Brora The Age of Peat The Early History of Brora Distillery

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[Photo Credit: Clyne Heritage Society]

The  distillery  we  know  today  as  Brora traces its origins back  to  1819 when  it was established  as Clynelish  distillery  by the  Duke  of  Sutherland.  The  distillery we know today as Clynelish  was built next-door, beginning  production  in  1967.  The  two  distilleries  are part  of  the  sizeable  Diageo  portfolio  and like all of  the others,  find  themselves  there  due  to  long  associations  to the blended Scotch market.

This  journey  began  in  the  late  19th  century  when the Duke of  Sutherland ended  the tenancy  of  George Lawson  &  Sons at  the  distillery  and sold the  business to  Ainslie  &  Co,  a  blending  firm  based  in  Leith.  The company had  launched its Ainslie’s  blend in 1879 and jumped  at  the  opportunity  to  acquire  regular  fillings  of the  high-quality  Clynelish  single  malt  to  provision  it. Unfortunately,  the  company  was  short-lived  after  this point,  having  survived  the  wave  of  closures  in  Leith following  the  Pattison’s  Crash  in  1898,  but  having struggled  to  steady  their  ship  in  the  aftermath.  Their ownership of  the distillery  came  to  an end after  just sixteen years, declaring themselves bankrupt in 1912.

The  Ainslie  family  sold  their  assets  to  former  partner, John  Risk,  who  through  a  series  of  mergers  over  the next  decade saw  the  company become  Ainslie  & Heilbron  Distillers.  Importantly  however,  Risk  offered half of  the shares  in Clynelish  to  the Distillers  Company Ltd (DCL), the blended  Scotch empire that would go on to  become  the cornerstone of  what is  now  Diageo. Shortly  after,  John  Walker  & Sons would  buy into the  distillery, acquiring  a  one-third  share,  before  both they and  Ainslie  & Heilbron became part of  the DCL umbrella in 1925.

As a  company concerned foremostly with  the  blended Scotch  market,  the  acquisition  of  Clynelish  distillery was almost as important  as that of  John Walker  & Sons due to  its importance  to  its market-leading brands. Indeed,  Clynelish became crucial  not only to  the other DCL  blenders  like  Bulloch  Lade,  Buchanan’s,  White Horse  and  Haig,  but  also  to  rival  firms  like  Long  John and  Hiram  Walker.  The  pressure  on  the  distillery  to meet the demands  of  its  lengthy queue of  customers eventually  necessitated  an  increase  in  capacity,  the  chief impetus for  the new Clynelish  distillery  to  be built in the  1960s.  It  is  unsurprising  therefore  that  official  single malt  bottlings from  the  old  distillery  are  a  rarity,  and truly a blessing that they do in fact exist.

In the DCL  days, the  distilleries that  it owned would be  licensed  to  the  blending companies under  its charge  and in the  case of  Clynelish, this was Ainslie  & Heilbron.  Thankfully,  despite  the  core  interests  of  its parent  company,  the  blender  had  long-seen  the  value  of Clynelish  as a  single malt  and crucially  had  historic  links to  markets like the US and Italy  where  the  category  was quick to  gain popularity. Ainslie  & Heilbron marketed a Clynelish  single  malt brand from  as early  as the 1950s, bottling  5, 8 and 12 year old age-statements. In fact, it  continued  to  do  so  until  the  early  1980s,  however our  story  with  the  brand  ends  with  the  closure  of  the original Clynelish  in early 1968. Although  bearing the same name, whisky  from  the original distillery  is distinct  in its profile  and these rare  official outings  have become  wildly  sought-after.  The  distillery  of  course was  quickly  re-opened,  however  what  was  henceforth called  Brora  was  not  just  a  distillery  with  a  new  name, but  a  new  style  of  production,  turning  the  page  on  a new chapter in its story.