Clynelish Brora Distillery – Heart of the Highland Clearances

Clynelish Brora distillery under a blue sky

Clynelish Brora Distillery

In 1819 Clynelish Brora Distillery was established by George Granville Leveson-Gower, then Marquess of Stafford and his wife, Elizabeth Leveson-Gower, the Countess of Sutherland. Elizabeth was born to the Earl of Sutherland and inherited it all at the ripe old age of 1 when her father and mother died suddenly. Upon her marriage to George, he took control of her estates (though not ownership) and together they devised means of deriving income from them, establishing many new businesses such a coal mine, brick and tile works, weaving and salt panning, as well the distillery. Whisky production would increase the profits on the barley they were producing, and they could utilise the coal they were mining nearby as fuel.

Another of their money making ventures was to populate the lands with sheep, and in the process, evict the existing inhabitants. Clynelish, like Talisker, is a clearance distillery. The Sutherland’s oversaw the most brutal of the Highland Clearances. Their agents/factors burned whole villages, including one elderly woman who refused to leave. They wanted to ensure that the people could not return to their homes. Clynelish Distillery is in the heart of Sutherland – a mere 5.8 miles / 9.4 km from Dunrobin Castle, Clan Sutherland’s home since the 1400s.

From 1814 to 1820 roughly 15,000 inhabitants (3000 families) were evicted from around 794,000 acres of land in Sutherland and Caithness further to the north. The families were expected to move to the coastline, an area of approximately 6000 acres, for which the Sutherlands charged a rent of 2s 6d per acre.  They had little choice but to work in the new businesses the Sutherlands had set up.

Despite their efforts, and the abundance of cheap labour, Clynelish was not initially profitable, and its first licensee James Harper went bankrupt in 1827.

By the time of Alfred Barnard’s visit around 1887, Clynelish was well and truly back in business. Barnard notes “the demand for it … has become so great that the firm have for some years been obliged to refuse trade orders”. Clynelish was being sold only as a duty paid product to private customers, not under bond “and the whole stock is thus available for the ordinary business of the firm”. Annual output was 20,000 gallons / 76,000 litres from the two stills. At the time there were three granaries, two malt barns, one kiln (using only peat), four washbacks and one 13ft diameter/3ft 6-inch deep mash tun. Barnard also notes that they were no longer using Brora coal as fuel it was of such low quality. 1

Johnnie Walker Whisky

In 1896 Clynelish was acquired by blenders Ainslie & Heilbron, in partnership with John Risk. Risk purchased Clynelish outright in 1912 and worked very closely with John Walker & Sons. It has proved to be an enduring relationship, as 95% of Clynelish today is used to make Johnnie Walker whisky. DCL acquired both Clynelish and John Walker & Sons in 1925 and still retain ownership under the banner of Diageo.

DCL closed the distillery down during the 1930s and did not resume full production again until 1960. By 1967 the need for Clynelish was so great that DCL build a second much larger distillery on the site, also named Clynelish. The original site was to be retired; however, drought on Islay was affecting production at DCL’s Port Ellen and Caol Ila sites. There were concerns of peated whisky shortages for blending, so after a brief refurbishment, the original site was restarted and renamed Brora. Brora continued making spirit (peated and unpeated) up until the early 80s when demand fell, and so did Brora’s usefulness as a distillery. In 1983 Brora was closed for good.

Clynelish on the other hand prevailed, and an expansion/refurbishment is currently (2017) underway – the distillery is set to re-open around August 2017. Clynelish’s former copper-top mash tun is now a beautifully repurposed bar at the (Diageo owned) Blair Athol distillery in Pitlochry.

Resurrection

In October 2017, Diageo announced that they would re-open Clynelish Brora Distillery (along with Port Ellen Distillery on Islay). Production will commence again around 2020 after an investment of at least £35m (for both distillery refurbishments). While Port Ellen has no remaining distillery other than the warehouses, Brora has most of its primary structures remaining.

Getting To Clynelish Brora Distillery

Driving

Clynelish Brora Distillery is 58 miles / 94 km from Inverness along the A9.  You’ll notice the town of Golspie first, and then Dunrobin Castle, where you can stop off and view the home of Clan Sutherland since the 1400s. Pass through Brora, turn left at Clynelish Road and follow the brown signs to the distillery.

Public Transport

Clynelish Brora Distillery is relatively accessible by public transportation, being a 1.2 mile / 1.9 km walk from Brora Train Station. For train times see http://www.travelinescotland.com

Where Is Clynelish Brora Distillery

Clynelish Brora Distillery Tours and Bookings

For health & safety reasons, children under 8 years old are not permitted in the production areas of the distillery. For bookings tel: 01408 623000 or email clynelish.distillery@diageo.com

Clynelish Distillery Tour: £6 – Guided tour of the distillery with a dram of Clynelish 14 yo single malt.

Taste of Clynelish Tour: £12 – Guided tour and tasting of our Clynelish 14-year-old, Clynelish Distillery Only Cask Strength Bottling and Johnnie Walker Gold Reserve.

Taste of the Highlands Tour: £45 – A private extended tour of the distillery and tasting of exclusive Highland whiskies. Advanced bookings only.

The Clynelish Experience: £70 – A private extended tour of the distillery and tasting of exclusive Clynelish whiskies. Advanced bookings only.

The Brora Experience: £120 – A private extended tour of the distillery and tasting of exclusive Brora whiskies. Advanced bookings only.

Useful Visitor Information

The Trawler restaurant and Takeaway in Golspie does rather good fish and chips

As with all Diageo distilleries, photos are not allowed in production areas, which is most of the distillery. No, it’s not because they think you’ll try and steal their ideas or equipment design! Ethanol is highly flammable, and electronic equipment poses a potential source of ignition. As such, they’ve instilled a policy on all their sites – no electronic devices to be in use in production areas, or where ethanol is likely to be in higher concentrations (like warehouses).

Accommodation

We based ourselves near Inverness as it gave us many options for accommodation, and travelling to various sites in the area.

Our stay was in Beauly with a wonderful family, their spacious home overlooks the Beauly River Valley towards the Beauly Firth.  If you’d like a discount on your first stay with AirBnB click the link here.

Whiskies

Until the stills start up again in 2020, you’ll find it difficult to acquire any Brora bottles nowadays, other than on specialist sites for a considerable sum, as the distillery was closed in 1983. Brora whisky was often heavily peated, unlike its sister distillery Clynelish, which has only a whisper of peat.

Clynelish 14yo is one of my favourite whiskies – it’s a slightly sweet, slightly salty (‘maritime’) dram with quite a lot of complexity – hints of toffee, spices and honey.

95% of the whisky made at the Clynelish Distillery is sent off for blending into Johnnie Walker.

Clynelish Brora Distillery Images

Dramatic black and white photo of Clynelish Brora distillery
Clynelish Brora Distillery. Established in 1819 by the Duke of Sutherland to create a market for the barley produced on his lands, Clynelish distillery #1 (renamed Brora in 1975) operated until 1983. To meet production demands, a second distillery was built on the same site in 1968, and it is this newer distillery that we now know as Clynelish.
Up close and personal with a Clynelish Brora 1982 Cask
Very few of these remain on site - Brora was the 'original' Clynelish distillery, the second current Clynelish was established in 1967 to allow for increased production, however, in 1983 Brora was retired.
Black and white photo of the Clynelish Brora Still Room
Clynelish Brora still room. Brora was shut down in 1983 - the original stills remain however they're behind glass for safety reasons. As you can see front of the building is supported by steel beams.
Clynelish Brora malt floors and pagoda stack
Clynelish Brora malt floors and pagoda stack
Grungy HDR style photo of Clynelish Brora wash still
The still room at the Clynelish Brora site is now behind glass as the site is very old and a bit of a hazard. Brora had one pair of stills (1 wash, 1 spirit)
Clynelish Brora Filling Hose and Casks
Clynelish Brora Filling Hose and Casks

For more images and prints view our Clynelish Brora Image Gallery

Resources & Further Reading

Alfred Barnard, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, 2008 Edition, first published in 1887 by Harpers Weekly Gazette