When a distillery is closed forever, it is said to have fallen silent. That’s a term to make even the most hardened cynic pause for reflection so, for misty-eyed single malt whisky fanatics, it can evoke feelings of romance and loss – and also curiosity: what was the whisky from these lost distilleries like?
For the vast majority of distilleries that have closed over the centuries, we’ll never know. Most of those stills were tiny illegal operations and none of their output survives. Even whiskies from the massive wave of closure of legal distilleries in the early 20th century are now almost all gone. But many distilleries also went silent during the 1980s and 1990s, and there are still bottles, and even casks, of their whisky to be had.
But are they any good? How much of the appeal of these whiskies comes from their increasing rarity rather than their intrinsic quality? Sam Simmons, aka the blogger Dr Whisky, (now Balvenie global brand ambassador) makes no bones of the fact that part of the “thrill” of drinking these whiskies is that they are irreplaceable.
“The exclusivity factor plays big-time into the silent distillery story, so even mediocre whiskies or individual casks from closed distilleries that aren’t that great are still coveted,” he said.
Nevertheless, his advice for people looking to buy ‘lost’ whiskies is only to invest in something they would like to drink. “At the end of the day, we’re not into whisky to make money, we’re into whisky because it’s fun. So when you finally do open that bottle of 1971 Brora, it’s going to be so exciting, and knowing how much it is worth is part of that excitement. Whisky is in many ways an antiquated industry, it’s an old farming tradition that is a link to the past. Something about having these bottles from the past really resonates for people who are already excited by the whisky.”
Scotch Malt Whisky Society ambassador Olaf Meier said the experience you get from any whisky is about more than the aroma and the flavour of it.
“When you drink a whisky that is 25 or 30-years-old, that is history in a glass, and if you add in the fact that it comes from a silent distillery and one day there will be no more of that whisky, then before you even taste a drop you have certain expectations.”
He said whiskies from some silent distilleries such as Brora, Rosebank and Port Ellen had now achieved cult status, with the high prices that came with that.
“It is inevitable that when someone spends a lot of money on a whisky they’ll tend to think it’s pretty special.”
However, he pointed out that, even more so than today, these whiskies had been overwhelmingly produced for blending rather than to be drunk as single malts. “There were excellent whiskies made by these distilleries and they may be excellent to drink today, but they weren’t intended to be drunk as single malts, so some may not be that special.
“Also, production was a lot more hit and miss in those days, with distilling and cask regimes not nearly so well understood. So, the whisky was much less consistent than today.”
Olaf said that even though he himself likes to seek out whiskies from silent distilleries, there is a mythology that has grown up around some of them. “The myths are that Port Ellen is one of the best Islay whiskies and should never have been closed or that Rosebank is possibly the best Lowland whisky; if you read what the experts were writing about those whiskies 20 or 30 years ago, they didn’t actually rate them terribly highly. They were made for blending, so if they are good as single malts, that is a bonus.”
Brian Townsend has made a study of silent distilleries, and wrote the definitive book, Scotch Missed; Lost Distilleries of Scotland. He said there was no doubt that the whiskies of silent distilleries have a kind of mystique.
“Quality may not be as consistent with older whiskies, but a lot of people will buy a whisky not because it is the most brilliant single malt, but because it is a piece of history. I hold occasional tastings of whiskies from silent distilleries and whether the whisky is brilliant or just so-so, people still enjoy sampling them because they are drinking history.”
But as they get rarer, and more valuable, is it still feasible to drink these whiskies? Brian admitted it was a standing joke among whisky collectors that they can’t afford to drink their stocks, but he recommended anyone looking to buy a bottle to buy two – one to drink and one to keep as an investment.
Keir Sword, proprietor of Royal Mile Whiskies, said collectors were probably the key market for silent distilleries, “What they are looking for is the rarity value of something that in a few years’ time, won’t be found anywhere but in their collections. From that aspect, people tend to seek out the rarer distilleries, the ones that have been closed the longest and which have dwindling stocks.
“From the drinkers’ perspective, there are certain distilleries that are very attractive, such as Port Ellen, which is also very high on the collectors’ radar as well. Occasionally, you will find a single cask bottling from hard-to-find closed distilleries that, from a quality perspective, probably should never have been bottled as such. People need to be a wee bit wary of what they are buying,
“To some collectors, the quality of the liquid isn’t their number-one priority, but the more astute collectors are increasingly thinking that the whiskies they buy need to be very good quality as well as being rare.”
He said many silent distilleries were closed for economic reasons, and some might still be open if the owners had put more of an emphasis on single malts. “There are certainly distilleries out there that the owners will now be kicking themselves having made the decision to close.”
Andrew Bell, the whisky expert at McTear’s auctioneers in Glasgow, says collectors who specialise in silent distilleries are a “small band”, most of whom are looking for high-quality whiskies. “The Port Ellens, the Broras, the Dallas Dhus get the attention, whereas other silent distilleries, such as Glen Keith, Glenesk, Coleburn and the like don’t seem to be as much of a draw. If you consider Port Ellen and North Port, which were both closed in 1983, a Port Ellen 25-year-old will fetch more than £250, while a North Port, even though it is much harder to get hold of, might only get £60 or £70.”
Not all silent distilleries stay that way. Glenglassaugh was founded way back in 1875 and then mothballed in the early 1900s. It was brought back to life in 1960 before shutting again in 1986, and then was restored to production under new owners in 2008. Distillery manager Graham Eunson said being involved in bringing a distillery back to life had been an exciting opportunity – particularly as earlier in his career he was involved in the closure of two distilleries, Scapa and Glendronach, both of which have also recently been reopened.
Distilleries are closed for hard-nosed economic reasons, he said, but it was always a sad occasion. “It is quite a romantic industry in a lot of ways. It is a devastating blow when you are told that the distillery you work at is going to be shut down. Because so few people are employed directly at a distillery they have a sort of family feel, it is like a cottage industry, so it is quite sad when you see it happening.
“One of the main attractions of moving to Glenglassaugh was that having been involved in the downturn and the mothballing of two distilleries, the romantic in me said it would be great to actually breathe life back into a distillery.”