Old is gold. That's one of the reasons to revisit the abandoned and forgotten, for there'll always be something rewarding that awaits. Scotland has more than 100 whisky distilleries in operation, but one iconic 'ghost' distillery gained fame after its closure.
The Brora Distillery in Sutherland, Scotland has been closed since 1983 because of a slump that plagued the whisky industry. This, in fact, resulted in rising demand for rare whiskies that was bottled before its closure. Notably, the Brora 1972 Limited Edition 40-Year-Old, which was sold as part of Sotheby’s Ultimate Whisky Auction in 2019 for a record £54,450 (S$102,181).
Diageo saw The Brora Distillery potential even before this feat and announced plans back in 2017 to revive it alongside another acclaimed silent distillery, Port Ellen on Islay, by injecting a massive £35 million planned investment. Now, The Brora Distillery is reopened after a three-year meticulous restoration.
With a host of specialists, whisky noses and archivists thoroughly 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. For example, the original pagoda roof to conduct intricate repairs, and rebuilt the stillhouse brick-by-brick using original Brora stone to restore this historic Victorian distillery.
To respect its heritage and to recreate the distilling processes of old, Brora will use a traditional rake and gear mash tun and use malted barley from Glen Ord maltings, exactly as it did in 1983. As a jewel in the crown of Diageo’s distilleries across Scotland and one of its smallest, Brora will also produce carefully controlled quantities of spirit, up to approximately 800,000 litres a year.
Although the past is preserved, contemporary elements and state-of-the-art technology are employed too. The distillery will also be a carbon-neutral site, powered entirely by on-site renewable energy to safeguard a sustainable future for Brora.
Brora's Master Distiller Stewart Bowman, son of the last exciseman at Brora in 1983, is also closely involved with its reopening. We spoke to him about pursuing the Brora legacy and expectations of future Brora whisky batches.
ESQ: What made you pursue the distiller career and the Brora legacy that your father had left behind?
Stewart Bowman: I’m originally from the village of Brora and I’m also the third generation in my family to work between Clynelish and Brora distilleries so whisky is in my blood. I have strong memories as a child playing with friends in the distillery courtyard and my Dad used to talk about the distillery a lot so it has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember.
I began my career working as a brewer but always felt that that distilling was going to be a likely path for me. There was always an allure about Brora and it was a great part of my father’s life and my childhood, so when I was asked to take on this position I was honoured to have been considered – I come to work each day with great pride in what we are doing for the Brora community.
ESQ: Describe the unique qualities of the Brora whisky. Will future batches live up to the expectations of their vintage predecessors?
Stewart Bowman: The dwindling Brora stocks that we have available to us show great complexity. Apparent in all is a rich exotic fruit character and a waxy flavour as well as texture. Waxy characteristics in whisky are very unusual and creating this will be one of my first major challenges as a master distiller.
We will use all of our skills and knowledge to create fermentation, distillation and maturation regimes that meticulously produce whisky that will match the character and quality of the illustrious Brora predecessors. There are elements that have helped us with this: the Brora copper pot stills are still in existence and have been refurbished by Diageo’s coppersmiths at Abercrombie’s and returned carefully to Brora. The Diageo archive holds comprehensive, and historic information on the previous distillation regimes of Brora, which have been used to guide work in the new distillery.
Inspired by the past, we do also recognise that technology has moved on and where appropriate we will use innovation to ensure we have the most energy-efficient and consistent quality production possible, whilst still honouring the artistry of age-old craftsmanship, passed down through the last two centuries.
That said, we acknowledge that we may, even then, need to wait over one decade before we can see how close the new whiskies are to the ones sitting today in our warehouses. But that is part of the joyful experience of making Scotch whisky.
ESQ: Tell us the most memorable impression you have of Brora and what it means to you.
Stewart Bowman: I’m the third generation in my family to work at Brora so we have a great deal of stories — my father speaks so warmly of the community spirit during his time there. From my perspective, my first memories of Brora are playing in the courtyard at the distillery and seeing the shuttered warehouses, wondering what casks remained within — there was always a great atmosphere at the distillery and through our restoration we have ensured that we retain this for our workers and guests in the future.
ESQ: How can we gain an insight into Brora’s heritage through rare tastings of releases and from the new distillery exclusive bottling tour?
Stewart Bowman: Brora will be opening its doors in the coming months and guests can enjoy an entirely unique whisky experience for Brora lovers. We feel it is a fitting tribute to the Brora of old and the efforts of those involved in the restoration. Each guest we hope will leave with a lasting impression of Brora’s past, our efforts to retain what makes it so special, and memories that they will hold for years to come when future releases of Brora will be shared.
ESQ: What can we expect of the future of Brora?
Stewart Bowman: We will uphold the care and attention to crafting Brora spirit that has always existed here, and has been passed on by generations. We look forward to welcoming guests in the years ahead and the releases in due course of future Brora releases.
For more information on the revived Brora Distillery and its products, visit Diageo Rare & Exceptional online portfolio.