Interview, The Chemistry of Whisky

A Tour of Brora Distillery

Andrew Flatt | interview | whisky distillery

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September 29, 2022

Everything you need to know about Brora and its whiskies.

On our distillery tour of Scotland, after Clynelish, our second stop was (of course) Brora.
In the previous article, we already – and inevitably – talked about Clynelish’s twin sister. But here we will focus more on Brora, discovering all its secrets thanks to Andrew Flatt, Brora’s brand home host. So let’s dive into this distillery tour together once again!

Foundation Year: 1819
Region: Highland
Where: Brora, Sutherland KW9 6LB
Owner: Diageo
State of Production: Active
Whisky Distinctive traits: highly waxy, oily and mineral with different levels of peat.
Type of Visits: Tour available by appointment only.

The History of Brora

Standing in front of the gates of a distillery is always exciting. Standing in front of the gates of Brora, a distillery rich in history and charm is absolutely mind-blowing. After all, this is a ghost distillery that came back to life a few years ago.

We have already talked about the origins of Brora. Now, we will focus on its rebirth. Indeed, just when everyone thought that Brora’s stills would remain quiet forever after it was closed down in 1983, in 2021, following the acquisition of Diageo, the distillery restarted and began to produce whisky once again.

brora distillery

Brora Today

What about its soul? Fear not. The reopening has not altered the very heart of Brora. Quite the opposite. In fact, the new team attempted to restart the distillery exactly where we had left it off, with the same equipment and the same characteristics of its single malt whisky.

The restoration team examined the still registers and collected oral histories from former distillery workers to ensure the continuity of the characteristics of its whisky production. In short, the current production at Brora is trying to replicate the original distillate from before the closure.

But there is one small detail that will help the team achieve this goal. In the Diageo archive, there are bottles with the old new make. This means that experts can literally recreate the original whisky’s taste from a tangible example!

Brora Whisky

Due to the closing in 1983 the amount of Brora Whiskies is very limited. The most available bottles (however difficult to find) are vintages of the 70s and 80s with about 15 to 35 years of maturation.

The whisky is a lightly peated Highland Scotch. There are still quite a lot of old independent bottlings of the distillery. Bottles from those decades are a real trip back to the past. Each of them naturally has its own unique characteristics but a few things unite them: the peaty hint of the whiskies and their complex symphony of flavours. In short, it is a whisky for those who do not have a shy palate.

Brora Production

brora still

As we already said, since its reopening in 2021, the production at Brora has been running again after an extensive renovation. Indeed, some of the original production items were refurbished, others had to be replaced completely. But the the water for production still comes from the burn that flows directly past the distillery. 

As we already said, since its reopening in 2021, the production at Brora has been running again after an extensive renovation. Indeed, some of the original production items were refurbished, others had to be replaced completely. But the the water for production still comes from the burn that flows directly past the distillery. 

The mash tun is actually the exact replica of the old stainless one installed at Brora in the early 1970’s. And it was even made by the same company: Abercrombies. As for the washback, the old wooden fermentation vats had dried out over time and started to leak, thus they were removed when the distillery closed and taken to another one. The current washbacks are brand new recreations of the originals.

As for the former stills, they are still in place and will be reused for distillation after refurbishment. Thankfully, they were never removed because they worried that the building would have collapsed! Having the original stills gives an important advantage: the possibility of replicating the new make exactly as it once was. A great way to take a trip back in time!

A chat with Andrew Flatt

But enough talk from us. We have someone who can give us a very close insight into the distillery: Andrew Flatt, Brora’s Brand Home Host.

We’ll be delighted to also have a little introduction about yourself!

I left behind a 14-year career working for the Police and now work as the Brand Home Host at Brora, welcoming guests to the iconic distillery, leading highly personalised tours and tastings of Brora’s historic stock. During my previous career I spent my spare time working as a freelance whisky writer, newspaper columnist, blogger and event host. In the past, I have also been lucky enough to be involved in judging several whisky competitions and currently sit on the judging panel for the World Whisky Awards.

The Brora distillery was used for the production of blend whisky. At some point, it also started producing single malts. How did this transition between the two productions come about? At one point, did the two types of production take place simultaneously?

Originally the spirit produced in the distillery was used exclusively for blends, having had a long history with Johnnie Walker in particular. The different levels of peated malt used in the production of the spirit was driven by demand from the blending team. In order to ensure that there was enough inventory for the various blended whiskies, Brora Distillery produced what was required by the business at the time.  Brora was asked to produce this in particular due to its flexibility, and renown for produce a very high quality spirit, that was very sought after by blenders. 

Are there any particular moments from Brora’s history that you would like to share? Are there any legends or stories linked to the distillery? Can you please clarify the history of Brora? 

  • The distillery was founded, as Clynelish Distillery, by the Marquis of Stafford in 1819. 
  • In 1887, Alfred Barnard wrote the demand from private customers was “so great that the firm have for some years been obliged to refuse trade orders”.
  • At a time when the vast majority of whisky was going straight into blends, Clynelish was being sold as a single malt and to private customers.
  • The distillery’s capacity was substantially increased in 1896/97 by Ainslie & Co. 
  • To cope with demand, a new distillery was built next to Clynelish in 1967. They were known as Clynelish A and B, until the original was renamed Brora Distillery in 1968. 
  • Brora produced a heavily-peated Islay-style whisky from 1968 up until 1981 when its peating levels were brought into line with other mainland malts.
  • Brora Distillery closed in 1983 and since then the whisky it produced has become one of the most highly prized and sought-after products in Scotch whisky. 
  • In 2017, the decision was taken to re-awaken Brora Distillery in answer to existing enthusiasts’ hopes 2017 – 2021:  In order to restore the original masterpiece, work began to replicate, as closely as possible, the conditions, equipment and processes used at the distillery in 1983.
  • 19th May 2021: The first cask of Brora is filled after more than 38 years of quiet.

What are the differences between Brora and Clynelish whisky? Is the production technique different?

‘New’ Clynelish was designed to replicate the signature ‘Old’ Clynelish style and character, as it had garnished a stellar reputation in the industry, but utilised much more upscale, modern and efficient production methods. At the time, Brora had a maximum capacity of around 1million litres per year, whereas for scale it’s more modern neighbour can now produce upwards of 4.8 million litres.

Andew Flatt, Brora’s Brand Home Host.

What structural or general changes have taken place since Diageo reopened Brora?

Earlier this year, Brora appointed Jackie Robertson as its new Master Distiller. Jackie joins Brora from the distinguished all-female team at Talisker, with 17 years experience behind her creating some of the world’s finest whiskies at Diageo’s most prestigious distilleries. 

According to our research, Brora is trying to replicate the same type of whisky produced shortly before the closure from a sample stored in the Diageo archives. Is this news true? Will Brora go back to being the distillery it was before or will there be some changes?

Using a combination of the tasting notes for the original new make spirit, the exact same stills, material from the archives and more modern distilling knowledge, we have managed to replicate, as closely as possible, all the equipment and processes used originally. This relied on the combination of talents from some of Diageo’s most recognised experts, celebrated whisky noses including Master Blender Dr Jim Beveridge OBE drawing on his personal connection to the distillery over the past 40 years, which was then made a reality by Donna Anderson, drawing on her technical expertise. 

Does Brora have plans for environmentally sustainable production?

Brora is now a carbon neutral distillery after the installation of a biomass boiler to provide energy for the stills. The biomass boiler is fuelled by woodchip from sustainable sources in the North of Scotland. By using technical advances over the last 38 years, water efficiency is greatly improved in the distilling processes, cooling for the worm tubs is via an Adiabatic cooling system. While this doesn’t change the distillation regime, it allows the use of new technology to improve the original distillery.

At present, it is only possible to visit Brora through private tours. Will it ever be open to the public?

Brora extends a warm highland welcome to those wishing to visit the distillery. Distillery visits are conducted in small groups and on a by-appointment basis only in order to ensure the tour is intimate and bespoke. Bookings can be made through the link here. 

View from the street

Have you ever visited Brora? Share this article and tag your next travelling companion on the Brora distillery tour!
You can book your visit on the distillery’s website www.brora.com.

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*The cover photo of this article is from the Diageo website.

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