The wind howls outside, a door creaks, the candles flicker, and an announcement from drinks giant Diageo sends you screaming with haunting excitement.
The news came earlier this month: The whisky connoisseur’s dream of the legendary, silent distilleries of Port Ellen and Brora being revived was real. A shocking £35 million will be invested into the development, renovation, and modernization of the sites, in order to return them to their former glory.
While still catching their breath, Scotch whisky fans were hit with even more great news, a day later – Ian McLeod Distillers were bringing the famed Rosebank distillery back to life.
Zombie Distilleries – A History
Back in the 1980s, times were difficult. Single malts were a young discovery, and hadn’t yet reached the demand they enjoy today. Thus, the spirits produced at Port Ellen and Brora were primarily destined for blends. There was surplus of such spirits, and no real necessity for the ones in question.
In 1983 both distilleries closed their doors. The sites were, for the most part, preserved, allowing the remaining stock to mature peacefully. The Lowland Rosebank distillery followed in 1993, and all three sites faded away.
A turn of events years later, saw Diageo release aged expressions from the lost distilleries, which became annual bottlings known as their Special Releases, amidst the growth of single malt whisky. As part of a rare collection, single malt bottlings from both Port Ellen and Brora rolled out to a surprisingly warm welcome. The romantic notion of a “lost” distillery, paired with exceptional, highly mature whisky was a winning combination, and the expressions quickly grew popular. With limited supply and high age statements, prices quickly rose alongside demand, until the names of Port Ellen, Brora, and Rosebank rung loud, reaching the ears of the most fanatic collectors across the globe.
Port Ellen in the lead, followed by Brora and Rosebank helped pave the lost distillery movement. When the whisky is gone, it’s gone for good, making each and every dram a fleeting piece of history.
The movement gained further momentum decades later, after the legendary Japanese Karuizawa and Hanyu distilleries shut down. The bottlings from Japan were tirelessly hunted down by rich, fanatic investors and collectors in Asia and the U.S.
Today said bottles are almost extinct. Hanyu and Karuizawa bottlings have fetched millions this year alone, with the most expensive Karuizawa bottle going for over $130,000.
Well, the timing is perfect.
The Scotch whisky industry is skyrocketing, as sales continue to rise all over the world. This year saw many new distilleries in Scotland break ground. Many more were announced, to open in the coming years. The population is thirsty for whisky.
With well-known, already established brands showcasing bottles worth thousands of dollars, the difficulty comes in finding a reason not to reopen the distilleries. The romantic idea of “lost” whisky may be gone, but it’s been replaced by new hope and excitement for a bright future.
In the modern whisky world, that’s a decent alternative.
Out of The Grave
Yay, the distilleries are returning! But what happens moving forward? One thing is for sure, the years ahead won’t be easy.
Port Ellen will require the most work, as new buildings, stills, and other equipment are necessary. Rosebank is in a similar situation. The installation of three stills is needed in order to replicate the distillery’s historic distillation methods.
Brora’s previous stills will be refurbished and housed in the site’s existing buildings.
Production at the Diageo sites won’t be huge, with capacities of 800,000 litres – a huge reduction compared to past production limits. Port Ellen’s capacity was once almost double that. Between 500,000 and 1 million litres will be produced at Rosebank, with production estimated to start around 2020 for all.
Each site will enjoy distinctive production methods and cutting-edge alterations, yet all share one common goal: to recreate the wonderful whisky that was produced decades before, while bringing a modern, innovative twist to the table.
Tradition meets innovation, old meets new. The excitement is at its peak, and we have years to wait. How will we manage?
According to rumours, as construction commences, the distilleries will be releasing some well-aged bottlings from existing stock, to build anticipation for the revivals.
As a Scotsman with a long past living in Japan, specializing in Japanese whisky, spirits, and Scotch came naturally. George now acts as creative director for Japanese whisky retailer dekanta, and travels the world in search of spirits and stories. Find his writing on Distiller, dekanta, and here on the Alcohol Professor. Follow him on Instagram @whiskyislander