This week something unprecedented happened in the whisky world. Three “lost”, disused, in some cases partly or even completely dismantled distilleries are in the process being resurrected. Not one, three!
On Monday, Diageo announced it would invest 35 million GBP to rebuild / revive the now legendary Port Ellen and Brora distilleries. The news took everybody by surprise and created a lot of buzz amongst whisky lovers around the world. Not to be outdone, Ian MacLeod distillers (Tamdhu, Glengoyne), announced, they would also be reviving the – also mothballed and partly dismantled – Rosebank distillery.
Distilleries have shut down, been mothballed, dismantled and sold – and sometimes restarted ever since the invention of distillation, but this is taking things to a new level. There is a Scotch whisky boom going on and companies are reaching for the stars. Distilleries are getting expanded left and right, new gigafactories for malt whisky production emerge from the ground like mushrooms – even more so the hard to keep track of group of new (and old) entrepreneurs starting new, smaller whisky distilling enterprises all over Scotland and beyond. The next, logical step in this industry-wide capacity-crave is the rebuilding/revival of legendary distilleries – and the start of a new era.
Almost as an irony of sorts, all three distilleries were once shut down in times of low demand because they were surplus to requirements by their respective owners and not regarded as being crucial to the needs of blenders. The peaty whisky of Port Ellen could also be made at Lagavulin and Caol Ila. Brora was initially called Clynelish and had a newer, bigger distillery built on the same site, but was used alongside its replacement for a few years, before it got mothballed and just sat there Brora is also the distillery with most of its equipment – especially the stills, still in place. Rosebank, well, it was a blend-filler malt and necessary repairs/upgrades were deemed too expensive to be viable. There was a reason each and every one of them shut down – and initially their loss was lamented by few. If you haven’t already, go look up the history of these distilleries – every one of them is fascinating and telling.
Only in the boom times for single malt whisky, slowly starting in the 2000s, single malt drinkers discovered the beautiful character of these, by then sadly long-closed, distilleries. Being closed/disused/dismantled, supply was finite, prices went up and each of these distilleries attracted a cult following – not unnoticed by their prior owners and independent bottlers alike. In a way, closing them was what turned them into cult whiskies.
Now that attention for single malt is at never before seen levels, the owners (in the case of Brora and Port Ellen) and independent companies (Rosebank) saw their chance to use what are now big names in whisky and revive them. Online commentary ranges from delight to the shaking of heads. Personally, I think there is a niche and a chance for all three projects. What I would love to see is all three distilleries being treated true to style, recreating a character of whisky that is almost lost in today’s hunt for ever quicker maturation, ever higher turnaround and ever higher barley yield. If done right, there is a chance to do something truly unique – a terribly overused word these days. It will be a few years before we will get to taste whiskies from these reborn distilleries, so only time will tell.
Let’s just hope they won’t be knocked down again when the current era of booming whisky markets ends… that would truly be a terrible case of irony…
What do you think? What are your hopes, ideas, dreams? Which distillery would you like to see revived? Let me know in the comments section below
2 Replies to “Brora, Port Ellen and Rosebank revived? A new era begins!”
all three distilleries mentioned were in Diageo hands when they closed. So it would seem that the revival plans are just corrections of management decissions made in the 1980s.
But boy has the whisky landscape changed!
The single malt market was still in its fledgling years and in 1980 nobody would have kept the three plants open just to let them make malt whisky that at the time was seen as unsalable.
Times have changed. Single malts are a market of their own and have something inherent that blended Scotch has only to a certainbut much lesser degree.
With single malt the cul-de-sac movement in the whisky industry which is called premiumisation does seem to have no limits.
It destroys the whisky market as a whole but to see that it would need farsightedness not the blinding glory of seemingly unlimited profits from ever older and ever more expensive bottlings in expensive decanters.
The way I see it the resurrection of Bora Port Ellen and Rosebank are a bet on a future where the current boom has spent its momentum and whiskies from distilleries that gained cult status only by their closure could be a nice little extra money to bring the whisky industry through the dire times that will come sooner or later.
For capacity reasons this is not being undertaken because 800000 to 1000000 litres a year is not enough to be a leading malt in a blended Scotch.
But time will tell.
Thanks a lot for your comments, kallaskander.
I wholeheartedly agree – neither of these distilleries was seen as having a huge potential in the pure malt / single malt market, that was not an industry focus back then – and it has remained the same to that day for the “big” producers – their sales and revenues are still mostly driven by the blend market, even though the single malt market has obviously gone up. This has led to even revered distilleries like Highland Park currently not working at full capacity, because they don’t see the need for the blends – and maybe also not a clear enough market for the single malt to use the surplus capacity for that.
Obviously, all of the three distilleries are cult distilleries and from a branding perspective are great choices to resurrect – because they are known brands. It will be interesting to see what they will produce and how they will be positioned. Personally, I have no need to some day pay 100€ for a “revived” 5-year-old whisky – and, ultimately, the success of these distilleries will depend on sales.
They will not be clones of the whiskies of old times – but hopefully something adding to the whisky market.
And, yes, the premiumization of whisky is something I’m increasingly getting allergic against…