The persistent clamour by malt fans to have Brora re-opened got louder each year as more new and fantastic expressions were released by parent company Diageo and various independent bottlers - but all protests have fallen on deaf ears and it now seems impossible for the distillery to go back into production.
The distillery now known as Brora started life in 1819 when it was founded by the Marquis of Stafford, later known as the Duke of Sutherland. This notorious character is more famous in Scotland for his part in the Highland Clearances, when he evicted around 15,000 crofters from his land in order to farm sheep. It is speculated that he started the distillery to provide a market for his barley and to put the local moonshiners out of business.
The distillery was originally called Clynelish, and the license gained by the Marquis in 1824 went through several hands until 1896, when the distillery was acquired bya Glasgow blending company called James Ainslie. When Ainslie went bust in 1912, the stock was bought by the Distiller's Company Ltd (DCL) and John Risk. Here the facts become slightly contentious, but it seems that some equity was sold to John(nie) Walker by Riskin 1916. Eventually both he and Risk sold up; DCL had assumed 100% control by around 1930.
After enjoying immense popularity almost from its inception (for long periods in its early history the malt produced at Clynelish was sold only to private customers and not to blenders at all), the distillery, in common with most of the industry, suffered in the period between the beginning of Prohibition in America and the end of WWII. Production ceased in the years 1931-38, and again from 1941-45.
During the subsequent recovery after the war, demand from blenders for Clynelish malt was extremely high, so to increase capacity DCL built a new distillery adjacent to the existing one in 1967-68. This distillery was also called Clynelish, as the company wished to trade on the existing good name of the old distillery. Here again,there seems to be some confusion and a lack of agreement as to the exact next sequence of events, with little orno agreement on the dates.
It would appear that the original distillery ran in tandem with the new distillery under the names of Clynelish A and Clynelish B (sources disagree over which was the new distillery and which the original Clynelish) during 1968/9. Predictably, this arrangement was not to the liking of the Customs & Excise folk and the SWA due to the dissimilarity between the types of whisky being produced at the two distilleries. The original distillery was closed down in1969 and then reopened bearing the name Brora. It then operated intermittently, producing heavily peated (around 40ppm) whisky for blending purposes.
Unfortunately, as mentioned before, there is a lot of confusion surrounding the period 1969-1983, with some sources claiming that the old Clynelish distillery was closed between 1969-1975 before being relaunched as Brora; others, meanwhile, have claimed that the distillery was closed for seven years before 1969. Diageo (as DCL has now become by way of IDV and UDV) seem a bit confused themselves - in a recent press release for Brora 30yrs they state that the distillery was closed in 1968 and re-opened in 1975. However, in the 1990s they themselves released a Rare Malts version of Brora from 1972.... it's clear as mud.
What is certain is that the late Seventies and early Eighties saw another big slump in the industry, and with the parent company DCL needing to cut back on production, in 1983 the decision was taken to mothball Brora (along with many other distilleries, few of which have operated since).Sadly, all attempts to revive Brora have thus far met with no success.
Despite all this, the reputation of the malt produced at Brora between 1969 and 1983 has gone from to strength to strength, with sought-after bottlings now changing hands for hundreds of pounds. In addition to the Rare Malts releases of the mid-nineties, Diageo recently began bottling Brora annually as a 30 year-old, but it is known that their stocks are very low, so these will soon dry up. There are also stocks belonging to independent merchants and bottlers, but as these cannot be less than 24 years old (at the time of writing in 2007) they will need to be bottled sooner rather than later.
If there is to be no more Brora (and it now seems almost certain that there won't be) it will be a terrible shame, but there are still bottlings available. What is beyond doubt is that this will be a distillery whisky aficionados will still be talking about decades after the last bottle is finally drunk.
Character and Style of Brora