The Chemistry of Whisky

Visit Clynelish Distillery with MNIW Team

whisky distillery | whiskylifestyle

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September 13, 2022

Every secret you need to know about Clynelish and its whiskies.

In June, the MNIW team embarked on an adventure: visiting Scotland, its beauties… and of course its distilleries! We cannot yet reveal all the projects that took us on the road, but we certainly want to share our distillery tours with you. Indeed, what better occasion to tell a little piece of whisky history! Therefore, come with us to discover Clynelish distillery, the first facility we encountered on our journey.

Clynelish Distillery Profile

Foundation Year: 1819
Region: Highland
Where: Clynelish Distillery, Sutherland, KW9 6LR
Owner: Diageo
Number of Stills: 6
Washbacks: 8 wood, 2 steel
Water Source: Clynemilton Byrne
State of Production: Active
Distillery Visits: visitor centre open to the public. The tour must be booked in advance.
Whisky Profile: Clynelish distillery produces a fruity, waxy, slightly smoky, sea-spicy single malt.

The Foundation of Clynelish

The history of Clynelish is certainly one of the most fascinating and complicated stories to be told. Indeed, it is impossible to tell the story of Clynelish’s birth without mentioning the story of this distillery twin sister: Brora. But first of all, let us explain the events in order.

When the Duke of Sutherland (the wild cat that you see on the label, is actually his coat of arms!) founded a Whisky distillery in the small village of Brora on the east coast of Scotland, located roughly halfway between Inverness and John o’Groats, in

1819, he didn’t necessarily do so out of love for Whisky. The truth is very unromantic. The distillery was actually founded for purely economic interests and basically owes its existence to the Clearances at the beginning of the 19th century. 

What is a Clearance

The landowners of the day discovered that they could make much more money by turning their properties into sheep pastures rather than renting them out to local farmers. In the midst of this confusion, the good Duke – yes, we are being ironic – found time to worry about the illegal distillation of whisky. So, in 1819, when 250 houses were burnt to the ground in a single night, he spent £750 on the construction of a new distillery that would provide a market for locally grown grain.

As history records, the waste grain was used as animal feed, coal from local mines fed the stills, and pig manure helped to grow more barley for the distillery. An excellent example of a circular economy! And if in the early years the distillery had its ups and downs, passing from hand to hand to different owners, over time it prospered.

When Diageo became the owner

In 1912, James Risk took over the business together with the Distillers Company Ltd. (now Diageo), which took over his share in 1925.

But if up to this point the story was simple enough, things became complex when in 1967 a sister distillery was built right next to the old Clynelish. 

James Risk worked closely with DCL and the blending company John Walker & Sons and, when the latter was incorporated into DCL in 1925, Clynelish came along too. The company closed in the 1930s but produced small quantities of spirits during the Second World War.

Long story short, to increase the production of whisky, in 1967 a new plant with six stills was built next to the original distillery (until then Clynelish had only one pair of stills). The old plant was mothballed for a year before being started up as ‘Clynelish B’.

A Twin Sister: Brora

So here was the twist. The Clynelish we know is actually the twin sister born in 1968 of the original. 

The old Clynelish, on the other hand, was renamed Brora in 1969, when it started to produce a high-proof spirit for blending. The heavily peaty Brora years continued until 1973, after which the smokiness was reduced. Brora closed for good in 1983, becoming a ghost distillery for quite a few years. Until, in 2021, Diageo decided to reopen the distillery and start whisky production again. But that’s another story…

Let’s go back to Clynelish instead.

Production 

Clynelish Whisky is very popular as a Single Malt. However, partly due to the initial focus on blenders within the John Walker & Sons’ house, it wasn’t easy to find a single malt in the 1990s. Things changed when a 14-year-old semi-official ‘Flora & Fauna’ bottling became available. This was replaced with the proper Original Bottling in 2003, also bottled as 14 years old (first release in 2002).

But let’s take a small step back and take a look at Clynelish’s production in general.

Mashing

Clynelish’s cast-iron mash tun with its copper roof, in service since the distillery was built in 1967, was replaced by a stainless steel one during the 2016 renovation.

The water for Clynelish production is drawn from the Clynemilton Burn, which flows over mineral-rich rocks. A popular destination during the 19th-century gold rush! In fact, the river hid (and it still hides) nuggets of gold at the bottom.  So when someone calls Clynelish liquid gold, they are not just saying it for pure poetic sake!

As for the malt, it comes from a place about an hour south of the distillery, from the Black Isle. Twelve tonnes of malt, together with 49,300 litres of water, enter the mash tun for a single mash.

And so the magic begins!

Fermentation

At Clynelish eight wooden washbacks that comprise about 58,000 litres are used for fermentation. The process lasts up to 86 hours, which is as long as at very few distilleries. The results are in very tropical, fruity aromas.

​​Distillation

Clynelish has six pot stills built during the 2016 renovation. There are three wash stills with a capacity of 25,000 litres, but they are filled with 17,000-19,000 litres. After distillation in the wash stills, the resulting whisky has an alcohol content of about 20 %. The three Spirit Stills have a capacity of 19,000 litres each. Exactly: at Clynelish, the spirit stills are actually larger than the wash stills! The result is a light and fresh spirit with 67% alcohol.

Moreover, Clynelish produces a ‘waxy’ new make spirit, a character created in a most unusual fashion.

As we said, Clynelish’s spirit stills are larger than its wash stills. This regime would help to produce a fruity spirit were it not for what happens in the feints receiver. In any distillery, there is natural precipitation of oils in this tank which would normally be removed during the distillery’s annual silent season when the plant is fully cleaned. However, at Clynelish they found out that when this happens, the waxy character disappears. Realizing that the gunk had specific qualities, these days it is removed during silent season… and then replaced!

Warehouses

The large production volume makes it impossible to store all production in the headquarters’ warehouses. Most of the production is sent to Diageo’s central warehouses. But what many people do not know is that around 6,000 barrels are left to mature in the two old warehouses of the neighbouring sister distillery Brora. A friendly sister, no doubt about it!

Whiskies

Returning to the whiskies produced at Clynelish, we mentioned that the 14 years old is one of the great Single Malt classics. Indeed, this expression defined the standard Clynelish single malt profile: a complex mix of oily and waxy notes, honey, vanilla and citrus aromas, and spicy malt and maritime notes with a hint of smoke. It is composed of 60% Sherry and 40% Bourbon casks. There was also a Distillers Edition, which was finished in Oloroso Seco casks, which adds rich aromas of dried fruit to the character of the standard bottling. 

If you are ever in the proximity of Clynelish, be aware that a cask-aged bottling fully matured in American oak is only available directly on-site. Undoubtedly a nice souvenir to take back with you!

But let’s take a look together at some other iconic Clynelish whiskies.

Clynelish whiskies – Official Bottling

Clynelish 1970 – 12 years old

Bottled: 1970
Age: 12 years old
Strength: 43.0 % Vol.

A 1970s bottling of Clynelish by Ainslie & Heilbron distillers with the old white label that was replaced by the classic orange and brown livery in 1977.

Aged 12 years, this single malt was distilled at the original Clynelish distillery – now known as Brora – before it was closed in 1968.

Tasting notes

Nose: Mango, papaya, pineapple, hints of fresh algae on the beach. A touch of coffee, with some orange peel and sea breeze.

Palate: an explosion of flavours and aromas – spices, orange and with a mouthfeel that is oily and thick.

Finish: long, slightly drying and smoky.

Clynelish 1980s – 12 Year Old

Bottled: 1980s
Age: 12 years old
Strength: 40 % Vol.

A 1980s bottling of Clynelish by Ainslie & Heilbron Distillers but bottled by Gordon and MacPhail. These old Clynelish bottlings have an enormous cult following.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Fruity and peaty aroma, fresh orange juice, passion fruit, red apples, peppermint tea, wet hay and malt.

Taste: Peppermint sweet taste, vanilla, walnuts, orange marmalade and malt.

Finish: Medium long spicy and peaty end.

Clynelish 1972

Bottled: 1972
Age: 24 years old
Strength: 61.3 % Vol.

A 1972 vintage Clynelish released as part of Diageo’s Rare Malts series. 

Tasting notes

Nose: creamy honey and waxy, with hints of butter and lemon peel.

Taste: extremely waxy, with lots of honey notes, flower jams, sweet orange, plum and apple.

Finish: long, mineral, a lot of fruit, sweets, a hint of peat and pleasant bitterness of oak.

Clynelish whiskies – Independent Bottling

Clynelish 1966 CA

Distilled: 1966
Bottled: 1989
Age: 23 years old
Strength: 51.7 % Vol.
Bottled for: Sestante Import
Bottler: Cadenhead (CA)

A fantastic bottling of Clynelish, bottled by Cadenhead’s in 1989 for Italian importers Sestante. This is known as the White Label series and includes two Ardbeg along with this Clynelish. This whisky predates the construction of the current Clynelish distillery, meaning this beauty was distilled at the facility today named Brora.

Tasting notes

Nose: Metal, soot and fumes. A little apple, mango, fresh pineapple, a hint of peach, digestive biscuits, and peat.

Taste: Waxy, thick, fruity: all the flavours are full and mouth coating,

Finish: long with a sweet turn.

Clynelish 1990 – Samaroli 

Distilled: 1990
Bottled: 1998
Age: 8 years old
Strength: 59.0 % Vol.
Bottler: Samaroli (Sa)

This limited edition whisky (only 492 bottles were produced) is bottled by Samaroli, perhaps Italy’s most revered independent bottler of Scotch whisky. Many of his bottles now occupy deserved sports on the pantheon of whisky greats.

Tasting notes

Nose: Fruity, floral, vegetal, green apples, citrusy, lemony, hints of peat and smoke.

Taste: Very punchy but though oily and smooth. Tobacco, peaty and woody, plenty of old books but still fresh citrusy and lemony, seaweed and green tea.

Finish: Long and burning hot.

Have you ever visited Clinelish? You can find all the information you need to visit the distillery on the website!

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