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Brora (pronounced: BROAR-a) is one of the most cult and fascinating distilleries in the world. Every bit as missed as Port Ellen but treasured and valued even more highly by a smaller, truly devout crowd of followers of this great malt. It was founded by the Marquess of Stafford in 1819 as Clynelish distillery, a name that would become synonymous with great malt whisky to both blenders and discerning drinkers alike for much of its life time.
Water Source: Clynemilton Burn
Stills: 1 Wash. 1 Spirit.
The evolution of Brora is a fascinating one that lies in the roots of expansion and modernization of the late sixties and early seventies. In 1967 the building of a new distillery up the road was planned, this distillery would be modeled identically on the old Clyneish distillery and would produce much more whisky thus helping to satisfy demand for the Clynelish make with blenders. Once production started at Clynelish 2.0 the old distillery was mothballed and might have remained that way had it not been for the drought that was affecting whisky production on the other side of Scotland. In 1969 there were sever water shortages on Islay leading to supply problems regarding peated malts which SMD (predecessors of Diageo) needed badly for their Johnny Walker blends. As a result the old Clynelsih distillery was restarted in 1969 with the aim of producing peated malt. Its name was changed to Brora and it subsequently ran until 1983 when it was closed as part of the mass distillery cull of the early eighties.
1819-1968: Original Clynelish.
Thanks to foresight of Mr Edwardo Giaccone there are some wonderful bottings in existence from the pre-Brora days of the original Clynelish distillery. In these days the malt was not peated so highly and almost all production methods would have been very old school indeed. Clynelish 1.0 converted to steam heating and shell condensers in 1961 and the floor maltings were last used in 1965, however the continued use of long fermentations meant that the spirit produced was always a denser, fruitier and more aromatically unsexy make. Perhaps the finest bottlings from this era are the white label official 12yo Clynelishs bottled for Edward Giaccone in 1969 and 1971. They are examples at cask and reduced strengths and they are all truly wonderful whisky in a style that is completely extinct in Scotland today. Massively oily, with wax, white fruits, coal, huge minerality, bone dry, flinty, intense, complex and very industrial, coastal and farmy, they are completely unique bottlings that are well worth seeking out if you can get them. There were also 5yo bottlings that were more zingy, citrusy and fruity with big notes of cereals and engine oil, these are also phenomenal and fascinating drams. Older expressions from the mid sixties were bottles by Signatory and Sestante in he mid eighties and are from sherry casks so display more richness with classical, clean sherry fruit, minerals and farmy rustic qualitites. There are also older official white label bottlings with spring caps from the fifties and earlier but these are so rare that I dont know anyone that has tried one, they are almost certainly brilliant though.
1969-1977: Brora and Peat.
When the distillery re-commenced production in 1969 it was using heavily peated malt, this was to prove recipe for some of the finest peated whisky ever produced. The big phenol levels married with the naturally waxy and fruity quality of the standard distillate was a match made in heaven and produced one of the most unique and distinctive spirits ever. The peat levels would gradually decline after 1973 but the spirit was still distinctively peaty for most of the seventies. The most famous bottling from these years is the official 1972 Rare Malts bottling. This is a bottling which displays Brora at its most intense and powerful, huge industrial and farmy notes meet pristine coastal aspects with massively oily peat running through everything. This profile is also in several wonderful bottlings by Douglas Laing from1970, 71 and 72. There are also some great CC bottlings of 72 Brora by G&M and a particularly brilliant sherry cask 1972 by Douglas Laing for the Plowed Society in the US. There were Rare Malt bottlings from 1975 and 1977 as well and while they are also brilliant they dont quite match the epic concentration of the 1972. By the time 1978 came around the peat was becoming more intermittent and the spirit was reverting back to the more natural old Clynelish style. This was due to the fact that production of peated malt on Islay was back up to speed.
1978-1983: Wax, Smoke and Austerity.
In the latter years of its life the peat became incredibly scarce at Brora but the quality was still extremely high. As with Port Ellen, there are more bottlings from this part of the distillerys life than before. Bottlings from this era display very old style fruity, waxy, mineral and oily characteristics, very typical old style highland malt whisky in other words.
Sadly Brora was one of the distilleries closed in the early eighties. Personally I think it is the greatest of all the losses, the whisky from there was so old school, distinctive and charming that its loss is a great pain. It is sadly also one of the distilleries from which there is virtually no stock remaining. Diageo still has sufficient stock to carry on releasing its annual 30yo expression for a few more years but independent bottlings have all but dried up completely and it looks like soon there will be no more Brora to be released. If you can find a sample of this whisky from the early seventies then please do because it is such a unique drinking experience but above all else make an effort to try some of it before it disappears forever.