Updated 12 August 2022

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Clynelish Brora Distillery | Newly Restored

After thirty eight years the stills at Brora Distillery have finally been re-ignited, signalling a new era for the ever popular distillery. Clynelish Distillery continues to be a power house in the production of Johnnie Walker Whisky, and both distilleries are well worth a visit (if you can) to show the juxtaposition between small batch old world whisky (Brora) and new world mass production (Clynelish).

Clynelish Brora Distillery History

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.

Clynelish Brora distillery under a blue sky

Clynelish Brora Distillery

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 the stills at Brora were once again shut down.

Clynelish on the other hand prevailed, and an expansion/refurbishment was completed in 2017/2018. Clynelish’s former copper-top mash tun is now a beautifully repurposed bar at the (also Diageo owned) Blair Athol distillery in Pitlochry.

Old and rare clynelish and brora whisky samples

Samples from various Clynelish and Brora casks, including Clynelish 1975 Hogs Head Refill (Dewars), Clynelish 1980 Hogs Head Sherry Cask, Brora 1972 Butt Sherry Cask (Haigs) and Brora 1975 Butt (Johnnie Walker)

Resurrection

In October 2017, Diageo announced that they would re-open Clynelish Brora Distillery (along with Port Ellen Distillery on Islay). Production at Brora Distillery commenced again in 2021. Tours of the distillery are still available, though unfortunately now quite limited, as it is a beautiful example of an older distillery.

Clynelish Brora distillery 1977 cask close up

Brora 1977 cask - very few of these remain on site - however stock should increase substantially now that Brora Distillery has re-opened.

Brora Whisky

Until the new-make spirit has had sufficient time to mature (at least 2024 but more likely a lot later) you’ll find it difficult to acquire any Brora bottles other than on specialist sites, for a considerable sum, given the stills have been silent since 1983. Brora whisky was often heavily peated, unlike its sister distillery Clynelish, which has only a whisper of peat.

Clynelish Whisky

Clynelish 14yo used to be 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.

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While recent releases may have lost a bit of their historical flavour profile (which is a bit sad as the Clynelish 14 of old is a personal favourite), there is still complex spiciness, pineapple, cereal driven, fresh, clean, peppery ginger, though missing the waxy-ness of yesteryear. Hopefully we will see some more non-chill filtered releases in future (because they are good!). Try and get your hands on some independent releases if you can (non-chill filtered and uncoloured of course).

Where Are The Clynelish & Brora Distilleries

The Clynelish & Brora Distilleries are 58 miles / 94 km north of Inverness, along the A9.  

Driving : You’ll notice the town of Golspie first, and then Dunrobin Castle (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

screen shot of Clynelish Distillery on Google Maps

Clynelish Distillery Tours

Clynelish Distillery is open for tours daily.

Clynelish Flavour Journey

Full sensory tour and tasting £19 per person, 1 hour 45 minutes duration. Journey through Clynelish’s dramatic story and flavourful field-to-glass whisky process. Your full-sensory tour (light, sound, media and music) culminates in a tutored whisky tasting of drams, a highball and a sweet surprise overlooking the spectacular coastal Sutherland landscape. Book the Clynelish Flavour Journey Online.

Clynelish Express Tasting

£15 per person, approx 45 minutes duration. Tutored nosing and tasting (no tour) of three delicious scotch whiskies. With some local heritage and insider knowledge this interactive tasting experience gives you an insight into the history and mystery of Clynelish whisky. Book the Clynelish Express Tasting Online.

Brora Distillery Tours

Brora Distillery is open for tours on a restricted or on request basis.

The Eras of Brora

Three hours duration and £300 per person. Explore the past, present and future eras of Brora - guests will help craft the Brora spirit as they stand side-by-side Brora’s craftspeople of today as they go about their careful work to lay down casks for maturation. Journeying through tastings of new spirit and samples distilled almost half a century before, the visit culminates with a private tasting of fleeting moments of Brora’s storied past in the Brora Triptych.

These three distinct styles from Brora’s storied heritage are brought to life within the walls of those buildings, suspended in time, that have protected its spirit. The Brora Triptych tasting is an ode to the past and a promise of Brora’s commitment to continue this legacy for generations to come. This experience includes: a 3 course lunch of contemporary Scottish cuisine using local ingredients; tastings of Brora Triptych and additional limited edition Brora expression, in addition to a guided new make spirit nosing. Exclusive Bottling available only from Brora’s restored home subject to availability. Book Eras of Brora Online.

Brora Awakened

Three hours duration and £300 per person. To re-awaken a Victorian distillery, to restore the masterpiece – the challenge laid down to the team of experts tasked with bringing about Brora’s return. Guests are invited to bear witness to this meticulous process, explore the historic spirit that was almost lost to the world, and craft the Brora of today. Glimpses of Brora’s storied past are brought into the present day through original archive materials, personal tales from distillery workers before 1983 and, to complete the immersion in Brora, tastings of Brora's celebrated recent releases. 

This experience includes: a light lunch of contemporary Scottish cuisine using local ingredients; tasting of limited edition Brora expression, in addition to a guided new make spirit nosing. Exclusive Bottling available only from Brora’s restored home subject to availability. Book Brora Awakened Online.

Useful Visitor Information

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).

Children under the age of 8 are also not permitted on tours.

Black and white photo of the Clynelish Brora Still Room

Clynelish Brora still room prior to renovations.

What else is nearby

Accommodation

Located right around the corner from the Brora and Clynelish Distilleries is the beautiful Alba & Firth House

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If you're seeking the quiet life and some staggering scenery, this home overlooking the Moray Firth couldn't be any more perfect. Close to the coastal village of Brora (and the Clynelish and Brora Distilleries) you'll be poised to explore Scotland's east coast and the incredible Northern Highlands. A family home with big rooms and plenty of space to spread out, it's a comfortable and attractive home-away-from-home. Making the most of its position, it boasts huge windows, with some beautiful vaulted ceilings in the grand entrance hall and the sun lounge.

There are a large number of accommodation options in Inverness. The following is well known for its proximity to whisky bars:

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photograph of lounge suite at Highland Apartments

Centrally located, Highland Apartments by Manlsey offer the ultimate in modern luxury and comfort, with lifts (elevators) to all floors, secure private parking and free wi-fi internet access. Most apartments have balconies overlooking the town or the river, with Inverness Castle in the background. There are stunning views towards Loch Ness to the south and mountains to the north and west. It is an ideal location to enjoy Inverness' nightlife, including a short walk to The Malt Room, where you'll find over 200 whiskies and friendly staff to help you with a tasting.

If you're planning to travel with family or a small group of friends, Butter Shortbread is located in the heart of Inverness, and not far from The Malt Room:

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This three-bedroom two-bathroom home has been featured by the BBC and is a shining example of Scottish hospitality in the city of Inverness. Step inside, and you'll find a cosy space with plenty of seating, ideal for flopping down with a glass of whisky at the end of a long day of exploring. The hosts have put great thought into every aspect of this home, from the luxury toiletries to the Bose speaker systems in every bedroom and the extra-large bathtub where you can soak in perfect peace. You're just a few steps away from the banks of the River Ness, and Inverness Castle is less than five minutes away from your front door, along with a range of shops and restaurants in the city centre.

Brora Distillery (Pre-Renovation) Photo Gallery

Clynelish Brora malt floors and pagoda stack

Clynelish Brora malt floors and pagoda stack

Black and white photo of Clynelish Brora still house and mill house

The Clynelish Brora distillery, malt floors on the left, showing the top of the pagoda chimney, and the still house on the right, showing the top of the furnace chimney.

Black and white photo of Clynelish Brora spirit still and wash still and steel beam scaffold supports

The still room at Brora Distillery was behind glass for many years due to massive deterioration (closed 1983) but has since re-opened after considerable restoration by owners Diageo.

Grungy HDR style photo of Clynelish Brora wash still

The still room at the Brora Distillery was a hazard and behind glass for many years, prior to its restoration. Brora had one pair of stills (1 wash, 1 spirit)

Grungy HDR style photo of Clynelish Brora spirit still

The original still room at the Brora Distillery had one pair of stills (1 wash, 1 spirit)

Clynelish Brora distillery warehouse and casks - double stack, dunnage storage

Brora Distillery warehouse casks. Brora was closed in 1983 due to decreases demand, but re-opened in 2021.

Clynelish Brora Filling Hose and Casks

Clynelish Brora Filling Hose and Casks

Clynelish Brora spirit receiver vat, filling hose and casks

Clynelish Brora spirit receiver vat, filling hose and casks. The vat held 16,406 litres

Clynelish Brora distillery warehouse casks close up - double stack, dunnage storage

Clynelish Brora Distillery warehouse casks. Brora was closed in 1983 due to decreases demand (re-opened 2021). 95% of Clynelish is sent off site for use in Johnnie Walker.

Clynelish Brora distillery office

Clynelish Brora Distillery

Clynelish Brora distillery filling station and still house

Clynelish Brora Whisky Distillery

Warm toned black and white image of Clynelish Brora distillery warehouses

Clynelish Brora Warehouses - Brora is the original Clynelish distillery site. Brora was closed in 1983 due to decreases demand but has since been resurrected. 95% of Clynelish is sent off site for use in Johnnie Walker Whisky.

Other Activities (Inverness)

Resources & Further Reading

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picture of the front cover of book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard

One of Amanda's favourite books. Around 1885, Alfred Barnard was secretary of Harper's Weekly Gazette, a journal dedicated to the wine and spirit trade. In order to provide his readers with the history and descriptions of the whisky-making process, Barnard decided to visit all distilleries in Scotland, England and Ireland. Accompanied by friends, he visited and sketched over 150 distilleries. This is a wonderful step back in time and a must have book for a whisky history geek. 

About the author

Amanda

Amanda is an Australian-born photographer, digital nomad and whisky lover. Her passion for travel and whisky lead her to Islay, where she fell in love with an Ileach (an Islay native). Amanda and Roddy now share their Spirited Adventures.

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