Port Ellen and Brora; Karuizawa and Hanyu. ‘Lost’ or ‘ghost’ distilleries have an irresistible allure for the whisky lover. To romantics they are the James Dean or Marilyn Monroe of the whisky world, cruelly cast down in their prime, now just a memory kept in prized and increasingly valuable old bottlings, never to return.
Well, not quite. Three of Scotch whisky’s pantheon of the immortal dead are currently at various stages of resurrection: spirit could be running from the stills of Brora in the Highlands this autumn, with Port Ellen on Islay and Rosebank in the Lowlands set to follow shortly afterwards.
But don’t hold your breath: the timescales in whisky are notoriously protracted, and it could be well over a decade before the first ‘new’ Port Ellen, Brora or Rosebank single malt finds its way into a bottle, and then onto a shop shelf or back-bar near you.
News of all three distilleries’ renaissance was announced in the space of 24 hours in October 2017. First Port Ellen and Brora, courtesy of owner Diageo; then Rosebank, historically also part of Diageo, but now being revived by new owner Ian Macleod Distillers.
Bringing old distilleries back to life isn’t easy, quick, or cheap. Port Ellen and Brora will cost £35m, and Rosebank around £10-12m. Brora is likely to be first back in production due to the fact that its twin copper pot stills were still on-site, dusty and dulled by 35 years of disuse; Port Ellen and Rosebank require outright reconstruction.
Not that Brora is altogether straightforward. Its stillhouse is two centuries old, and was extensively braced to prevent collapse. Brora distillery manager Stewart Bowman explains: ‘To get the stills out they needed to get the roof off. And they knew that if they took the roof off, the building would fall down.’
The answer was to painstakingly dismantle and then rebuild the stillhouse, stone by stone, while the stills – essentially sound but in need of minor repairs – were taken away and refurbished.
As a distillery, Brora has been something of a chameleon. Originally called Clynelish and opened in 1819, it was renamed Brora in 1968. After that, production was sporadic, with an emphasis on peated malt for blends.
Port Ellen’s history is even patchier. After being demolished in 1932 and closed and dismantled in 1983, only little remains now. But, the original kiln building with its distinctive pagoda chimney tops will be rebuilt.
Production, according to the plans given the green light by Argyll & Bute Council in December, will be split: one pair of stills will aim to reproduce Port Ellen’s original spirit character; the other, smaller, pair will be used experimentally to make ‘alternative’ spirit styles.
When Brora and Port Ellen closed in 1983, they were unwanted and surplus to requirements, because sales of the blends they supplied were falling fast. With the market for single malts still a tiny niche, nobody had any thought about their potential.
It was only as the remaining stocks of Brora and Port Ellen matured that their quality emerged. They became the stand-out malts of Diageo’s annual Special Releases programme, and their names became bywords for great whisky – a notion only reinforced by their demise.
The story of Rosebank is somewhat different. Far from being overlooked, the Lowland distillery’s elegant, perfumed, triple-distilled single malt was much loved by blenders and single malt fans alike. But owner UDV (which later became Diageo) shut Rosebank in 1993, reluctant to fund necessary work on its effluent treatment plant, and reportedly dissatisfied with access problems caused by its cramped Falkirk location.
The site was sold in 2002, and the three stills were stolen during Christmas 2008. Now, the old buildings are being demolished and rebuilt. Ian Macleod is closely consulting archive plans and drawings to ensure that production mirrors the historical precedent, while reconfiguring the distillery to allow tourist access.
Meanwhile, the company has announced plans to release two single cask Rosebank malts, both distilled in 1993, the year of the distillery’s closure. The two casks have yielded 280 and 259 bottles respectively, with 100 of each available via an online ballot for Rosebank subscribers from 14 February, before a general release on 18 February.
Both whiskies are taken from refill ex-Bourbon hogsheads at cask strength (53.3% and 50.4% respectively), and are priced at £2,500 per bottle. More details: rosebank.com/ballot.
With the market for single malts still a tiny niche, nobody had any thought about their potential
Old releases from Port Ellen, Brora and Rosebank are heavily traded on whisky’s increasingly popular secondary market – but what effect will the reopening of their distilleries have on pricing? Probably not much, reckons Andy Simpson, director and co-founder of whisky analyst and broker Rare Whisky 101, who points out that many of the most lauded releases currently traded are 30 or 40 years old.
‘So, it could be 40 years before any comparable liquid comes out,’ he says. ‘The timescales are so far off that we don’t think it will have any impact.’
We’re likely to see whisky from all three reborn distilleries long before that – maybe in the early 2030s, although it could be sooner still – but, in the meantime, news of the restoration plans and return to whisky production, only serve to keep the spotlight squarely on this stellar trio of single malts. ‘And that will only serve to increase demand on the secondary market,’ says Simpson.