visible from the main road.
At the time of my visit, I was told that the construction project would likely be complete by the end of June. Looking online now though, I see more recent estimates of the restart happening in August. My guide didn’t know what the fate of the Brora tours would be once the Clynelish tours were being offered again, but we both agreed that it would be a shame for them to go away altogether. Hopefully they will continue separately, or as an optional add-on to the standard Clynelish tour. I even mused about the possibility of Brora restarting as a small-scale, old-style production distillery; sort of a working museum. But I really don’t think anyone at Diageo has the vision or the fortitude for such a project.
Back at the visitor center, I was presented with two samples; Clynelish 14 year old, which is the only regularly produced official bottling, and a distillery-only offering. The 14 year old is aged 60% in sherry casks and 40% in bourbon barrels, and bottled at 46% abv. This was my first taste from a distillery that had barely been on my radar prior to this trip, and I was pleasantly surprised. This is an old-school style malt; a good representation of what coastal highland whiskies used to be.
I only had the tiniest of sips of my sample from the other bottling (for a direct comparison) and took the rest of it to go in what was essentially a stoppered test-tube. This was from a limited run of just 6000 bottles that were released in 2008. It was bottled at a cask strength of 57.3% with no age statement after maturing exclusively in bourbon barrels. Full strength whiskies have a great appeal to me and this one was certainly bold and interesting, but I still preferred the flagship 14 year old. Its sherry cask component brought a level of complexity that the distillery-only bottling just couldn’t match.
On this sort of trip there have to be a few very special drams along the way. You can’t really plan such things in advance though; they just come along when the time is right. Brora has long been a whisky that was on my list of things I really ought to taste. Having just toured the old distillery and with several vintages available for tasting at the visitor center, this was one of those times. I went with the 2014 release, which was a 35 year old bottled at 48.6%. A single drink at £35 (about $45) is a rare indulgence for me, so I try to be picky when I go there. This one was definitely worth it.
The nose was rich and weighty with macerated tree fruits, showing firm but delicate peat smoke.
On the palate, the dry, earthy peat character seemed to have been mellowed by the years rather than diminished by them. There was a rich, waxy quality and nice complexity along with great balance.
The flavors evolved beautifully as it moved into an incredibly long finish.
After wandering around and taking a few more pictures outside of the distillery, I made my way down to Inverness. The city is bisected by the river Ness, which flows from Loch Ness to the sea. The B&B I was staying at was in the heart of the city and right on the east bank of the river. I had some travel issues to sort out after I settled in and that took up most of my evening. I was actually lucky to find a nearby place for dinner that was open past 10:00; otherwise I might have gone without. Needless to say, the only whisky I got into that night was the sample I had taken from Clynelish.