The growing cult of lost distilleries

Single malts from “silent” or “lost” distilleries in Japan as well as Scotland are currently proving to be the most sought-after and investable whiskies on the market. Alice Lascelles reports

Glenury Royal 1970, £499. A 35-year-old Brora, £1,200 
Glenury Royal 1970, £499. A 35-year-old Brora, £1,200  | Image: Images supplied courtesy of The Whiskey Exchange

In October, a central London venue will play host to a small group of buyers, drinks writers and bartenders, gathered together (with obligatory Moleskine notebooks) for one of the most important tasting events in the whisky calendar: the preview of the annual Special Releases. This showcase of around a dozen bottlings from Diageo’s most hallowed distilleries frequently includes rarities from Talisker, Lagavulin and Caol Ila, but there are two names that always cause a particular stir round the tasting table: Port Ellen and Brora.

The reason this pair are so especially alluring is they represent the pinnacle of the “silent” or “lost” distilleries, a class of single malts from closed distilleries that includes some of the most sought-after, and investable, whiskies on the market. Out of production since 1983, and with stocks dwindling all the time, Port Ellen and Brora are, quite simply, the definition of limited edition.

The Brora distillery in 1930
The Brora distillery in 1930 | Image: Images supplied courtesy of Diageo

The first Special Releases saw the light of day in 2010, and since then the value of Port Ellen and Brora has shot up – in 2011, a Port Ellen Special Release would have set you back around £300, while last year’s release had a price of £2,200. Whether one can afford these bottles, though, is not really the issue – it’s whether one can get hold of them in the first place. With an official release typically numbering around 3,000 bottles, competition for whiskies of this sort is fierce.

“We’re now starting to see people who only buy whisky from silent distilleries,” says Andy Simpson, co-founder of Rarewhisky101.com, the brokerage and consultancy that publishes the go-to index for rare whisky sales around the world. “The two that people most often start with are the cult Port Ellen and Brora, but virtually every single one of the closed distilleries is currently proving very investable.”

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There are around 30 lost distilleries on the market, most of which were founded in the boom days of whisky production in the 1800s, when Scotland had more than 200 distilleries (today it has just over 100). Dramatic fluctuations in the demand for whisky during the 20th century meant that by the 1980s around half of these distilleries had fallen silent. A great surplus of casks languished unappreciated for another decade, until a blossoming single malt market prompted companies like Diageo to revisit its archives.

The great irony is that virtually all of these now-desirable whiskies were originally destined for blending (the single malt market as we know it today, where esoteric flavour profiles and uniqueness are prized, only really got going towards the end of the 1980s). This means that not all of them make drinkable drams in their own right – in many cases, what you’re buying is a piece of history. The best examples, though, represent some really superlative liquid.

From left: Hanyu Ichiro The Joker Card, $1,910. Karuizawa 1983, 28-year-old, from £2,500 at auctionKaruizawa 1983, 28-year-old, from £2,500 at auction.
From left: Hanyu Ichiro The Joker Card, $1,910. Karuizawa 1983, 28-year-old, from £2,500 at auctionKaruizawa 1983, 28-year-old, from £2,500 at auction. | Image: Images supplied courtesy of The Whiskey Exchange

Hence the fuss about Port Ellen, an Islay malt with a complex, heavily peated style that malt maniacs adore. The most recent Special Release (distilled 1978, 35yo, 56.5 per cent alcohol by volume, 2,964 bottles, £2,400) was particularly compelling – citrus peel in black chocolate, suede, a little tarmac and the sweet- and-salt of a sun-bleached, seaside jetty. A whisky that leaves you nosing the glass long after the contents have been drunk.

For me, though, there is nothing quite as seductive as a fine Brora. Famous for producing malts with a signature scented wax note, this Highland distillery showcases peat in a guise that’s rather more refined. The 2014 Special Release – a 35-year-old (dist 1978, 48.6 per cent abv, £1,200) – was innocent and experienced all at once, marrying the energy of jasmine, moss and sea air with the wisdom of beeswax and old tobacco tins.

The Port Ellen Old Stillhouse on Islay
The Port Ellen Old Stillhouse on Islay | Image: Images supplied courtesy of Diageo

Another celebrated name in the pantheon of lost distilleries is Rosebank (from £499), whose closure was described as a “grievous loss” by the late whisky authority Michael Jackson. “It’s a great Lowland spirit,” says Simpson, “triple-distilled and something different. Really classy and elegant.”

But savvy buyers are also beginning to look at lesser‑known lost distilleries, according to Lee Tomlinson, general manager at whisky merchants Milroy’s of Soho. “People have always wanted Port Ellen, but now they’re asking for quirkier whiskies like Glenury Royal, which allow you to taste something really scarce at a more reasonable price. The 36-year-old has a very classic Speyside/Highland style, with a complexity that’s not unlike an old unpeated Brora. You’ll pay about £500 for one of these.”

Port Ellen Special Release 35-year-old, £2,400
Port Ellen Special Release 35-year-old, £2,400 | Image: Images supplied courtesy of The Whiskey Exchange

It’s worth noting that lost-distillery whiskies take one of two forms: “official releases”, like Diageo’s Special Releases, which are bottlings produced by the company that owns the distillery, or “independent bottlings”, which are produced by companies who hand-select particular casks and release them under their own label. If you’re purely looking for an investment, then official bottlings are the way to go, as they tend to fetch a higher price. If you’re intent on actually tasting the liquid, however, then boutiquey independent bottlings, with all their attendant quirks, can offer an exciting way of exploring the lost distilleries at significantly less expense.

“Certainly if I were entering this market for the first time, I’d be going with indie bottles from classic silent stills, as in many cases they offer far better value than official bottlings,” says Simpson. “The average price for an official release of Port Ellen is currently just over £800, while an independent one is just over £300. Yes,official releases will always have a little more prestige. But if you’re drinking these, as I like to do, just to see what it’s like, you’d rather risk £300 than £800.” What’s more, says Simpson, the average price for independent bottlings is now growing faster than official releases. So they’re the ones to watch, even for the investor.

Gordon & MacPhail Rare Old Mosstowie 1979, £550
Gordon & MacPhail Rare Old Mosstowie 1979, £550 | Image: Images supplied courtesy of The Whiskey Exchange

Cask selection is a fine art, so if you’re going the independent route, then stick with a well-established name like Gordon & MacPhail (Rare Old Mosstowie 1979, £550) or Douglas Laing, as these have the expertise – as well as the connections – to secure the best liquid.  

But the cult of the lost distillery is no longer confined to Scotland. The Japanese lost distillery Karuizawa has lately been causing a frenzy at auction, achieving prices that have left even the most seasoned whisky traders slack-jawed in amazement. “Karuizawa has gone berserk, outperforming Scotch,” says Simpson. “Some people were buying bottles several years ago for £100-£150 that are now worth £2,500-£3,000. It’s staggering.”

The former Rosebank distillery Falkirk in 1980
The former Rosebank distillery Falkirk in 1980 | Image: Images supplied courtesy of Diageo

Established in 1955 in the foothills of an active volcano, these heavily sherried, broad-shouldered malts have a richness and concentration reminiscent of some of the very finest Highland Park and Glenfarclas. A standout is the Karuizawa 1983, 28-year-old Noh Cask No 7576, which interweaves rain-flecked bonfires, dates and treacle with a whiff of smoky lavender. Despite the formidable 57.2 per cent abv it doesn’t need taming with water – its power is more of the slow-burning variety that warms you from within.

Another lost distillery from Japan that has proved highly sought-after in recent years is Hanyu. Established in the 1940s, when Japan was starting to build its blended whisky industry, Hanyu was closed in 2000, leaving the founder’s grandson, Ichiro Akuto, to salvage the last 400 casks from the distillery’s new owners. “He pretty much rescued them from the wrecking ball,” says Marcin Miller, co-founder of the Number One Drinks Company, the distributor that helped kick‑start the trade in Japanese whisky when it began exporting Hanyu in 2006, before gaining the sole rights to distribute the whiskies of Karuizawa and Japan’s most precocious newcomer, Chichibu.   

Rosebank 12-year‑old, £499, and 15-year-old, £550
Rosebank 12-year‑old, £499, and 15-year-old, £550 | Image: Images supplied courtesy of The Whiskey Exchange

Hanyu is most famous for its coveted “Card Series” of 54, beautiful small-batch bottlings designed to resemble a pack of playing cards. A highlight among these is The Joker ($1,910, 57.7 per cent abv, available from Dekanta), a vatting of Hanyu casks distilled between 1985 and 2000. Supple and generous, with a combination of luscious honeydew melon, figs and delicately singed toastiness, this whisky has a mouthwatering quality that makes me think of the “Drink Me” potion in Alice in Wonderland, where cherry tart, pineapple, custard, roast turkey, toffee and hot, buttered toast come together in one palate-defying whole.

Needless to say, these are all hard to come by – if you’re intent on buying a whole bottle then it’s usually either a case of bidding for one at auction, or keeping a beady eye on listings at the world’s three leading retailers for Japanese whisky: The Whisky Exchange, La Maison du Whisky and the new Tokyo-based online retailer Dekant¯a.

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If you’re content with a dram, however, then the new Bull in a China Shop near London’s Liverpool Street has several rare Hanyus and Karuizawas to choose from. Roka and Zuma restaurants also boast an ultra-limited, bespoke bottling of Hanyu that is absolutely delicious. If you’re more in the market for a taste from one of the Scottish lost distilleries, head to the aforementioned Milroy’s of Soho, where you can enjoy a huge selection of rarities by the dram, among the copper and casks of the ground-floor bar or as part of a more in-depth tasting session in the basement bar below.

“Lost-distillery whiskies are being quite heavily fought for, and I don’t see that changing,” says Simpson. “But they’re not just investments,” he adds. “You’re also getting people drinking these things because they’re whisky fanatics. There are plenty of people who are consuming Port Ellen and Brora right now.”

In other words, they won’t be around forever. So catch them while you can.

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