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Serge Valentin on Brora - Complicated story, great whisky

By Serge Valentin

Serge Valentin on Brora - Complicated story, great whisky

Serge Valentin is a well known name on the whisky scene. A self-proclaimed 'amateur', Serge is nonetheless a highly respected commentator. A proud member of the Malt Maniacs he also runs the superb www.whiskyfun.com.

Interview with the author

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The distillery

Brora was first founded as Clynelish Distillery in 1819 in the town of Brora, in Sutherlandshire. The malt had such a high reputation that it was entirely sold to private customers, rather than blenders, until it was taken over by the mighty DCL (Distillers Company Limited) around 1930.

Even then, it was very much in demand among Scottish blenders, and was at times the most expensive of all Scotch malt whiskies. Yet, it was a rather small operation with only two stills so in 1967 its owners decided to build a brand new facility, with six stills instead of two, the adjacent Clynelish distillery. The old distillery was subsequently closed.

In 1968, a severe drought hit Islay while the DCL blends such as Johnnie Walker were in rising demand. The production of the company’s Islay distilleries was so small that capacity had to be extended. Some voices in the company asked for a new distillery to be built on Islay but some others started to wonder if it wasn’t possible to make some ‘Islay’ malt on the mainland.

After having succeeded in making some peated malt at Port Dundas maltings, the board decided to restart the old Clynelish Distillery to use it. After a few months of fine tuning, the output was declared as ‘undistinguishable’ from an Islay in May of 1969. A new name was chosen in December of 1969: Brora.

Distillery workers, around 1895

Brora went on making some wonderful Islay-style malt whisky until 1975, long after the production on Islay had returned to normal - especially at Caol Ila Distillery which had just been extended. The peat level in Brora was decreased and it started to make some Highlands-style malt instead of Islay-style, although some later batches have been quite peaty at times.

The closure

In the late 1970s, global whisky supply started to exceed demand and a ‘whisky loch’ started to build up. In 1983, it was decided that several malt distilleries had to be closed, the most famous ones being Port Ellen and Brora. Some were destroyed but others weren’t, and Brora’s buildings and equipment remain almost intact to this very day, including the two original stills that had been converted from direct firing to steam in 1961. The old warehouses are still in use for the ‘new’ Clynelish Distillery.

Collect or drink?

No whisky should be collected, only accumulated for future consumption

No whisky should be collected, only accumulated for future consumption. In any case, early Broras are now expensive, especially the classic vintages from 1970, 1971 and 1972, but can still be found provided you’re ready to hand out between 600 and 1200 Euros.

Bottles from the 1981, 1982 and 1983 vintages are even easier to find – and much cheaper. Some are excellent, check your favourite whisky websites, magazines or guides.

House style

1970-1975: Islay style, very peaty, somewhat austere and more elegant than most Islayers. I thin they’re the best ‘Islayers’ ever. 1976-1983: various styles, sometimes very close to ‘new’ Clynelish, sometimes medium peated ala Ardmore. Always quite waxy.

Buyers guide

Brora 30 year old (bottled 2009)

Brora 30 year old (bottled 2009)

The official 30 years old are of high quality and are relatively affordable but I doubt that’ll last much longer.

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Gordon & Macphail Brora 1982 Connoisseurs Choice

Gordon & Macphail Brora 1982 Connoisseurs Choice

Old 1972s by Gordon & MacPhail are also underestimated because of their low strength.

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Duncan Taylor’s 1981s can be superb and offer great value. Other than that, all 1972s Rare Malts or by Douglas Laing (also 1971) are superb but trouble is, everybody knows that already.