Clynelish is a bit of an anomaly in the sense that while it has only been around for slightly less than 50 years, its history is dictated by events which precede its establishment. It is also associated with one of the famous closed distilleries in Scotland, which is another reason for its relative popularity.
While the present incarnation of Clynelish was founded in 1967, the story behind the distillery began in 1819, when the 1st Duke of Sutherland (who was the figure behind the infamous Highland Clearances where thousands of farmers were forced to flee their lands as it was converted for large scale sheep and cattle farming) founded a distillery by the name of Clynelish.
The distillery was operated by the first licensed distiller, James Harper, from 1819 to 1827, when he filed for bankruptcy. The distillery operations were then taken over by John Matheson and was run by him until 1846, when George Lawson & Sons became the new licensees.
The distillery remained under the control of George Lawson & Sons until 1896, when James Ainslie & Heilbron took over. They remained in control until 1912, when they narrowly escaped bankruptcy by being taken over by the famed Distillers Company Limited (DCL) together with James Risk.
John Walker & Sons joined in the fray 4 years later, when they purchased a share of James Risk’s stocks and the distillery remained operational until 1931, when it was mothballed for 8 years before being reopened in 1939.
The first major upgrade occurred in 1960, when the distillery was electrified. But the next major upgrade was the most pivotal in the history of Clynelish. In 1967, DCL decided to build a completely new distillery adjacent to the existing facility and the new facility was to assume the name Clynelish while the old was to be mothballed.
The new Clynelish came onstream in 1968 and this led to the old facility being mothballed as planned. However, fate was to throw a lifeline its way. As Islay was undergoing a rather severe drought during that period of time, DCL was having supply issues with regard to acquiring peated whiskies from its Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Port Ellen distilleries.
It was therefore left to them to turn to more sustainable options mainland and the decision was made to restart the old Clynelish distillery under a new name in order for it to produce the peated whiskies which the company required for its blending needs. The old distillery was then re-christened Brora.
From 1968 to 1983, both Clynelish and Brora operated in tandem with one another, with Clynelish producing largely unpeated whiskies while Brora switched to a heavily peated style in order to supply DCL with the Islay-style whiskies which it required.
Interesting fact: During the time when the new Clynelish was established, some casks which were filled with peated spirit from Brora were marked as Clynelish, thus creating some confusion in later years. Some of these casks have been purchased by independent bottlers who have bottled it under the Clynelish name, when in fact it is a Brora!
In 1983, the whisky industry contracted sharply due to an excess supply of maturing whisky and a decline in consumption across Scotland. As such, many distilleries were mothballed and some were even closed for good. These dark days in Scotch whisky’s history are referred to as “The Great Rationalisation” as it led to a more centralised style of whisky production which was designed to weed out redundancies and save costs.
One of the distilleries which was mothballed and then closed was Brora, although it must be added that the distillery remains intact and its warehouses are used by Clynelish for the storage of some of their whiskies (as well as for the storage of the remaining casks of whisky from Brora).
Over the years, Clynelish has gone from strength to strength and has established itself as one of the Classic Malts within the Diageo brand. Brora, meanwhile, has become a legendary distillery whose whiskies are mentioned in the same breath as those from Port Ellen and Rosebank. As such, new releases of Brora are quite highly sought after and highly prized (while also being highly priced). The quality, though, is exceptional.
In terms of equipment, the distillery sports a cast iron mash tun, 8 wooden and 2 stainless steel washbacks and 3 pairs of wash and spirit stills. This present configuration allows the distillery to produce approximately 4.8 million litres of spirit on an annual basis.
Interesting fact: Clynelish distillery is presently closed for a 10 month period due to the need for extensive maintenance and upgrading work. While this will not lead to an increase in capacity (which had originally been planned but was then shelved due to Diageo being affected by the fall in sales of Scotch whisky), these upgrades will ensure that the distillery remains in full working order and will safeguard its future processes.
While Clynelish is closed for maintenance so that its mash tun and washbacks can be replaced, Diageo has sanctioned distillery tours to shift to the old Brora distillery, which has previously remained closed to the public due to its nature as a workhorse distillery. This unprecendented access to Brora will continue until the maintenance and upgrading works at Clynelish are completed.
This week’s review focuses on an expression of Clynelish which was distilled in 1997 (one of Clynelish’s most prolific years, I have been told), then matured for 16 years firstly in a hogshead before being finished in a PX cask and then bottled at a rather robust 48% abv by Italian independent bottlers Wilson & Morgan for their Barrel Selection range.
Let’s dive right into the review!
Clynelish 1997 16 Years Old PX Finish (Bottled by Wilson & Morgan, 48% abv)
Colour: Burnished copper
Nose: Initial entry presents elements of fruitcake, sherried raisins and a melange of wood spices (cinnamon and allspice in particular). The sweetness is rather restrained and there is a slight waxy salinity to the nose which is typical of the Clynelish house style.
Light lemon citrus hints emerge after some time and there is a note which is reminiscent of chalk. Quite savoury in some aspects and the alcohol strength is not afraid to make itself known. (21/25)
Palate: Initial entry is spicy, with the fruitcake evolving into more of a Christmas cake. Hints of oak, citrus and the typical waxy salinity of the Clynelish base spirit shine through and accentuate the restrained sweetness of the PX finish.
Hints of cinnamon and allspice emerge soon after, being the most dominant aspects of the wood spices which include nutmeg and some mace. Sherried raisins, slighly unripe apricots and a tiny hint of demerara sugar also make an appearance and the waxy note becomes increasingly pronounced as time passes by, but not to the point of overpowering the other elements. A brief hint of acetone towards the end. (23/25)
Finish: Medium on the finish, with the oak, wood spices and waxy hints being the most apparent notes alongside a tiny hint of citrus and a lingering sweetness which can be attributed to the PX finish. The mouthfeel becomes increasingly drying towards the very end. (21/25)
Balance: A relatively well-balanced dram, with the spices and the fruit from the PX finish working well with the typical notes of the Clynelish base spirit. Quite an interesting and enjoyable expression overall! (22/25)
I purchased this particular bottling in the middle of October during the La Maison du Whisky sale and managed to acquire it for the absolute bargain price of $98. It was brought to a BYO dinner and whisky event a few days after, where it was the undisputed favourite among 8 whiskies on show that night.
This particular bottling can be purchased from La Maison du Whisky by the bottle and by the glass. Please be aware that they are presently closed for renovations and will reopen sometime in the latter half of November 2016 and most likely after Whisky Live Singapore.
Until the next review, have a wonderful week ahead.
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