The History of Clynelish

Posted by: Mark Hillan
23 August 2022

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Clynelish is located north of the East Sutherland village of Brora within the Highlands distilling region. The site where the distillery sits is home to two distilleries; Clynelish and Brora. The original Clynelish distillery, now known as Brora as of 1969, closed down production in 1983. Subsequently the interest and demand in Brora whisky has skyrocketed, which is a common theme among these 'ghost distilleries'. Similar trends have been seen in Port Ellen, Cambus, Pittyvaich and Rosebank. Brora reopened its doors in May 2021 after a three year restoration, marking a new and exciting chapter in the lengthy history of the distillery. 

The foundations of the Clynelish story is one built on somber beginnings. Clynelish is one of the multiple distilleries that opened as a direct result of the 'Highland Clearances' at the beginning of the 19th century. These Clearances were the result of land owners realising the potential profit that can be made through using their land for large scale sheep farming rather than crop farming or housing.  The Duke of Sutherland was infamous for evicting thousands of families, burning down their cottages and establishing large sheep farms. The distraught evicted workers were either sent to America or Australia, or were forced to resettle in small coastal tenant farms, where many farmers were expected to become fisherman. Following the Clearances, the Duke of Sutherland set up multiple businesses that were to be staffed by the former farming tenants. In 1819, one of these businesses included the Duke investing £750 into a distillery, which would go on to be known as Clynelish. 

The early days of distillery operations were filled with ups and downs, with ownership being passed around until George Lawson & Sons took the helm in 1846 until 1896. This lead to Clynelish building a strong reputation of high class production - this was seen in a report by Alfred Barnard, Victorian writer and distilling historian, where he mentioned the distillery having an impressive operation and remarkable reputation. Clynelish became so popular that they had to start rejecting trade offers, and the majority of their whisky was sent out duty paid to private customers all over the United Kingdom. This success carried over into the 20th century. In 1896, Glasgow based blenders James Ainslie & Heilbron along with John Risk purchased Clynelish from the Sutherland estate. This takeover saw Clynelish undergo a large expansion- building new warehouses for more storage space. DCL (Distillers Company Limited) and John Risk purchased the distillery in 1912, before Risk was bought out in 1925 which allowed for DCL to merge with John Walker and Sons, and become sole owners of Clynelish. This marked the beginning of the end for Clynelish's success, and the distillery was closed in 1931 during the Great Depression years, and remained mostly silent until 1945 after World War II. 

In the 1960s, blended whisky was at the top of the popularity scale, with little regard for single malts. Clynelish whisky was mostly used as filling whisky for Johnnie Walker and other DCL brands, whilst their single malt expressions were extremely limited. The distillery converted to electricity and internal steam heating for the stills, previously heated by coal from the mines in Brora. Then in 1966, to keep up with the growing demand for blended whisky, DCL started production on a new Clynelish distillery with 6 stills rather than 2. The new distillery was completed 1967, and both sites initially operated under the Clynelish name. The new, modern distillery operated as 'Clynelish A' with the old referred to as 'Clynelish B'. Clynelish B was mothballed in 1968, and reopened under the new name of Brora in 1969 after the Scotch Whisky Association did not allow for 2 distilleries to operate under the same name. Brora temporarily filled a gap for DCL by producing heavily peated whisky to differentiate from Clynelish, however the smaller capacity of the distillery made it difficult to compete with Caol Ila, and was closed down in 1983. 

Today, Clynelish is still very prominent in Johnnie Walker blends, and their current owners Diageo (formally DCL) also place the spotlight on their impressive single malts. These single malts are displayed through the 'Hidden Malts' series alongside Glen Ord, Glen Elgin and Caol Ila. Independent bottlers have also been active in bottling single malt Clynelish, with bottles from the likes of Hart Brothers, Adelphi, and Gordon & Macphail popping up on the secondary market from time to time. 

This months auction offers a couple of very rare Clynelish expressions such as a 12 year old single malt from the Clynelish distillery, bottled at cask strength for acclaimed Italian bar owner, Edoardo Giaccone; the first person in Italy to have official bottlings produced exclusively for his bar (then named Edward & Edward). Clynelish bottled three batches for Giaccone in 1969, 1971 and 1973 respectively. This bottle is from the 1973 release, which represents the first outing for the orange and brown label style that would go on to become the official Clynelish livery in 1977.

Also, a very special and exceptionally rare whisky distilled in 1965 at the old Clynelish distillery, which is now Brora, pre-dating the current Clynelish distillery and matured in oak for no less than 28 years. This was selected and bottled by Whyte & Whyte for the Spirits Library- a spirit importer which was based in Chicago before ceasing trade in 1998.



This lot sold September 2022 for £3,550.00

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