"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Clynelish Distillery (from 1968), Brora

When I was at Pulteney I met a German couple who were on a tour of Scotland in their camper van and were visiting a few distilleries.  I mentioned to them that I was visiting Clynelish that afternoon and they could also take a tour there and I was delighted to meet them again when I arrived.  I was even more delighted when they kindly gifted me a couple of bottles of German ale that were very tasty.  Thank you folks, I hope you enjoyed your visit to Schottland and arrived back home safely.  Sorry about the weather. 

The new Clynelish Distillery opened in 1968, the same year as the new mechanical floor maltings opened at Glen Ord further south and which could supply the vastly increased quantities of very lightly peated (<1ppm) barley required for the production from the 6 large stills here.  We have already seen the change in distillery names and the other changes at the original Clynelish/Brora Distillery but the two really need to be considered together so let’s continue in Claire’s company before I return to Barnard’s list.

Still House at the new Clynelish
The Mash Tun is a full lauter tun of stainless steel and is quite large at 22 feet wide by about 6 deep with a first water of 50,000 litres.  There are 10 washbacks, 8 of them original from 1968 and made from Oregon pine and two new stainless steel backs added in 2008 to increase production.  Their capacity is 58,000 litres each and there is a long fermentation of 80 hours reaching an abv of 8-9%.

The stills are all larger that the old Clynelish stills but retaining the same shape, including the reflux bowls on the neck.  Uniquely (perhaps) the wash stills are slightly smaller (25,060 litres) than the spirit (26,241).  The long lyne arms are almost horizontal on the wash stills but drop around 20 degrees on the spirit before reaching tube condensers inside the still house.  There is a fairly long distillation time on the spirit stills totalling 12 hours with a middle cut of around 5 hours, lots of reflux being developed in the process.

Output has now reached 4.2m litres p.a. after those 2 new washbacks were installed and production went to 7 days a week in 2008.  From one of the smallest outputs in Scotland when Barnard visited the old distillery, Clynelish now has one of the largest.  The spirit is transported to Diageo’s central Scotland operations for casking but there are over 6,000 casks stored in those long warehouses at Clynelish.

Brora and Clynelish Warehouses
There is a long history of distilleries providing draff to local farmers for cattle feed and early distillery owners were often farmers as well, sometimes starting the distillery to make use of excess grain production.  In Diageo’s previous guises such as DCL and SMD they also acquired some of the farms associated with the distilleries when they took them over.  The Clynelish Farm beside the distillery is now the last farm owned by Diageo, an echo of those first farms created on this land as a precursor to almost two centuries of distilling.

The distillery symbol on the OBs is a wildcat, a protected species that still roams wild in the highlands around here.  A wildcat also appears in the Sutherland Clan Crest so the symbol on the bottle reflects the distillery heritage as well.  The standard distillery bottle is a 14yo which is part of the second wave of whiskies to join Diageo’s Classic Malts range.  They also produce a Distiller’s Edition bottling at 1 year older having been double matured in Oloroso Seco casks, and a distillery only bottle of cask strength whisky matured only in American Oak.

Wildcat logo on label and jugs; mirror behind from James Ainslie & Co, owner from 1896
There is a sweet maltiness to the 14yo and you can tell it’s from a coastal distillery, and there is also a rich waxy texture that Claire pointed out to me as a characteristic of this whisky that I hadn’t quite been able to place before.  There are also some independent bottles available but 95% of production goes for blending, including into the Johnnie Walker Gold and Blue Labels.  Clynelish is the main malt in the Gold Label, so named after the gold that has sometimes been found in the hills near the distillery through which their water supply flows.

Don’t rush to them thar hills with yer hillbilly gold pan though; the returns are slim at best from hours and hours of standing in highland streams where you are more likely to catch a cold than nuggets of gold.  You might be better off investing in some old bottles of Brora, not that I’d recommend that either (yer mileage may vary, or some other legal cop out) but I would definitely recommend tasting some if you can.  The annual release of a limited number of 30yo bottles regularly impresses and the 2004 release I sampled at The Gathering in Edinburgh in 2009 was exceptionally complex and flavoursome.

Brora Distillery, 1930s - backdrop to one of the best whisky tastings I have ever enjoyed
So I prefer the Brora to the Clynelish but then I am biased towards the peaty whiskies; but time is almost running out for the 30yo with 2013 being the final release possible at that age.  Are Diageo holding back stock for older releases and will it hold up to what we have enjoyed so far, and at what price?  Maybe I should try some gold panning after all, just to fund a bottle or two.

Claire pointed out that the distillery bicentenary will come round in 2019 and 6 special casks of Clynelish from 1998 are being held to bottle a 21yo then.  What she didn’t mention was that the same year will be the 50th anniversary of Brora commencing its peaty production!  What are the odds on 6 casks of that first nectar also being available then?  Standing in a cold stream panning for gold while fighting off wildcats is not conducive to surviving the next 8 years to find out, so I think instead I will try to preserve myself by way of their fine whisky available now.