If you don't believe in an afterlife, consider whisky distilleries: some are shuttered only to be reopened (e.g. BenRiach, Bruichladdich, Glencadam, Tullibardine); others are silent, even while still turning up in limited bottlings of forgotten casks (Brora, Glenury, Port Ellen, Rosebank). Now, the Lost Distillery Co., a boutique Scotch marketer, is reincarnating (in a way) the whiskies of stills that have been destroyed or are so long closed that it's hard to imagine they could come back from the dead.
The products of Lost Distillery are approximations of malts made by long-gone distilleries like Auchnagie, Gerston, and Stratheden. The process is a blending of malts that are available today in hopes of time-traveling back to the late 19th and early 20th century. These resurrections, explains cofounder Scott Watson, are more of a research project than a search for hidden stocks or misplaced recipes. The partners identify worthy distilleries and access the flavor of what they would have made, based on six months of research. Then they blend—and sometimes wood treat—procured malts to achieve that profile. The approach is rather necessary as the stills they key on have been closed for an average of a century or more. Says Watson: "They're no casks lying around Scotland of 120-year-old-whisky. We thought lets go back and look at the history books and see what we can learn about these old distilleries. "
The aim was never to recreate the whiskies exactly. "These are modern interpretations," stresses Watson. "If these distilleries were operating today this is what they might be producing. We're not saying it's an exact copy."
So four year ago, with the help of the head of archiving at the University of Glasgow, Professor Michael Moss, they started poring over library texts, on-site sources, governmental records and industry archives. If they could get a hold of an empty bottle, even better. They could then mine the copy on the label information on the manufacturing process or tasting notes.
Watson says that, while 80-some-odd distilleries dot Scotland at any time, half of the original total have been closed in the last century. Factors like recession, war, even Prohibition, have all weighed on why some stills made it and some didn't. And, for the men behind this venture, that's part of the fascination. "We're a bunch of whisky guys who are just fascinated by the stories of lost or closed whisky distilleries."
The company spent a year choosing worthy candidates for resurrection. Geographical distribution was one criterion, but another was "we wanted good names, known for quality," says Watson. "Some of these distilleries would have closed for a good reason."
When they found them, some of the sites were completely demolished and, in other cases, there were buildings remaining, but long forgotten. In the case of Stratheden, a Lowlands distillery operating in the middle of the town of Auchtermuchty from 1829 to 1926, "most people in the town don't even know that it is a former distillery," even though an aqueduct that fed its water requirements still remains.
Each distillery has engaging stories. The reseachers surmise that Stratheden, which is unusually full-bodied for a Lowlands whisky, got that way because they imported peat from Orkney and used a still procured from a former smuggler that would have been small. "When the excise man was after you," says Watson, "you wanted a small still so you could pick it up and run with it."
Gerston, opened in 1796 in the northeast Highlands, actually had two incarnations. The first was a very popular malt on the London market at the time (circa 1880). It was so popular, in fact, that the distillers attempted to enlarge it. In doing so, the water supply was polluted and the distillery closed. A group of investors reopened it four years later, but they didn't adhere to maritime style, and the lighter whisky failed. The original malt was considered to be of especially long maturation for the time—at the ripe old age of eight years.
Auchnagie, started in 1812 in Perthshire, changed hands several times. At one point it was owned by an entrepreneur named Peter Dawson, who aimed to create a blend of "titanic proportions." He was gambling that a railroad would be built near the facility, but he was wrong. Dawson sold and the distillery ultimately ended up in Tommy Dewar's hands for his well-known blend. It closed in 1911.
In creating its replications, Lost Distillery relied on 10 component criteria to emulate in each whisky: era, locality, water, barley, yeast, peat, type of mash tun, wash back, still, and type of wood used in maturation. Each blend contains between eight to 30 malts, depending how the panel of tasters assessed the complexity of the original malt. Some of the malts get a secondary maturation or are finished in alternative wood. Furthermore, the contents of each blend changes regularly as the blends are made in very small batches. "It's a highly evolving recipe, but with a consistent profile," says Watson.
Each expression has three levels. The entry-level and also the newest mark is Classic, with an age average of 10 to 12 years, according to Watson. (Note: These are not official ages as Scotch Whisky Associations rules require age statements be based on the maturity of the youngest malt in the bottle.) Archivist represents the next step up at an average of 15 to 18 years. Vintage, the top-of-the-line mark, averages 25 to 30 years.
In keeping with the spirit of the times when the malts were originally made, the Lost Distillery whiskies contain no caramel coloring, nor are they chill-filtered. The packaging is also designed to be true to the era, using black glass instead of clear as that is what would have been available, says Watson. "We think there's a market for people who want to look back in the history books and get a taste of the past."
Strathheden Vintage Blended Malt Whiskey (92 proof, or 46 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $300 per 750 ml. bottle)
APPEARANCE: Light color, bordering on golden rod. Teardrop legs.
NOSE: Floral and honey flavors dominate with a touch of lemon drop and a faint whiff of peat.
PALATE: In the mouth, the body bulks up, with more fruit—pear, orange, peach—than flowers. A bread dough quality chirps up, but just enough to add to the structure. The honey is layered in throughout.
FINISH: Carried off by the honey and wheat, the whisky suddenly remembers the peat from the nose and shuts down with a hint of cheddar cheese.
Auchnagie Vintage Blended Malt (92 proof, or 46 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $300 per 750 ml. bottle)
APPEARANCE: Very light yellow color, close to corn silk. Quick, thick legs.
NOSE: Doughy to start. Then turns to toffee and caramel, before moving on to candied fruit.
PALATE: It's a fruit cup from the start with orange, cherry, tangerine and mango. The dough returns and it rounds out with caramel and creamy vanilla. Has a lot of finesse.
FINISH: After hanging on a bit with the heartier flavors of the palate, it suddenly chimes in with residual citrus flavor (orange, almost lemon).
Gerston Vintage Blended Malt (92 proof, or 46 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $300 per 750 ml. bottle)
APPEARANCE: A few shades darker than the others, but light colored. Sturdy legs.
NOSE: Big warm bouquet with cereals and toast. Fruit lingers in the background.
PALATE: Toasty, with walnuts and vanilla. Has a chewy, bread dough core. Then it starts to release its essential sweetness with cherry and a kick of spicy licorice. Very complex.
FINISH: The toasts linger for a while and the spice is borne along with it.
CIGAR PAIRING: La Aroma de Cuba Mi Amor Magnifico (Nicaragua; 6 inches by 52 ring gauge, $8.00, 91 points, December 2014 Cigar Aficionado) Subtly pressed with a three-seam cap, this strong cigar starts with the smoky taste of roasted Sumatra coffee beans and black pepper. Cocoa notes also emerge.
With Stratheden Reserve: With the cigar, the whiskey becomes even more full-bodied with more of an appearance from the toasty peat referenced in the story above (although this time we can't vouch an Orkney origin). The Mi Amor climbs in body, too. Spicy, licorice flavors arise on both.
With Auchnagie Reserve: This time the whisky's fruits head straight for like flavors that were not before noted on the cigar, making the Mi Amor more complex in the marriage. The Auchnagie take on some more of its caramel/toffee taste with a bit of nougat or nuts. The fruit of the whisky is a bit more meaty.
With Gerston Reserve: The complexity of the whisky gets an addition of smoky toast with the cigar. The Mi Amor benefits, with a heartier body. Smokier tendencies accelerate on both. However, the spicy quality of the Gerston becomes less licorice-like and more gingery. Its fruit turns to a blast of sugar.