Scotland’s Ghost Distilleries

Scotland’s Ghost Distilleries

In the 1800’s, it is estimated that there were around 200 distilleries in Scotland. By the end of World War II, at least 70 of these had closed.

Ghost distilleries. Sounds more like something involving Captain Jack Sparrow and barrels of rum, rather than the more genteel and dignified world of fine whisky from Scotland. They are very real and becoming more and more important, for different reasons. The ever-increasing interest in fine whisky has even seen plans for the re-opening of some of the more famous ghost distilleries, such as Port Ellen and Brora. 

Be assured, Scotland has as many ghosts as any horror movie. 

So what is a ghost distillery? Basically, a once working distillery, sometimes much loved and highly regarded, which, for whatever reasons, has closed its doors. 

Now, in most industries, that would be it. Game over. The best it could hope for would be a mention in some nostalgic trivia competition. If a shoe factory shuts, it is unlikely that shoe aficionados (are there such people?) will seek footwear from the closed establishment decades later. Not so with whisky. Remember that it takes at least three years before the glorious nectar in barrel can even be called whisky, and any decent distillery worth the name will have many barrels of much older material. So when business stops, there is still potentially significant quantities of very fine whisky quietly maturing away in barrels. 

It can be sold for blending, but often it continues to mature and is eventually bottled as special releases. Or possibly included in something very limited and exciting – the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare is the perfect example. And of course, there will also have been bottles from the closed distillery which are already on the market. They will immediately become collectors' items and highly prized. Prices escalate enormously. Search the internet for prices of old bottles from the Brora and Ellen Port distilleries, two ghost distilleries which both closed in 1983 and see if you can find anything under several thousand dollars a bottle – if you can find them at all.

It hardly makes sense. If all this whisky is in such demand and so highly valued, why close? Many reasons, of course. During a period such as this where there is extensive and intense interest in great whisky, it is hard to imagine that there are times when supply far exceeds demand and many distilleries are simply not economical, let alone profitable. Brora is the perfect example. Its success caused its downfall, as detailed elsewhere. Things were going so well that a second distillery was built nearby (and given its name, the Clynelish Distillery, which was the name of the original distillery, subsequently changed to Brora). Unfortunately, the timing could hardly have been worse. Almost immediately after the new distillery commenced operations, the market took a downturn, and the owners were forced to close one. The older distillery was the obvious choice. However, there were a number of barrels of the proverbial liquid gold sitting in the halls, continuing to mature. They have not gone to waste. 

The Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare, a new offering, takes full advantage of the plunder from ghost distilleries. At A$480 a bottle, this new whisky needs to be far more than an overpriced marketing gimmick. And it is. It is the first release in what will be a series of very special whiskies. Each one will be based on a whisky from a long-closed distillery – a ghost distillery – and will include various other components, which may be from distilleries still operating or not. Many of these ‘contributions’ are often part of Blue. 

For the first release, five currently operating distilleries made contributions, as did three Ghosts. The ‘heart’ of this whisky is from Brora (interestingly, one of the operating distilleries which contributed is Clynelish, which was Brora’s neighbour and the reason for its demise). The other ‘ghosts’ in this blend are from the Cambus and Pittyvaich distilleries.  

In the 1800's, it is estimated that there were around 200 distilleries in Scotland. By the end of World War II, at least 70 of these had closed. After the War, whisky enjoyed boom times, and new distilleries opened, but things changed in the 1980s and more closed. We've mentioned a number of the Ghosts. A few others that are highly regarded and with cult followings are Braeval, Glenglassaugh, St. Magdalene (Linlithgow), Rosebank, Kinclaith, Glenugie and Glenlochy.

There may be ghosts in Scotland, but they are friendly ghosts, and one only wishes that we encountered them more often. 

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