We take a look at three distilleries which have been brought back to life and now produce some of the UK’s best single malts
I was fortunate enough to have a private viewing of the world’s largest collection of Scotch whisky, which is housed in Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience. Built-up over decades by Brazilian whisky enthusiast Claive Vidiz, I was struck by how many of the bottles were merely an echo of distilleries which have now fallen silent, with the collection providing a snapshot of whiskies from across the ages.
Although distilleries such as Rosebank, Port Ellen and Brora have been confined to the history books, many others find themselves being given a new lease of life, thanks to renewed interest in Scotland’s national drinks from across the globe.
Founded in 1898 by Duncan McCallum and F.W. Brickman, Benromach has had a shaky existence from day one. The business partners picked a tough time to establish their distillery, with the depression in the Scotch whisky industry at the end of the 19th century meaning that production did not start until 1900. Even then, they did not manage to see out the year and the site closed due to a lack of money.
By 1911, it had been acquired by Harvey McNair & Co, although the company only got three years out of the distillery before the First World War forced its closure. It passed through the hands of a number of businessmen during the twentieth century, but after being hit by another downturn in the popularity of whisky, it eventually closed in 1983.
After ten years of silence, independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail eventually took ownership of the site in 1993, and by 1997, they had started to restore the distillery to full working order. Interestingly, this included a redesign of the distillery to allow just one man to operate it, and even today, it still boasts a workforce of just two.
Officially reopened in its centenary year, the tiny workforce is now responsible for between 150,000 and 200,000 litres of whisky each year (for comparison, Glenmorangie makes 6,000,000 litres per annum). The first bottling was produced in 2004, with the distiller positioning it as the flagship whisky in the old Speyside style, with a more heavily peated malt used to give a deeper, smokier flavour. There have been a myriad of releases in the years to follow but I think this distillery’s entry-level expression is one of its best.
The Benromach 10 Year Old has been part of the core range since 2009 and has been matured in an interesting combination of casks – 4/5 bourbon and 1/5 sherry casks for the first nine years, before a further year in oloroso casks. It has a very dry and malty nose, but dive deeper, and those sherry flavours start to present themselves, with dried fruits and hints of spice. All this transfers itself to the palate, although the spice is gentler than expected. Definitely a whisky that out-performs its young age statement.
In the early 1880s, Harvey brothers William, John and Robert – whose family had owned two distilleries in Glasgow since 1770 – were looking to expand their empire. Using inheritance from another family member, the brothers set sail for the whisky island of Islay, and in 1881, Bruichladdich distillery was born.
At the time, the distillery was considered state-of-the-art compared to the island’s other producers, which had mainly evolved from old farm buildings. But the Harvey brothers quickly fell out – as brothers do – with the running of the distillery falling to William, who produced whisky on the site up until his death in 1936. After this, it passed through a number of hands and narrowly avoided closure until 1994, when it was shut down after being deemed ‘surplus to requirements’.
Come the turn of the millennium, with whisky’s popularity on the up, the distillery was purchased by a group of private investors. They called on the helped of Jim McEwan – who had worked at Bowmore distillery on the island for over 37 years – and the process of breathing life back into Bruichladdich began. Over six months, the distillery was dismantled and reassembled, with the original Victorian décor and equipment retained, and much of the Harvey family’s original machinery still in use.
There have been claims in the past that Bruichladdich is not a true Islay whisky, due to the fact it uses unpeated barley in its core range. However, this was rectified with the introduction of both the Port Charlotte and Octomore ranges.
Octomore has gained a reputation as the smokiest whisky in the world and the latest release – 07.4 – is no different, sitting at 167ppm (smokiness in whisky is measured in “parts per million” of peat, with even Islay’s smokiest malts only coming in around 50-70ppm). This expression has gone through an interesting maturation: 25% of it was aged entirely in virgin oak casks, while 75% of it spent three years in first fill bourbon casks, followed by two years in virgin oak casks and then two more years in first fill bourbon casks. This wacky combination results in a sumptuous mix of sweetness, peat smoke and rich spice, which is rich, robust and warming, without overwhelming the palate.
Returning to Speyside, Tamdhu is another distillery which has benefited from the recent resurgence in global demand for Scotch whisky. Originally built by a consortium of merchants at the end of the nineteenth century, the hope was to produce whisky of the highest standards by building the most advanced distillery ever devised.
This task fell to Charles Doig, the famed and prolific Speyside distillery architect, who was also responsible for the building of Benromach, Balblair and Aberlour. Capital which would equate to £20 million in today’s money was raised, allowing Doig to build one of the foremost pioneering distilleries of the age. A water wheel positioned beneath the floor allowed for optimum performance; the kilns were redesigned to reduce heat loss and waste was extracted by Archimedean screw directly to the distillery’s own railway station.
Despite the best of intentions, the distillery’s whisky never gained the reputation its founders sought, leading to periods of dormancy throughout the 20th century. Capacity was tripled during an expansion in the 1970s, but its wares were blended away into brands including The Famous Grouse, J&B and Cutty Sark, with the stills finally falling silent in April 2010.
Thankfully, Tamdhu did not remain silent for long, with Ian MacLeod Distillers coming to the rescue in 2011. Purchasing the distillery from whisky giant Edrington, Tamdhu would sit alongside the company’s other distillery, Glengoyne. The stills were fired up and the spirit started flowing again by May 2013, with the bottlers using old stock from the distillery’s previous life to re-launch the brand at the Spirit of Speyside Festival in the same year.
Since rising from the ashes, Tamdhu has been best known for its 10 Year Old, which has quickly become the distillery’s signature bottling. But to mark its rebirth, a truly stunning special release comprising just 1000 bottles was created. For this limited edition, 100% of the whisky has been matured in first-fill oak Sherry casks. These sacred and much sought-after casks deliver an exquisite natural dark colour, whilst also ensuring a depth and complexity of flavour, which includes dried fruits, light citrus, a burst of cinnamon and a lingering echo of vanilla.