What's more: older malt whiskies aren't necessarily
'better' than younger bottlings. In fact, once malt
whiskies get 'past a certain age' (say, 25 years)
there's a fair chance of the whisky being killed off
by the wood unless the cask was used very often.
There are less than 100 active distilleries left in Scotland.
Sadly enough, the list of 'silent distilleries' that are now gone
is a lot longer. The history of whisky in Scotland goes back
for well over three centuries. During that time, thousands of
distilleries have operated - although many of them were illegal
set-ups and not very sophisticated by today's standards.
That means that you run the risk of spending hundreds of Euros
equivalent in your own currency) for a fake bottle - or a bottle that was
refilled with another, inferior whisky. And even if the bottle you bought
is genuine, there are other possible concerns. The malt whisky which was
produced at that distillery may not have been very good in the first place (which is always helpful if you're trying to run a distillery into the ground),
or perhaps the bottle deteriorated due to storage in direct sunlight.
Unfortunately, my experiences with many of the malts from these distilleries hardly made
me feel nostalgic about 'the good old days'. My encounters with malt whiskies that were
distilled at Banff, Coleburn, Glenlochy, Glenugie and Kinclaith were often underwhelming,
but I have to add that I've only sampled a few expressions from each of these distilleries
so far. Based on the research so far, only a few of the silent distilleries listed here seem
really worthy of the shedding of salty tears and the crying of loud lamentations about
their untimely demise.
Some sources claim that in the 18th century most Highland families owned and operated their own (illegal) still. Thse days, the vast majority of the remaining (legal) whisky distilleries in Scotland are in the hands of just a few large food and drink conglomerates. The 'concentration' trend in the whisky industry sort of makes sense, if you think about it. Companies that owned 5 distilleries decided they could reach their business goals just as well with 3 or 4 tightly operated distilleries. Often, the decision to close a distillery was an 'economical' one; many of these closures had little or nothing to do with the quality of the malt whisky that was produced there. I already mentioned Brora and Port Ellen, but it seems they also knew what they were doing at Braes of Glenlivet and Saint Magdalene, for example.
Nowadays, some of the most important names in the whisky industry
UDV (United Distillers & Vintners, now part of Diageo), Pernod Ricard, Allied
Distillers, Highland Distillers, Dewar's/Bacardi, LVMH and Chivas/Seagram's.
Diageo owns the largest number of silent distilleries in the whisky industry.
Around 2010, 16 of the silent distilleries on my list were owned by Diageo;
Banff, Brora (a.k.a Clynelish), Coleburn, Convalmore, Dallas Dhu, Glen Albyn,
Glenlochy, Glen Mhor, Glenury Royal, Hillside, Millburn, North Port - Brechin,
Pittyvaich, Port Ellen, Rosebank and Saint Magdalene / Linlithgow.
You can find much more background information about these distilleries
in the distillery profiles, accessible via the hyperlinks at the left and right.
Anyway, to cut a long story short: these 'silent' distilleries form just an arbitrary selection.
Most of the silent distilleries on this page were closed in the 1980's. That means you may
still be able to find the odd bottling of those whiskies at a reasonable price. I've excluded
most distilleries that were closed before 1980. Given the rarity of existing bottlings from
these long gone malt whisky distilleries, the street prices are often quite astronomical.
New bottlings of the odd cask will be in their late thirties or early forties when they are
released, so prices are likely to exceed the budget of the average whisky lover as well.
With almost 100 distilleries still producing malt whisky, I usually prefer to invest my own
money in living, breathing distilleries... It's a way of securing undisrupted deliveries of
the good stuff. As you can see on my Hit List there's plenty to enjoy these days...
There seems to be little debate on the greatness of Brora and
Port Ellen. Everybody agrees that bottlings from these whisky
distilleries are usually pretty good. Unfortunately, that also
means that many people are willing to pay a pretty good price.
In the 1990's it was still very possible to wander into a small
liquor store and stumble across a bottle of Brora or Port Ellen
for less than (the equivalent of) 50 Euros, but in the new millennium,
most releases command prices exceeding 100 Euros. That puts most of the latest releases
out of the reach of bottom shelf dwellers like myself. Fortunately, there are some other
closed (or mothballed) distilleries that don't enjoy the same degree of universal admiration.
The underdog position of some silent distilleries like Braes of Glenlivet (Braeval), Convalmore and Saint Magdalene is reflected in the relatively modest prices they command.
Especially with distilleries that closed not too long ago the 'mark-up' you'll have to pay
should be relatively modest.
Considering that the remaining bottles and casks of that whisky will continue to grow older, rarer and more expensive,
a purchase might be prudent. But now I'm getting side-tracked again - please check out the mAlmanac if you're looking
for shopping advice. Alternatively, the Beginner's Guide to single malt Scotch whisky offers 10 chapters with all the
basics of malt whisky appreciation. If neither of those de-tours tickle your fancy at the moment I heartily invite you to
exlore this Distillery Data section further - it contains around 150 pages about malt whisky distilleries.
It's not all dark and gloomy, though; on the contrary!
A number of whisky distilleries that had been mothballed during the 1990's (Benriach, Glencadam and Tullibardine) were restored to their former glory and re-opened again at the beginning of the third millennium. I guess that should give any malt maniac hope for the future, especially because most of these distilleries were reborn under the guidance of relatively small, independent companies.
Furthermore, many people offering these rare and antique
whisky bottles nowadays are either collectors or fraudsters.
Even with most of the old illegal distilleries
gone by the early
1800's, their legal successors still numbered in the hundreds.
That's far too many to list on this page, I'm afraid... Besides, I'm
not entirely sure what would be the point. Bottles from most
silent distilleries are hard to find - and even harder to replace...
This makes these rarities more interesting for collectors and historians
than for hard drinking malt maniacs like yours truly. However, if you are
interested in the history of (long gone) distilleries, I suggest you check
out Ulf Buxrud's website for details. It contains a comprehensive list of
all malt whisky distilleries in Scotland that were lost (i.e. demolished)
between 1885 and 1945. In this section of Malt
Madness, I can't look back beyond circa 1975.
But the rewards can sometimes outweigh the dangers. Some closed
distilleries used to produce some fantastic whisky, and if you manage
to find a bottle you're in for a very rare treat indeed. After all, most of
the other bottles have already served their main purpose: being drunk. (Hey, if you have to have a purpose, that's not such a bad one, is it? ;-)
Some collectors own bottles of whisky that was distilled before the
1900's and you may find a Ben Wyvis or Dumbarton at an auction.
However, these are exceptions to the rule.
On the other hand, the whiskies from silent distilleries that were
closed relatively recently (for example Brora and Port Ellen - both
famous for peated whisies) are still available today. As time goes
by and stocks diminish, the prices of remaining casks will certainly
sky-rocket. That means that it might not be such a bad idea to
invest in a bottle if you have the chance. (Just store it properly.)
Another danger that lurks in the dark corners of
malt whisky warehouses all around Scotland is
'de-whiskyfication'. Once the ABV (proof) of a
cask drops below 40%, it isn't actually whisky
anymore (at least from a legal perspective),
so they have to blend that cask with one or
more others if they ever want to be able to
sell the stuff inside it as 'whisky'.
Anyway, let's get back to the topic of 'silent stills'. Based on my research so far, I imagine some of
these distilleries were closed simply because they were unable to produce whisky competitively .
Many distilleries fell victim to one of the industry's regular crises or the ongoing concentration and
globalisation trend. This concentration trend has led to further 'rationalisation' of the entire whisky
industry over the last few decades. These days, every distillery must show a 'healthy' profit.
These particular single malts will be increasingly hard to come by.
So, should you find a bottle of Convalmore or Saint Magdalene, it
might be prudent to spend some of your discretionary income...
In a way, it's a shame that single malt whisky as a successful category
only really took off after
around two dozen distilleries were closed down forever. Those whisky stocks are running out fast.
Arguably, smaller companies are better suited to meet the specific needs of 'malt whisky connoisseurs'. With global whisky demand on the rise (in spite of various financial crises), we can expect to see malt whisky prices rise further in the future. Well, at least if the industry has anything to say about it - and consumers keeps paying.
Is the distillery or