On 19 May 2021, iconic ghost distillery, Brora was finally reawakened after from its 38-year slumber. Closed in 1983, the 202-year-old distillery’s return was made possible at the hands of Diageo. Following a meticulous four-year restoration, devoted fans, collectors, and enthusiasts witnessed the filling of the first cask, signalling a new dawn for the once ‘lost’ distillery.
The return of Brora is undoubtedly one of the biggest news in Scotch Whisky in recent years. For many, Brora’s fate was resigned to that of a ghost distillery, a once prominent brand that fell by the wayside during the whisky downturn of the 1980s.
Reviving An Icon
Despite closing its gates, the name Brora continued to live on, with many still remembering the brand for its exceptional quality and character of whisky maturing. Viewed as one of the lost icons of the whisky world, the distillery and its precious spirit gained legendary status during its closed years.
Historic bottlings of Brora Single Malt Scotch Whisky found great acclaim amongst collectors. In 2019, a bottle of Brora 1972 Limited Edition 40-Year-Old sold as part of Sotheby’s Ultimate Whisky Auction for a distillery record of £54,450.
Naturally, news that Diageo would restore Brora as part of a £35 million investment, which also included the lost distillery of Port Ellen on Islay, in 2017 was met with a lot of fanfare. The goal – to breathe life into the ghost distillery, stirring the Highland icon of Sutherland on the Northeast coast of Scotland back into contention as a well-respected maker of Scotch Whisky.
Fittingly, it was Brora-local Master Distiller Stewart Bowman, son of the last exciseman at Brora who reopened the distillery’s wildcat gates and filled the first cask of Brora spirit in more than 38 years. A native of Brora himself, Bowman grew up in the village with the top of the distillery’s bell tower visible from his kitchen window. It was a common topic of discussion amongst peers if the legendary distillery would ever return.
Now with Brora finally returning, fans and aficionados have their answer. As the one-time ghost distillery puts its four-decade slumber behind for good, we uncover this unique story of Brora’s return from Bowman himself, who reveals more about the revival process and what whisky lovers can look forward to from the once-silent distillery.
You have strong ties with the distillery. What does it mean for you personally to see Brora being revived again?
In 1983, my father wrote in an old distillery ledger ‘Commencement of Brora Distillery silent season (undetermined period)’. Growing up in the village we often wondered whether Brora would ever return, but in May it was a huge honour to be able to reopen the famous wild cat gates once again. It is with great pride that I can now say to my father, the Brora community, and all the ‘old hands’ that worked at Brora and helped to craft a legendary whisky, that the stills are alive, and we are making Brora spirit once again.
Did you ever think that Brora would forever be resigned to being a ghost distillery?
We have invested resources and effort in building the global reputation of Brora. That, along with the developing opportunities in the global whisky marketplace, is what has created the opportunity to restart distillation. The people in our Scotch business –both in distilling and marketing –are deeply passionate about Brora and many of them have long harboured ambitions to one day see it come back into production. The time has finally come for us to realise those ambitions, and the core driving motivation is our love of Scotch Whisky, our love of this distillery and our love of Brora.
Being part of the process of reviving Brora, what would you say was the hardest part?
The whole process of restoring the distillery was an honour for me. Whilst I wouldn’t say it was hard, a special part of the restoration and at the heart of the Brora distillery operation is the original pair of copper stills which travelled 200 miles across Scotland to be refurbished by hand by Abercrombie coppersmiths in Alloa.
Interestingly, the distillery itself is a carbon neutral site. How important and hard was it to transform the distillery into a sustainable operation? What were some of the challenges faced?
Brora will be a carbon neutral distillery, after the installation of a biomass boiler to provide energy for the stills. The biomass boiler will be fuelled by woodchip from sustainable sources in the North of Scotland. By using technical advances over the last 38 years, water efficiency is greatly improved in the distilling processes, cooling for the worm tubs is via an Adiabatic cooling system. While that doesn’t change the distillation regime, it allows the use of new technology to improve the original distillery.
With its return, what will Brora intend to deliver to the Scotch Whisky market?
We will use all of our skill and knowledge to create fermentation, distillation and maturation regimes which meticulously produce whisky that will match the character and quality of the illustrious Brora predecessors. The Brora copper pot stills are still in existence and have been refurbished by Diageo’s coppersmiths at Abercrombie’s and returned carefully to us. The Diageo archive holds comprehensive, and historic information on the previous distillation regimes of Brora, which have been used to guide work in the new distillery.
Inspired by the past, we do also recognise that technology has moved on and where appropriate we will use innovation to ensure we have the most energy efficient and consistent quality production possible, whilst still honouring the artistry of age-old craftsmanship, passed down through the last two centuries.
That said, we acknowledge that we may, even then, need to wait over one decade before we can see how close the new whiskies are to the ones sitting today in our warehouses. But that is part of the joyful experience of making Scotch Whisky.
To find out more about Brora visit Diageo Rare and Exceptional.