What's more: older whiskies aren't necessarily 'better' than younger bottlings.
In fact, once whiskies get past 'a certain age' (say 25 years) there's a fair chance
of the whisky being killed off by the wood. Another danger that lurks in the dark
corners of warehouses around Scotland is 'de-whiskyfication'. Once the ABV of
a cask drops below 40% (due to breathing) it isn't 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 sell the stuff inside it as 'whisky'.
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 makes sense - most of the malt whisky produced by silent distilleries
has already served its main purpose in life: being drunk. (Hey, if you have
to have a purpose, that's not such a bad one, is it? ;-) Some collectors
own bottles from before the 1900's and you may find a Ben Wyvis or
Dumbarton at an auction, but these are exceptions.
This makes these rarities far 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 which has a comprehensive list of all malt whisky
distilleries in Scotland that were lost between 1885 and 1945. In this
section of Malt Madness, I can't look further back than circa 1975.
On the other hand, the whiskies from silent distilleries that were closed relatively recently (Brora and Port Ellen) are still available today. As time goes by and stocks diminish, the prices of remaining casks will certainly sky-rocket. That means it might be not such a bad idea to invest in a bottle if you have the chance. These single malts will be increasingly hard to come by.
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 / globalisation trend.
This concentration trend has led to further 'rationalisation' of the entire whisky
industry over the last few decades. It's a shame that single malt whisky as a
category only really took off after circa two dozen distilleries were closed down.
Unfortunately, my experiences with many of the malts from these distilleries hardly made me feel nostalgic about 'the good old days'.
My encounters with 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 industry are UDV (United Distillers and Vintners, part of Diageo), Pernod Ricard, Allied Distillers, Highland Distillers, Dewar's/Bacardi and Chivas/Seagram. Diageo owns the largest number of silent distilleries in the industry. Sixteen of the silent distilleries on my list were owned by Diageo in 2009; Banff, Brora, Coleburn, Convalmore, Dallas Dhu, Glen Albyn, Glenlochy, Glen Mhor, Glenury Royal, Hillside, Millburn, North Port, Pittyvaich, Port Ellen, Rosebank and Saint Magdalene.
Anyway, to cut a long story short: this list of 'silent' distilleries is 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 at a reasonable price. I've excluded most distilleries that were closed before 1980. Given the rarity of existing bottlings from these long gone 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 malt maniac as well. With more than 80 distilleries still producting malt whisky I usually prefer to invest my money in living, breathing distilleries... 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
distilleries are usually pretty good. Unfortunately, that also means that many people are willing to pay a 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 Euro's, but in the new millennium most releases command prices exceeding
100 Euro's. 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, Glenglassaugh and
Saint Magdalene is reflected in the relatively modest prices they command. (Note: Glenglassaugh has been revived.)
Especially with distilleries that closed not too long ago the 'mark-up' you'll have to pay should be relatively modest.
Anyway, here are 'micro-profiles' for circa two dozen silent (and some recently re-opened) distilleries. I've included
some short tasting notes for three expressions from each distillery. Check out my Track Record for an overview of
all the versions I've tried from that particular distillery and links to my full tasting notes for these expressions.
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 companies. Arguably, smaller companies are better suited to
meet the specific needs of 'malt maniacs'. With global whisky demand rising, we can expect to see steadily rising whisky
prices if the big corporations have anything to say about it... (NOTE: I wrote this last paragraph around the year 2005. For a
few years after that, more and more 'super premium' bottles were released - until the credit crisis hit the world in 2008, that is.)
Unfortunately, I fear that the majority of the people offering these rare and antique
bottles nowadays are either collectors (if you're lucky) or fraudsters (if you're not).
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...