Inside the ‘ghost’ distilleries that have risen from the dead

Compared with some of Scotland’s more picture-postcard whisky towns, the Highland village of Brora is unassuming. There’s a golf course, ice-cream parlour and a couple of modest hotels. Most who travel here are on their way to somewhere else — the hills, the beach or Dunrobin Castle down the road.

Yet this village on the north-east coast of Scotland has a mythical reputation among whisky aficionados. The malts from its Victorian distillery, which closed in 1983 after a slump in the whisky market that shuttered a quarter of Scottish distilleries, are some of the world’s most coveted, loved for their fruity, waxy character and mercurial smoke. At a Sotheby’s auction in 2019, a bottle of 40-year-old malt from Brora’s dwindling stocks was sold for a record £54,450.

Brora is one of an elite band of “ghost” or “silent” distilleries that command some of the highest prices on today’s secondary market. Others include the Islay distillery Port Ellen — another victim of the 1980s crash — and the Lowland distillery Rosebank, which closed in 1993.

For almost 40 years, Brora’s black iron gates were locked. Its two copper pot stills stood silent and cold. But this summer, they have been fired up, marking the first phase in a £35m restoration that will see Brora and its Diageo stablemate Port Ellen restored to life. Elsewhere, Ian Macleod Distillers is reviving Rosebank, and a tribute to Karuizawa, a ghost distillery of major renown in Japan, is being built.

The Brora distillery in the Highlands, which reopened for business this summer. It had been shuttered since 1983 — one of about 30 Scottish distilleries to close following a slump in the whisky market © Robert Birtles

The resurrection of these distilleries signals the industry’s confidence in the future of single malts, a sector that has long accounted for just 10 per cent (by volume) of the blends-driven whisky market but which now shows the most dynamic growth.

For the many whisky fans who tuned in from around the world to watch the first cask of Brora filled on May 19, the return is steeped in nostalgia; the second coming of a distillery whose rise, fall and rise again reads like a history of Scotch whisky in miniature.

Brora was founded in 1819 by the Marquis of Stafford (he of the notorious Highland Clearances), originally under the name Clynelish. In its early days, it achieved a degree of fame as a single malt in its own right. But as the blended whisky market boomed in the 20th century, it found a calling as a supplier of single malts for blending. As the century progressed, production continued to increase and by the early 1980s, Brora’s warehouses were full to the brim.

The crash was precipitated by many factors, including economic wobbles in key markets and younger drinkers defecting to newly fashionable vodka. It caught the industry on the hop and led to the closure of more than 30 distilleries. The result was the infamous Whisky Loch, a surfeit of whisky that languished in casks across Scotland for the best part of the next 20 years.

Around 2000, a new kind of customer started to emerge, one who felt jaded by big brands and more partial to obscure, mature and limited-edition single malts. It led to a reappraisal of old stocks from these decommissioned distilleries — stocks that had been ageing for far longer than ever intended. At first, prices for these venerable whiskies were relatively modest. You could pick up a 30-year-old Brora or Port Ellen for less than £100. But by the early 2010s, they had started to spiral. The cult of the ghost distillery was born.

A picture of Brora’s master distiller Stewart Bowman
Master distiller Stewart Bowman, 39, is the son of the last exciseman to work at Brora before it closed. ‘Everyone had a relative that worked [there] at one stage . . . we were all delighted to see it back’ © Robert Birtles

Everyone knew that these stocks would run out one day. So, in 2017 there was jubilation in the whisky world when Diageo announced its plan to bring Brora and Port Ellen back.

“When we first opened the doors at Brora [in 2017], we walked into a time capsule,” says Diageo’s head archivist, Joanne McKerchar. “As a historian and an archivist for malts, I had never seen anything like that before. It was unbelievable just how untouched it was. As if the guys had just finished their shift and walked out . . . What must they have been thinking the last time they flicked that light switch or they locked the doors, not knowing whether they were ever going to see this place open again? You’re not just looking at stills or a physical building, it’s all of the emotion that would have gone with that last day. It was quite overwhelming.”

Compared with some ghost distilleries, Brora was in pretty good nick. Crucially, the original pair of copper pot stills, integral to shaping the character of a distillery’s spirit, remained in situ. But piecing together the finer points of production was a forensic operation. With no original “new make” to go on (the unaged spirit that is the essence of a house style), they had to reverse-engineer aged samples with the help of expert noses. In a bid to understand the workings of the original Brora, McKerchar combed old distillery records, analysed architectural plans and interviewed former employees. “They were instrumental in helping us understand what the culture was like,” she says.

One of those employees was Kevin Innes, now 61. “When Brora closed, we all found new jobs all right,” he says, casting a critical eye over the reconditioned stills. “But it was sad for the community because it was very family-oriented back then. Some families had been at the distillery for five generations.”

A bottle of 39-year-old Brora single malt on a wooden table
A bottle of 39-year-old Brora single malt. As the shuttered distillery’s stocks dwindled, prices soared: in 2019, a bottle of 40-year-old single malt was sold for a record £54,450 at Sotheby’s © Robert Birtles

Not all of Brora’s past has been preserved. The practice of “dramming” — when workers would be fortified with tots of whisky throughout the day — has fallen by the wayside. “If you just did a regular job you’d get a ‘white dram’, which was a Clynelish [from the neighbouring distillery, which inherited the name],” recalls Innes. “But if you did one of the really dirty jobs, you’d be rewarded with a brown [aged] dram — and that was always a Brora.”

Innes remains proud of the malt he helped create, but he is bemused by the prices it commands today. “It just seems unreal, when you think we made it for pennies.”

From outside, the distillery looks much like it did 100 years ago. Above the limestone still house, the pagoda soars against a backdrop of grassy hills. Down the far side of the cobbled yard, six low-slung dunnage warehouses blackened with Baudoinia compniacensis, the whisky-loving fungus that besmirches many a great distillery, hunker down over thousands of sleeping casks.

Standing among those casks, breathing in the dizzying smell of whisky, damp wood and earth, you might imagine that nothing much has changed. But behind the scenes, Brora #2 has all the mod cons: a luxurious tasting room, automated control systems and a biomass boiler that will render the distillery carbon neutral.

A close-up of a spirit safe at the Brora distillery
A spirit safe in the Brora distillery. With no original spirit available, recapturing the whisky’s signature flavour was quite a task: distillers had to reverse-engineer aged samples with the help of expert noses © Robert Birtles

Brora’s newly appointed master distiller is Stewart Bowman, the 39-year-old son of the last exciseman to work at the distillery before it closed. “I used to play under the old worm tub condensers as a child,” he says, adding hastily that such behaviour would not, of course, be condoned under Diageo health and safety rules today. “We still have the ledger where my father wrote the last entry, in 1983: ‘Commencement of Brora Distillery silent season (undetermined period).’”

Tall, with a knotted ginger beard and a taste for heavy metal, Bowman doesn’t look like the soppy type. Yet, as we pore over old distillery plans in the tasting room, he admits that he welled up a bit when he filled the first cask.

“It was always a great point of pride to have the distillery in the village. Everyone had a relative that worked at Brora at one stage or another, so we were all delighted to see it back,” he says. “When my dad came down, he was overcome with emotion.”

In its past, Brora was called upon to create a number of different styles for blending, so its flavour profile is famously protean. In the late 1970s, it was highly peated, but by the early 1980s it had become more refined. Yet, the signature flavour is a scented wax note — often likened to church candles or beeswax — which is almost unique. To recapture that, says Bowman, has been their hardest task.

A view of Loch Brora with the Highland hills in the background
A view of Loch Brora. Turning on the taps again does not seem to have diminished demand: the latest figures from Rare Whisky 101 index show Brora values up 34 per cent in the year to date © Robert Birtles

It will be 10, maybe 12, years before the first new-gen Brora is released. But the vagaries of whisky maturation mean it may be decades before they really know if they’re on the right track. “We know an awful lot of the science and technology of making whisky, but there are still elements we don’t understand,” says Bowman. “You can get the recipe right but it’s not just a case of ABC. There’s also a kind of magic to it. Which is why keeping everything as true as possible in the resurrection of this distillery has been so important.”

Diageo won’t disclose how much of the original Brora stocks remains, but it’s precious little. And the fact that even the youngest whisky still in cask is 38 years old means that stock will soon be past its prime. So, in the meantime, there will be releases, though very few, and at increasingly high prices.

To mark the relaunch of the distillery, Brora released a triptych of vintages from the 1970s and 1980s for £30,000. The distillery tour isn’t cheap either: priced at £300, rising to £600 for a deluxe version, it has prompted some to accuse Diageo of turning its back on grassroots fans.

The distillery’s interior
Brora has revived the original copper pot stills integral to shaping its whisky’s character. But it will be at least 10 years before the new-gen spirit is released, and decades before the distillery knows if it’s on the right track © Robert Birtles

“I worry that the real whisky lovers, the people who made Brora and Port Ellen what they are today, who really understand those whiskies, will end up being omitted from the plan,” says Sukhinder Singh, boss of specialist malt retailer The Whisky Exchange (where, incidentally, you can buy a bottle of 1972 Brora for £10,000). “I really think they need to rethink that.”

Diageo now has its eye on the relaunch of Port Ellen, which is due to be reopened on its original site on the Hebridean island of Islay in spring 2023. Much of the old distillery was demolished after its closure in 1983, so this incarnation will be a hybrid of past and present. The whitewashed warehouses will remain but the still house will be built from scratch. It will contain one pair of stills designed to recreate, exactly, the rich, peaty style of whisky that Port Ellen was famous for. And it will have another state-of-the-art pair dedicated to making more experimental expressions.

Islay whiskies have never been short on glamour. Those from the Lowlands, by contrast, have sometimes struggled to find the limelight. Which means that the resurrection of Rosebank, in Falkirk, promises to be an important moment not just for owner Ian Macleod Distillers, but Lowland whiskies as a whole.

Triple- rather than double-distilled, in line with local tradition, Rosebank is a malt that royally lays waste to the idea that Lowland whiskies lack gravitas. Elegant yet powerful, it is unique for retaining a meadowy freshness and suppleness, even at a great age. The challenge for the canalside distillery will be to reproduce that, while also providing a shot in the arm for the local economy. Ian Macleod has promised to create 25 full-time jobs and attract 50,000 visitors to the town a year.

And the revivalist spirit is also aflame in Japan. This month, the newly formed Karuizawa Distillers will break ground on the Komoro Distillery, a $15m tribute to Karuizawa, a lionised ghost distillery that operated in the area until 2001, after which it was demolished.

In the past 10 years, Karuizawa’s old stocks have been sold at auction for some of the highest prices ever. But when I correspond with co-founder Koji Shimaoka, a former managing director at Citibank Japan, it is clear this project is about more than simply cashing in on the distillery’s reputation.

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“I have seen the iconic Karuizawa Distillery rise and fall,” he says. “And as a whisky lover and a local resident in Karuizawa, I feel obliged to protect its legacy and create a new legend in this beautiful area at the foothills of Mount Asama.”

Part of the ghost distilleries’ allure has always been that their stocks are finite. But turning on the taps again does not seem to have diminished demand so far. Quite the opposite. The latest figures from Rare Whisky 101 index, which tracks the performance of the top 1,000 bottles at auction, show Brora values up 34 per cent year to date and Port Ellen not far behind.

If the tale of the ghost distilleries teaches us anything, it’s that whisky is a long game. How will this one play out? Come back to me in 20 years.

Alice Lascelles is an FT contributing editor and writes the drinks column for FT How To Spend It. Follow Alice on Twitter @Alice Lascelles

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