Unbottling the ghosts of distilleries past

Rare malts no longer in production have gone on sale. Michael Jackson t ried some
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It sounds a contradiction: a company putting on sale a product it no longer makes. But United Distillers has just done so in some style. It has introduced a range of single malt whiskies from distilleries that have long since ceased production.

This new range is being marketed as The Rare Malts Selection. Most of these whiskies are 20 or 25 years old, so they have lost some alcohol through evaporation, but they have been bottled straight from the wood, at percentages in the 60s or 50s, rather than being reduced with water to the more usual 40s.

At pounds 35-pounds 40 per bottle, in speciality shops such as Oddbins, they are not cheap, but that price is by no means excessive for products of such strength, age and rarity. On the question of age, some connoisseurs may feel that this is too much of a good thing, that these whiskies have picked up too much wood character during their long years in the cask, but their oakiness is also a part of their distinctiveness and charm.

Many makers of alcoholic drinks like to label their products ``very rare'', but these whiskies are more obscure than that. These spirits are ghosts.

This manifestation is possible because all distilleries work for the life beyond. Malt distillate cannot be called whisky until it has been matured for three years, and is rarely bottled as a ``single'' until it is at least eight, 10 or 12 years old. Every distillery has warehouses stacked with barrels of maturing whisky, exuding spirity aromas, and some will haunt the place for decades. I have enjoyed whiskies that have lain in a warehouse for 50 years.

A distillery that permanently ceased production 10 or 20 years ago might today have in its warehouse barrels of whisky that are at a peak of maturity. If, as in some instances, the distillery has in the meantime been dismantled, and the building converted to some other use or demolished, the barrels will no doubt have been safely laid down somewhere else.

The difficulty of forecasting demand decades hence means that the Scottish whisky industry always has either too little whisky or too much. In the Seventies, companies were opening new distilleries to meet expected future demand. In the Eighties, there was a wave of closures, many of distilleries that were relatively antiquated, regarded by their owners as too small to be economic, or producing whiskies with unfashionable palates. In the Nineties, one or two new distilleries have opened.

The downturn in the previous decade saw the biggest producer, the Distillers Company Limited (DCL), close many of its sites. The whiskies made at these distilleries had been produced as components of blended scotches, and were not normally bottled as single malts.

Eventually, the company was acquired by Guinness and regrouped in a new enterprise called United Distillers. Since then there have been further closures, but not all the news has been bad. While DCL was secretive, and far keener to promote blended scotches than single malts, United Distillers clearly recognises that some consumers are interested in speciality products.

None the less, drawing attention to distilleries that have been closed seems a little like reopening old wounds. ``We are aware of that,'' says Sue Nicholas of United Distillers, ``but the alternative is quietly to hide this stock in blended scotches. On the whole, we think that enthusiasts for malt whiskies would prefer that we give them the opportunity to taste these - and there are collectors who will probably want them.''

At least half a dozen defunct distilleries' whiskies will be made available over a period of time. I have tasted four of the bottlings in The Rare Malts Selection:

- St Magdalene is the whisky of a distillery established in 1765 on the site of a former convent (and a leper colony) at Linlithgow in the Lowlands west of Edinburgh. Production ceased in the mid-Eighties and some of the buildings have since been converted into flats. The whisky now being bottled was distilled in 1970. It has a grassy aroma, with a hint of autumn bonfires; a syrupy body; toffee, candy and exotic fruit in the palate; and a dry finish. Perfect as a restorative after a wintry walk.

- Dallas Dhu comes from the western edge of Speyside, in the Highlands. The distillery, near the original Dallas (a hamlet not far from Forres and Inverness), was established in 1898 and is now a museum of whisky production. Its bottling, also from 1970, has complex aromas; cachous, bitter chocolate and vanilla in the palate. Serve after dinner.

- Millburn is the old distillery that greets travellers as the train from London approaches the station at Inverness. The distillery, taking its name from a mill on a burn, dates from the early 1800s, though most of its building are later. It is now a pub and steakhouse. The whisky bottled is from 1975. It is oaky and aromatic; lightly smooth; dryish, perfumy and smoky; becoming sappy in the finish. The ideal whisky with a book in front of a log fire.

- Brora is a fishing and golfing resort on the coast half-way between Inverness and John O'Groats. The Brora distillery was established in 1919, but production was phased out in the Seventies in favour of a newer distillery next door, Clynelish. The Brora bottling is from 1972. It has a distinctive chestnut colour; a peaty, oily, seaweedy aroma; a smoky, salty, oaky palate; and a medicinal finish. It is a wonderful winter warmer.

Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion is newly published in an updated and expanded edition by Dorling Kindersley, pounds 12.99.