[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.