A Rich Pour 37: Clynelish Distillery – A Story of Crofters, Clearances, Whisky and Wildcats
November 14th, 2016
Clynelish Distillery is located in the northern Highlands of Scotland, a stone’s throw from the coastal village of Brora and the A9 highway. It is owned by the giant drinks firm Diageo.
The history of Clynelish is replete with stark contrasts – power and disenfranchisement, prosperity and poverty, and new versus old. In many ways, the distillery’s saga mirrors Scotland’s last two hundred years. Above all, it recounts the birth and evolution of a little-known but essential malt whisky site.
A person time-traveling back to early 19th-Century Sutherlandshire would encounter a land similar to many contemporary, autocratic Third World nations – a place where the welfare of commoners fell beneath the footsteps of the fortunate.
George Granville Leveson-Gower, the Marquess of Stafford, and Elizabeth Gordon, the Countess of Sutherland, partnered in marriage and maliciousness. The couple presided over 1,300,000 acres of British territory, and possessed enormous wealth. (In 1832, one year before his death, Gower’s union with Elizabeth would bring him the title of First Duke of Sutherland.)
Gower, ably supported by his wife, personified a particularly loathsome trait of English nobility. He possessed an unflinching sense of self-righteousness bound with an almost total disdain for the lower classes. The Marquess intended to rid the couple’s properties of crofters and illicit distillers alike, so that sheep alone might roam the lands. To this end, he appointed James Loch (from the University of Edinburgh) as his Lands Commissioner, and Patrick Sellar (a lawyer as well as a sheep farmer of a portion of the couple's Sutherlandshire lands) as the Estate Factor.
James Loch pictured himself a moral man. He was, in reality, one of the most misguided social reformers of that era. Loch believed his employer’s subjects would actually benefit from their own removal. Sellar’s involvement, meanwhile, was clearly motivated by pure greed. This alliance of idealistic illusion and ruthless desire proved extremely dangerous.
The Marquess and Countess, spurred on by Sellar’s torching of terrain in and around the village of Strathnaver during the spring of 1814, forcibly dispersed thousands upon thousands of their tenants to areas of the Highland coast (notably around the town of Brora) and elsewhere. These upheavals left central Sutherlandshire bereft of people.
The damage was irrevocable. (More than a century and a half later, the county’s population density stood at a paltry one person per one hundred acres.) Even worse, the effects of the Sutherland Evictions – as they came to be known – soon reverberated throughout northern Scotland, when other land-barons committed equally despicable acts of clearance in the name of progress.
Gower and his wife may have succeeded in realizing their relocation strategy. But the pair now faced another challenge – how to make the plan even more profitable. George and Elizabeth elected to have many of their tenants grow grain, so as to provide a wage-to-rent basis for increasing their own income. The building of a local brewery, where some of the grain harvests might be utilized, further solidified the potential financial windfall of this venture.
Scotland’s burgeoning whisky market presented yet another irresistible option, however. In 1819, Gower established Clynelish Distillery, and then leased the two-pot-still property to James Harper of Midlothian. Trading losses forced James to relinquish his position soon thereafter, and John Matheson filled in briefly in 1827. Harper returned for a second stint the following year, lasting another six winters. He then departed the scene for good, whereupon Andrew Ross took over the reins.
George Lawson obtained the license for Clynelish in 1846. He and his sons retained exclusive rights to the distillery’s product during the next half century. The enterprise prospered under their management. By the mid-1880s, Clynelish’s thriving two acre site included three grain mills, a pair of maltings buildings and five storehouses.
In 1896, James Ainslie & Company Limited of Glasgow purchased the still-site. The firm rebuilt Clynelish two years later, and hung onto the distillery until 1912. During this era, the malt whisky of Clynelish was as highly sought after as any.
John Risk, a distillery trustee with a sizeable ownership share, in alliance with the Distillers Company Limited (or DCL), then acquired the Ainslie family’s interests (although the reconstituted Ainslie & Heilbron Distillers Limited continued to retain licensing rights to some of the whisky well past the time of this transaction). The Clynelish Distillery Company Limited thereby came into existence.
Between 1915 and 1916, John Walker & Sons Limited obtained a one-third interest in the Sutherlandshire property. Clynelish’s Highland malt richness and bracing shoreline saltiness were valuable attributes to experienced blenders such as the Walkers.
With the early 20th-Century consolidation of the Scotch whisky industry, Clynelish was subsequently absorbed into the portfolio of the Distillers Company Limited through DCL’s Scottish Malt Distillers Limited affiliate.
In 1967, Distillers Company Limited decided to erect a larger, modern, industrial-appearing edifice next-door to the original still-site. This new Clynelish Distillery contained six pot stills (three wash and three spirit), and possessed far greater production capacity.
The older, two-still operation was abruptly decommissioned, then almost as quickly reopened. What precipitated this rapid about-face? A disastrously dry summer of 1968 on the Isle of Islay had left the parent company scrambling for a reliable source of peat-reeked malt whisky (predominantly to be targeted toward buttressing many of the firm’s highly successful blends) to replace that of DCL’s three Islay distilleries, Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Port Ellen.
Following brief experimentation in the making of off-Islay peated whisky, the old stone buildings and equipment of the original Clynelish were rechristened Brora, and brought back on-stream. Over the next fourteen-odd years, the whisky produced here would, for a short period, be combined with that from the new Clynelish Distillery, but otherwise be kept separate as peating levels varied back and forth from the palpable to the barely perceptible.
In time, some of the more heavily peat-reeked whiskies of Brora attained cult status amongst malt whisky aficionados for their flavour intensity and complexity. Brora’s distilling operations shut down altogether in the spring of 1983, and its old stone buildings were repurposed as warehouses. (The Port Ellen Distillery on Islay also ceased operations soon afterward.)
Nevertheless, the contemporary Clynelish continues to thrive as a Highland gem in the Diageo stable of Scottish distilleries. Not far from the property, a transparent loch lies in the midst of a peat bog. This loch feeds into Clynemilton Burn, which eventually provides for all of Clynelish’s water requirements.
Clynelish’s make is highly prized in the industry, and has long been a favourite of whisky lovers. Its saline and subtly smoky coastal characteristics, not to mention its uniquely ‘waxy’ textural qualities, can be appreciated in many blended Scotches – notably in some of the Johnnie Walker releases. And increased visibility and availability of the malt whisky itself (as in the current 14-year old release) is sure to lure many more fans into the Clynelish fold.
Visitors to the region have a variety of accommodations (including hotels, bed and breakfast establishments, rental apartments and cottages) from which to choose. That said, for sheer proximity to the distillery, the Clynelish Farm Bed & Breakfast is impossible to beat. Meanwhile, golfers can avail themselves of Brora Golf Club’s traditional links-style course, which is celebrating its 125th-Anniversary in 2016.
Oh... For those of you who are curious about such matters, the wildcat trademark emblazoned on many bottles of Clynelish whisky is derived from the Sutherland clan crest. And yes, such wild animals apparently still roam much of the remote northern Highland countryside. Whether they like Scotch or not remains a mystery.
It’s high time for a ‘taste’ of Clynelish...
14 Year Old, Flora and Fauna series – 43% (an older release)
An enticing moment of Sherry and cream before the malt-pepper-salt tingling flame-tips take over. Lip-smacking delicious at any time.
14 Year Old – 46% (released earlier this decade)
A fragrance of fruit salad and old dried tobacco leaf. Far in the background, demure salt and mustard seed win out against even fainter smoke. Palate-wise, this release offers a Clynelish parfait par-excellence, with the frothy orange creamsicle sweetness sitting tenuously atop brine-stained barrel wood and coal embers. Honey, mustard and pepper dressing garnishes watercress at the close, yet the sweetness still lingers. Excellent juggling of the various flavour elements. And the increased bottling strength works wonders.
14 Year Old – 46% (the current official distillery release)
Very similar to the preceding, if a tad more forward and richly textured.
14 Year Old, Old Malt Cask series, distilled in 1995 – 50% (an older, independent bottler release)
A touch drier, ashier and more linear in flavour development than the official distillery releases profiled above. Still an impressive whisky, though.
22 Year Old, Rare Malts Selection series, distilled in 1972 – 58.95% (an older release)
Scents of spiced pear, earth and bonfires lead to salty, peppery winter melon fruit on the palate. Firm and dry with an explosive sweet grass surge, and then a subtly uplifted malt sweetness at the very end. Classic cask strength Clynelish.
And now for a trio of Brora bottlings...
21 Year Old, Rare Malts Selection series, distilled in 1977 – 56.9% (an older release)
On the nose, gentle breezes of crusted seashore brine and industrial smoke waft over sweet field grasses and lush malt. Some faint floral scents as well. Very focused. An oily, almost creamy texture in the mouth. It’s difficult to differentiate between the pulsations of malt, salt and smoke, so tightly bound are they. The sugared fruit sweetness is handily counterpointed by spicy oak and coal-like peat, while dashes of pepper add further warmth. This is one of the smokier editions of Brora one is likely to encounter, with the peat reek seeping into every corner of the proceedings. Hedonistically harmonious. Appetizer, main course and dessert all in one. A whisky for the ages.
19 Year Old, Old Malt Cask series, distilled in 1981 – 50% (an older, independent bottler release)
On the nose, honeyed tones infuse every grain of salt and whiff of peat smoke with a ripe fruit quality. Mouth-clinging texture. The Sherry cask influence is immediately apparent, and lends considerable roundness. Wine-wood holds back the reservoir of brine and smoke-laden spirit, but only momentarily, making for a nice twist of taste from the mid-point through to the long finish. An elegant single-cask Brora that only minimally subdues the innate piercing coastal characteristics in order to convey a more velvety persona. Dense, balanced and pleasurable.
20 Year Old, Rare Malts Selection series, distilled in 1982 – 58.1% (an older release)
A surging fragrance of sweet and sour tropical fruit and salt, the smoke puffing through in more minutely measured bursts than is the norm. Lightly viscous texture. An overture of ripe papaya (which becomes almost mango-like with the addition of a little water) is deftly held in check by citrus notes prior to the emergence of drying oak, a tantalizing touch of brine and demure smoke. A hint of barley husks subtly permeated by machine oil lurks amidst the mid palate sensation of malt grist, generating nut overtones. But the sweetness remains astounding and persistent, even managing to rebound to prominence on the finish. Not by any means the full dosage of that unique peat quality one might expect in a vintage Brora, perhaps. The vibrancy is captivating, nonetheless.
(Note: The Rare Malts Selection portfolio comprises a collection of cask strength whiskies, many from closed distillery sites. It was launched in 1995, but has since been discontinued.)
Referenced books and web-sites
Kuebler, Doug. The Tumbler’s Guide to Single Malt Scotch Whisky: Armchair Reference Manual & Field Guide, Copyright © 2003 by Doug Kuebler & Topeda Hill Publishing, Baldwin Mills, QC, Canada
Kuebler, Doug. The Tumbler’s Tasting Notes, Copyright © 2010, 2014 by Doug Kuebler & Topeda Hill Publishing, Baldwin Mills, QC, Canada
MacLean, Charles. Whiskypedia: A Compendium of Scottish Whisky, Copyright © 2010 by Charles MacLean, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY, USA
www.whiskyfun.com/brorahistory, Copyright © 2003, 2005 by Serge Valentin
This edition of A Rich Pour is dedicated to my longtime friend, editor and publisher, Danny Lewis, who passed away suddenly in late October of this year. Danny was a true Renaissance man and a most generous person to boot. I will miss him greatly. Danny, here’s hoping there’s many a delicious dram wherever your travels may take you.
Doug Kuebler is an inveterate aficionado and collector of wines and whiskies. Apart from organizing wine and food seminars, Doug has also written extensively on wines and liquors over the last three decades. His first published book-set, The Tumbler’s Guide to Single Malt Scotch Whisky, has been well received in North America, the British Isles and Asia.