Last year we were treated to an exclusive tour of the recently-reopened Brora Distillery in the Highlands to see how the Diageo team are getting on bringing a legendary single malt whisky back to life.
There’s a well-known joke about a tourist lost in rural Ireland asking for directions from an old man. The man replies: “well I wouldn’t start from here.” That’s rather what it must be like reviving Brora distillery.
Recreating a legend
The revived distillery filled its first barrel last year but things are very much work in progress. The aim is to recreate that famous Brora taste with the same or replicas of the equipment used up until the distillery closed in 1983. But the problem is that the original set-up wasn’t ideal for making the kind of whisky the team wanted.
If you were building a distillery from scratch and the aim was to make a fruity new make, you would want lots of copper contact which would involve using shell and tube condensers. But Brora always used worm tub condensers so after the distillery reopened last year, the team had to work out how to run them so they work very slowly. According to brand ambassador Andrew Flatt, “we run them super hot to keep the vapour in as long as possible so you get as much reflux as possible.” Or in other words, I wouldn’t start from here.
He described the process as “reverse engineering”, trying to get the equipment to replicate the taste of the surviving whisky. The problem is nobody is quite sure why old Brora tastes as it does. Take that elusive quality known as ‘waxiness’, think the skin on an apple or even cheese rind. This comes partly from a build-up of oils in the spirit receiver. At the sister distillery which opened in 1969, this is known as “Clynelish gunk” and, according to Flatt, “they lost the character once when they cleaned it.” Though they have started filling barrels, the Brora new make doesn’t quite have this elusive quality.
To further complicate things, that classic fruity style isn’t the only Brora out there. In the 1960s, because of a drought on Islay, there was a demand for smoky whiskies in the image of Caol Ila or Lagavulin for blends. So Brora switched to making peated whisky between 1968 and 1981, according to Flatt. The revived distillery will also make a smoky whisky in the future.
But it’s the third style that has proved the hardest to replicate. This was a funky, earthy style that the distillery produced occasionally in the early ‘70s. This was probably not intentional and may have had something to do with a bacterial infection. Nowadays, however, these wild Broras are some of the most prized bottlings. With their trademark barnyard note, they smell a little bit like certain wines that have been infected with Brettanomyces such as Chateau Musar from Lebanon or Domaine de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
So though Brora has started filling barrels, visitors to the distillery can’t actually try the new make. Instead, Flatt gave me three new makes which mimic the sort of character that they are after, but he asked me to keep their actual provenance secret. My lips are sealed.
Brora’s rich history
The whole revival of the distillery has been a bit like that, based on incomplete knowledge as to how it originally worked. Before taking me around, Flatt gave me a whistlestop history including a look at the plans when the distillery was remodelled by Charles Doig in the late 19th century which were found in an old bin bag. He showed me minutes from the DCL meeting in 1968 when it was decided to build a second distillery called Clynelish, and the original distillery became known as Brora, and old ledgers which workers kept from the tip, including the heartbreaking final one from 1983 which stated “feints brought forward” (see above). Nobody is sure what happened to these final feints.
Entering through those famous wildcat gates, it’s hard to imagine that the Brora was a wreck until very recently. It’s now probably the most perfect-looking Highland distillery I have ever seen. When Plato was thinking of a distillery, this was it. It’s so perfect, that it almost feels like a film set.
According to Flatt, it took a quarter of a million man-hours from highly qualified tradesmen to get it into this state of perfection. The renovations involved removing the pagoda for repair. But much of the most time-consuming work can’t be seen, such as cutting stone blocks in half in order to put in fire retardant material and insulation, and rebuilding the foundations so the buildings didn’t collapse.
Recreating the classic set-up
The team has tried as much as possible to recreate the classic ‘70s set-up. It starts with a Porteus mill, not the original one but period correct. The rollers are quite far apart to get a rough texture. The mash tun is the same as the one from 1973, with a rake and gear. They don’t agitate it continuously because the aim is to get a clear wort. The data for operating the mash tuns comes from books from the 1970s.
Then there are six Oregon pine washbacks. They use Kerry liquid yeast with very long ferments – 115 hours. The idea is to build up fruity esters. These will develop further as bacteria build up in the wood of the washbacks.
Thankfully, the original stills were never removed because they worried that the building would have collapsed. They were refurbished by a team from Diageo’s Abercrombie works. The stills are run slowly, around 11 hours. Then the new make is condensed in those hot-running worm tubs before running into casks. The capacity is to produce something like 850,000 litres per year. This is not a boutique operation. It’s all watched over by Nara Madasamy who began his career with Brewdog so knows a thing or two about fermentation.
Brora was ahead of its time
The tour finished appropriately enough in the dunnage warehouse, where there’s space for 5-6,000 casks, with a taste of the 39-year-old which was bottled at 49% ABV. A stunning drop, aged in 70% used casks, it’s incredibly vibrant, tasting more like a 15-year-old. The fruit, think pineapples and apple crumble, is quite sensational with the classic waxiness on display.
Tasting this mind-blowing whisky, it’s very hard to understand why Brora was closed in the first place. But the extraordinary thing about Brora is nobody quite realised how good it was or how well it would mature. Like Port Ellen, it all went into blends. The first single malt bottling of Brora came from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 1989. The first official bottling was part of the Rare Malts range in 1995. I remember these Rare Malts then priced at around £50 a bottle gathering dust on the shelves at Oddbins in the late ‘90s.
Those bottles are now going for around £10k. The 39-year-old I tried will set you back around £8k. And we won’t see or taste the results from the ‘new’ Brora for years. Life just isn’t fair.
Bespoke tours of Brora are available. Contact the distillery for more information.