Brora was, until last week, one of Scotch whisky’s last sleeping giants. Abandoned for almost 40 years, its unused copper pot stills eroded by the salty sea air, the Victorian distillery on Scotland’s north-east coast was left to deteriorate into nothing more than a dusty museum suspended in time.
A casualty of the 1980s “whisky loch” – a period of oversupply that prompted the closure of several distilleries – Brora has long been considered a lost icon. While it was sleeping, its remaining rare whisky has gained cult status among single-malt enthusiasts.
Now, after a thorough three-year restoration, the Sutherland distillery has been reawakened, its stills fired back into life and with spirit flowing through its veins once more. It’s a historic moment for the distillery and restoration team, particularly master distiller Stewart Bowman, whose father worked as Brora’s last exciseman.
“Growing up in the village, we often wondered whether Brora would ever return,” he explains. “It is with great pride that I can now say to my father, the Brora community, and all the old hands that worked at Brora and helped to craft a legendary whisky, that the stills are alive, and we are making Brora spirit once again.”
Originally built in 1819, the distillery – named Clynelish until 1975 – has been through several periods of operation and closure. During its final years it was used to plug gaps of heavily peated whisky in the inventory of its owner, Distillers Company Ltd (which later became Diageo), often during periods of drought on Islay, but notably from 1972 to 1974 when Caol Ila was being rebuilt. These changes resulted in a style that varies between waxy, fruity and coastal, to subtly smoky, to oily and heavily peated.
Brora was eventually closed in 1983, and although the site was left intact, as time passed by it was thought the distillery would never operate again. Then, in 2017, Diageo made a shock statement that it would be reopening both Brora and Port Ellen on Islay, which closed in the same year. With demand for the limited stocks of both whiskies soaring and room in its portfolio for a luxury brand of single malt Scotch, restoration work swiftly got underway.
It took a crack team of archivists, distillers and production experts years of research and careful renovation to bring Brora back to life. Diageo archivist Joanne McKerchar studied historical documents, including the original distillery plans from the 1890s, and interviewed past distillery workers to accurately restore Brora to its former glory.
“When we first opened the doors at Brora, we walked into a time capsule. 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 – but, of course, nobody then came back in,” says McKerchar.
Not only was the stillhouse completely rebuilt using local Brora stone, the original stills were sent to Diageo’s coppersmiths in Alloa to be hand refurbished. The distillery has even installed a traditional rake-and-plough mash tun and will process malted barley from Glen Ord maltings, just as it did in 1983. “We have gone to every effort to replicate, as closely as possible, the conditions, equipment and processes from Brora in 1983 in order to recreate the spirit for which the distillery is famous,” says Bowman.
When it came to recreating Brora’s iconic spirit character, technical partner Donna Anderson and master blender Dr Jim Beveridge worked backwards from historic distilling specifications and tasting notes for the original new-make spirit. “Our whole ambition is to recreate the flavours that were being made at that time, almost as if the door closed yesterday and it’s just reopened,” Beveridge explains.
Although the first Brora spirit runs occurred at the end of March, Beveridge admits they’ve not quite captured the right style of spirit yet. “The flavours we’re working on just now are the background flavours, the light fruity flavours, and that will be overlaid with the smoke that we all associate with Brora,” he says.
Bowman, who will be responsible for the distillery’s day-to-day operation, agrees: “We’re not there with the spirit yet; it’s a journey. The character we’re going for that’s integral to Brora – that waxiness – is not an overnight character we can hit. Producing a liquid that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the releases we have at the moment which are so iconic is something I have a big aspiration to try and hit.”
Brora fans will be waiting some time to try the distillery’s new liquid, which won’t be released until it is “a considerable age”. As Beveridge says, “We’ll have to be very patient over the next few years as it slowly matures.” In the meantime, Diageo will continue releasing limited expressions of pre-1983 Brora, such as the £30,000 Triptych trio of 1972, 1977 and 1982 vintages launched this spring.
The distillery will also be operating tours by appointment from July – starting at £300 for a three-hour experience and including a tasting and light lunch – for those who really can’t wait to experience Brora in its new but historically faithful guise.