Scotch whisky history was made this month as restoration of the celebrated Brora distillery in Sutherland was completed.
Closed in 1983, the 202-year-old distillery was reawakened following a three-year restoration.
On 19 May, a small group of devoted Brora fans, collectors and enthusiasts gathered virtually around the world to celebrate the filling of the first cask and mark a new dawn for the distillery.
Originally known as Clynelish, production began in Brora Distillery on the north-east coast of Scotland in 1819 with the backing of the Marquess of Stafford.
In the late 1960s it was decided to expand production by building a new distillery, with the old distillery eventually being used to supply a need for heavily peated whisky for blending.
Between 1972-74 production of ‘Brora’ was in batches, becoming regular in 1975 when the distillery itself was officially renamed Brora. It was however only produced until 1983, when the distillery was closed.
Viewed as one of the lost icons of the whisky world, the distillery and whisky gained legendary status during its closed years.
Historic bottlings of Brora Single Malt Scotch Whisky found great acclaim amongst collectors with a bottle of Brora 1972 Limited Edition 40-Year-Old sold as part of Sotheby’s Ultimate Whisky Auction in 2019 for a distillery record of £54,450.
Master distiller Stewart Bowman, son of the last exciseman at Brora reopened the Brora wildcat gates and filled the first cask of spirit in more than 38 years.
The cask was carefully rolled through the courtyard to be housed in the distillery’s Warehouse Number One, home to the most precious relics of maturing Brora casks.
Stewart said: “In 1983 my father wrote in an old distillery ledger ‘Commencement of Brora Distillery silent season (undetermined period)’.
"Growing up in the village we often wondered whether Brora would ever return, but today we filled the first cask.
"It is with great pride that I can now say to my father, the Brora community, and all the ‘old hands’ that worked at Brora and helped to craft a legendary whisky, that the stills are alive and we are making Brora spirit once again.”
In 2017 it was announced that Diageo would restore Brora as a part of a £35 million investment to bring it and the equally iconic lost distillery of Port Ellen on Islay back to life, as a major commitment to Scotland and its communities.
Due to construction delays caused by the Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns have meant the Port Ellen isn't likely to open now until 2023.
Joanne McKerchar, Diageo archivist, played a crucial role working with the community to unlock key details from personal memories of past workers and their experiences at Brora before the time of closure.
Joanna said: “When we first opened the doors at Brora we walked into a time capsule.
"As a historian and an archivist for malts, I had never seen anything like that before. It was unbelievable just how untouched it was: as if the guys had just finished their shift and walked out - but, of course, nobody then came back in.
"What must they have been thinking the last time they flicked that light switch or they locked the doors not knowing whether we were ever going to see this place open again?
"You’re not just looking at stills or a physical building, it’s all of the emotion that would have went with that last day that suddenly comes flooding back and then that coupled with a big question: so what are we going to do now, and what lies ahead of us, and how are we going to achieve this?
"It was quite overwhelming.”
Joanna and Stewart worked alongside a host of specialists, whisky noses and archivists in the restoration of the distillery buildings and its prized spirit.
On the restoration process, Stewart commented: “We have gone to every effort to replicate, as closely as possible, the conditions, equipment and processes from Brora in 1983 in order to recreate the spirit for which the distillery is famous.
"The original pair of Brora stills travelled 200 miles across Scotland to Diageo Abercrombie Coppersmiths in Alloa where they were refurbished by hand; we raised up the original pagoda roof to conduct intricate repairs, and rebuilt the stillhouse brick-by-brick using original Brora stone to restore this historic Victorian distillery.”
Fully committing to recreate the distilling processes of old, Brora will use a traditional rake and gear mash tun and use malted barley from Glen Ord maltings, exactly as it did in 1983.
The process of restoration extended beyond the physical buildings to the Brora spirit that has made the distillery so legendary.
Using a combination of the tasting notes for the original new make spirit, stills refurbished to exact historic specifications, material from the archives and more modern distilling knowledge, the restorers managed to replicate, as closely as possible, the way the distillery operated in 1983.
Celebrated whisky expert master blender Dr Jim Beveridge OBE worked closely with technical partner Donna Anderson to restore Brora’s spirit.
Dr Jim said: “It was a wonderful challenge – one of the most rewarding that I have faced in my career as a whisky maker.
"When I heard of the plans to bring Brora back, I recalled tasting Brora stocks of the 1980s - one of my early jobs at Diageo many years ago.
"By sampling remaining old stocks of Brora and using historic tasting notes, we slowly built a picture.
"With my colleague Donna Anderson, we were able to make this vision of the liquid a reality by reverse-engineering the production process.
"It is our hope that we have safeguarded that beautiful Brora spirit character for generations to come.”
Along the restoration journey that lasted over three years, findings of documents led to Brora’s distilling secrets being revealed.
Joanna McKerchar added:, “As part of that first walkaround we found records which happened to be the original Charles Doig distillery plans from the 1890s.
"Until we found these plans we didn’t understand how the distillery had evolved over its 200 years of operation.
"It allowed us to map that out which allowed the full team of restorers to understand how the distillery would have run then, informing how it should run for years to come.”
As a jewel in the crown of Diageo’s distilleries across Scotland and one of its smallest, Brora will produce carefully controlled quantities of spirit, up to approximately 800,000 litres a year.
The distillery will also be a carbon neutral site, powered entirely by on-site renewable energy.
One of the latest releases from the distillery, unveiled in April, is the Brora Triptych: a three-piece collection of extremely rare Single Malt whiskies each representing a distinct style of Brora’s proud and storied heritage.
Brora Triptych will now be available to purchase, alongside the first in a new distillery exclusive bottling only available at Brora’s newly restored home, The Brora Distillery Collection: Hidden Beneath, a Brora 1982 39-Year-Old.
Brora will welcome visitors in small numbers by-appointment from July onwards, bookable their website.
Master Distiller Stewart Bowman explained what he hopes visitors will feel when they arrive, saying: "When people walk into Brora distillery, I want them to feel a connection to the past; to be able to understand the history of the place and to understand why we’ve put the distillery back together in the way that we have so that we can continue its legacy into future generations."