Clynelish distillery in Sutherland was opened in 1819 by the Marquess of Stafford (later known as the Duke of Sutherland) to create a market for the barley grown by his crofters (tenant farmers). It was rumoured that he actually started the distillery to provide a market for his tenant farmers’ barley and to put the local moonshiners out of business.
The Duke’s reputation for harsh control was vindicated when in 1845 he evicted some 15,000 crofters during the Highland clearances. Many of those displaced crofters eventually made their way to America through an ‘assisted passage’ subsidy which was basically a way for the Duke to solve a problem at least partly of his own making.
Fast forward to 1968 and after a series of mergers which created what we now know as Diageo, the original Clynelish Distillery was closed and a new distillery was opened next door. The new build was an exact replica of Caol Ila on Islay. However due to a shortage of Islay whisky because of all things a drought (anyone who has spent any considerable time on Islay might wonder how a drought was possible!) the old distillery was pressed back into production to make an unusually peated whisky that was used in the Johnnie Walker Gold label blend.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (aka the tax man) didn’t like the fact that the sister distilleries were so close yet produced two very different whiskies. As a result the practice was short lived and the old distillery was rebranded as Brora to provide more differentiation.
Brora closed in 1983 and lay mothballed until it reopened in 2021 whilst Clynelish continued to produce a lightly peated whisky, modelled on the old Brora style. It still contributes to the Johnnie Walker blend and as such is known as ’the highland home of Johnnie Walker’ but it also has its own single malts that are available in various ages, the most popular being 14 years old.
Clynelish is off the beaten path and as a result visitors to the distillery are in for a treat. Unlike some of the speyside and lowland distilleries, Clynelish is a lesser known destination but is definitely worth the journey to experience something a little more characterful and rare.