Our July 2019 Auction features an impressive old and rare selection of both Brora and Clynelish. We asked rare whisky expert, Angus MacRaild, to share with us his views on what exactly makes these bottles so special...
There may be distilleries with more easily graspable histories. Names that are sexier. Flavours that are more obvious. Bottlings which are more affordable - or even more expensive. There might be distilleries with more numerous releases to be collected or tasted. There are certainly many distilleries - even other closed ones - which are easier to ‘get’. But there’s just something about the whiskies of the old Clynelish distillery that seem to inspire ruthless and profound devotion amongst those who’ve been bitten by the Brora bug.
"THEY ARE NOT EASILY FORGOTTEN.."
There’s an unusually hefty crop of stunning examples in this month’s sale. From both the post-1969 ‘Brora’ era and the pre-1968 ‘old’ Clynelish original distillery. Both eras produced whiskies of immense and distinct character. The post 1969 distillate filled as ‘Brora’ was famously peated to a degree akin to that of Islay whiskies of the time. A shortage of water on Islay motivated then owners Scottish Malt Distillers (forerunners of Diageo) to try their hand making peated whisky at the recently decommissioned old Clynelish distillery. The eventual result, while undoubtedly on a par with the likes of Caol Ila and Lagavulin in terms of peat and potency, was quite unlike any other single malt in Scotland.
Those early 1970s fillings are characterised by a vivid weight of farmyard aromas infused with earthy smokiness, coastal freshness and breathtaking power, control and complexity. Examples like the 1972 Rare Malt bottlings, along with other official releases like the 40 year old, are held aloft as the pinnacle of this style. For those fortunate enough to have tasted them, they are not easily forgotten.
"AN ALMOST MYTHICAL STATUS..."
As the 1970s progressed, Brora slowly shed its peat profile. Perhaps the most interesting years in this period are 1976-1978. A transitional time when the peat was down but not out. The resulting whisky was one that glowed with honey, heathery smoke and numerous mineral inclusions. The bottlings from these vintages have long suffered by comparison to their early 1970s counterparts. This is understandable but if you try some of the old SMWS bottlings from these vintages - bottles which rarely turn up these days - such as the 1978 18 year old 61.4, you’ll find a remarkably balanced and complex dram that shows mid-era Brora at its best.
As Brora neared the end of its lifespan it began to travel full circle in terms of flavour profile. With latter batches harking backwards to the old original Clynelish style of waxes and minerals. While also looking sideways at the still fledgling Clynelish 2. It is fascinating to compare bottlings from these years with the original Clynelish make. Perhaps even more than Brora, the old Clynelish single malt carries an almost mythical status. Bottlings like the old Edward & Edward Clynelish 12 year olds - bottled at cask strength in 1969, 1971 and 1973 - have turned up occasionally at Whisky Auctioneer and always fetch impressive prices. Outwardly these bottles aren’t always in the best condition, but it is always the liquid that drives prices with these bottlings. Old Clynelish is the ultimate name in reverence of the whisky itself; of style over substance and of primacy of character.
"DAZZLING TEXTURAL, LAYERED DRAMS..."
There can be no disputing that character either. Often dazzling textural, layered drams - they are waxy like the make of Clynelish 2 but with added mineral structure, immense coastal freshness and raw, petrolic power. The Edward & Edward bottlings are perhaps some of the greatest examples for the sheer, unabashed nudity of the distillate in all its full-strength glory. However, the likes of the old Sestante 1965 bottling also shows the distillery character still bright and undimmed at 24 years of age.
More than anything it is the quality of the whisky itself which has underpinned Brora / Clynelish’s success and durability at auction. Not to mention its seemingly bullet proof reputation amongst drinkers. It is heartening to see that the distillery will soon be active again, but it’s hard to imagine that after such a break their final product will match the glory of these old bottlings.