Over the past few years, I have witnessed an unprecedented demand for rare and collectable whiskies, among them many from lost distilleries that are now widely described as ‘works of art’. The distilleries were shut down largely on account of a disproportionate build-up of stocks that were not picked up by whisky houses making blends, following the unexpected boom of white spirits in the latter part of 20th century. It is estimated that as many as 30 famous distilleries from about 200 distilleries that were set up starting in the late 18th century in Scotland are lost. Here I list five such distilleries that are still revered by collectors and connoisseurs, whose produce if available is valued as gold dust.
The Malt Mill
Malt Mill was the creation of Sir Peter Mackie, a legendary 19th and early 20th-century Scottish whisky maker, known for his pioneering role in creating blended Scotch. He ran the Lagavulin distillery on the island of Islay, where he also founded the White Horse brand of whiskies in the 1890s. The story is that in those days, he also acted as the sales agent of the Laphroaig distillery nearby. In 1908, when he lost that role over a dispute over water rights, he decided to create his own version of the Laphroaig by building a small new distillery called Malt Mill within the Lagavulin facility. Although the spirit produced by Malt Mill never matched the intended character, it was good enough to flavour some of the best whiskies during the period (I presume the famous White Horse blend contained some amounts of Malt Mill). And since it shut down in 1962, the spirit has acquired legendary status. Malt Mill and its mythical spirit were the central themes of Ken Loach’s 2012 film ‘The Angel’s Share’ which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. A pilgrimage to the Malt Mill and to touch its outer walls is the ultimate Haj for any true whisky lover. And to possess a bottle or some left over spirit of Malt Mill is the Holy Grail of whiskies.
From Lagavulin, if you step on the accelerator and head west, you are at Port Ellen Maltings in less than 7 minutes. On any working day, the white smoke from its three chimneys, that give out a complex aroma of fruity smells, welcomes you. This is Diageo’s Global Malt factory, and not a distillery. Founded in 1825, the distillery did not find a steady owner until 1936, when John Ramsay took over and continued steady operations until his descendants sold it to Port Ellen Distillery Co. in 1920. Thereafter it changed several hands and ultimately stopped distillation in May 1983. The present owner, Diageo, use the premises only for malting of barley which caters to the need of the other eight distilleries in the island and beyond. Needless to say, all the stock of the old whisky is owned by Diageo, who release teasing versions every year, and it is anybody’s guess how long the stocks in the casks will last.
My favourite: Port Ellen 28yo, (1982-2011), 60%, Wilson & Morgan
Also known as Linlithgow (the name of the town where Mary Queen of Scots was born in 1542), this is my choice as the best of the Lowlands malts. Generally speaking, the Lowland malts, owing to their light and fresh character, cannot compete with the big names from the Highlands, Islay or Speyside, but St Magdalene is as complex as the character of Mary Queen of Scots. The distillery used its peat from Falkirk and Slamannan (towns near Edinburgh), where the phenol levels were never great, but nevertheless managed to give the whisky a bold, complex character. The production facility was mothballed during WWII, opened again and ultimately closed in 1983. Now you can see a housing complex where once a great distillery stood. The majority of the leftover stock is owned by Diageo and to some extent by a few independent bottlers. There is no stock available for any new bottling.
My favourite: St Magdalene 19 yo, (1979-1998), Rare Malts by Diageo, 63.80%
Situated at the foothills of active volcano Mt. Asama in central Honshu, 300 km northwest of Tokyo, Karuizawa is a distillery that produced an explosive whisky like the volcano in the vicinity. At its peak, the facility produced 150K litres a year. The distillery, started by Mercian Corporation, ran into difficulties following family feuds, was mothballed in 2000 and ultimately closed in 2011. But during its 45 year run, Karuizawa produced magical spirit from its small stills, known for yielding thick, heavy spirit (like Lagavulin), using only the famous Golden Promise barley (like old Macallans) and pure spring waters running down the nearby hills. The spirit was matured in quality sherry casks (like Glenfarclas and Glendronachs) – a dream combination any Scottish distiller would envy. Therefore it is no surprise that Karuizawas invariably are winners at any whisky competition. Most of the stock is now owned by No.1 Drinks Company in England, and they release spectacular versions each year, which are acquired by collectors almost immediately, no matter how high the price.
My favourite: 39 yo, (1973-2013), 67.7%, No.1 Drinks Co. for LMdW
From Inverness, as one drives north on A9, the route follows one of the most exciting of the eastern landscapes along the scenic coast of North Sea. Shortly after the Dornoch Firth if one looks carefully towards the sea, the water enters inland through two vast hills, and it is here the locals say, Alistair MacLean drew inspiration to write ‘The Guns of Navarone’. Shortly you will be at Carn Liath, where you will encounter one of the largest and best-preserved Broch in Scotland. Brochs are tall stone-brick towers, which were built more than 2500 years ago, as outposts to warn of invasions by Vikings from the North. From here, you take a right turn and you are in the village of Brora. The Brora distillery was originally known as Clynelish and was built by Marquess of Stafford in 1819. The old Victorian building where Brora was produced still exists but there is no production. Traditionally, the distillery produced a highly peated spirit that was mostly used in making Johnnie Walker blends. In fact, in any blind tasting, the experts usually misidentify Brora to be an Islay whisky. The distillery discontinued production in 1983 and all left over stock is now owned by Diageo.
My favourite: 29 yo, (1972-2002), 59.5%, Douglas Laing Platinum Old & Rare.
(Some of the honorable mentions missing in the list are Rosebank, Glenury Royal, Mosstowie, Ladyburn and Lochside. Distillery data other than Malt Mill and Karuizawa are from www.maltmadness.com by Johannes Van den Heuvel and www.stmagdalene.com by Tomas Karlsson). The author is a whisky expert, attached to www. maltmaniacs.net
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