When distilleries are closed, they are closed for a reason – economic, socio-political or natural disaster, be that fire or, I dunno…global pandemic. The closure of sites is viewed on the one-hand as a tragic loss of distilling history (little is ever written about the impact on the communities which those distilleries served in terms of their employment and welfare benefits) and on the other as a gold-mine of vintage and nostalgia. The psychological underpinnings for why some whisky enthusiasts are obsessed by the liquid from defunct distilleries is actually rather multi-layered – the desire to possess something deemed as scarce and ergo rare – an impetus fuelled by the constant excitement of the hunt – or just a misguided belief that whisky was simply better ‘back then’. But, regardless of the drivers, for distilleries to thrive, it is actually a necessity that some have to die.
Much has been written about the market saturation for whisky and in particular for the building of countless new distilleries – which was, up until a month ago, moving on apace. Indeed, there likely is a point (which I don’t believe we’ve reached as yet), where there is simply too much young liquid out there. That is not to say too much in terms of total volume – such as was seen during the early 80s – but rather too fierce competition at the ‘green’ end of the market to be able to sustain every single fledgling distilling operation. Costs are costs and running a distillery is far from a cheap enterprise – particularly with a lag for waiting for maturation and the compounding effect of their already being *far* too much gin available. As with many market, if you’re jumping into a business because everyone is talking about, you’re likely jumping in too late.
But beyond this, the death of distilleries drives a large part of the secondary market. Many auction houses now include a tab dedicated to bottlings from mothballed, closed and demolished distilleries – and these bottlings command the expected premiums which all things outdated tend towards. Owning a bottle from a closed distillery is often feted as owning a piece of liquid history. On the one hand a truism – on the other a self-fulfilling statement which only goes on to encourage a Pokemon mentality in all of us.
However, whilst the secondary market is subjected to continued online carping – “auctions just drive the price of ‘normal’ bottlings up for the rest of us” – make no mistake, it is one of the key drivers as to why the industry is in such rude health. Think of it this way, if you removed the secondary market from the equation – where would you source bottlings from closed distilleries? There’s not a stockpile of unsold bottles. They’re not just sitting around gathering dust. Well, they are – but someone already owns them. Without the various forms of onward sale lost distilleries would be nothing but a memory – the pieces of liquid history spoken about, but never actually seen (or even tasted?!) in the wild.
The secondary market unlocks past bottlings to existing enthusiasts – it also ensures a continued cycle of interest still exists for future enthusiasts for when they enter the hobby.
Of course the secondary market does have other warpingmarket effects – higher pricing, artificial scarcity and an unrelenting drive by producers to position all things as ‘limited’. But with both the desire for older bottlings, and the mechanisms in place for enthusiasts to obtain them (and at shows like Old & Rare to actually sample such things), there is life after death for closed distilleries.
Today’s lost distillery is one that has truly vanished.
Glen Albyn was part of the class of 83’ – expelled from school alongside neighbouring Glen Mhor as part of DCL’s downturn consolidation. Its 137 year history was no less fraught – a devastating fire a mere three years after it opened in 1846 – a bankruptcy forcing the site to convert into a flour mill – a near 25 year period of silence towards the end of the Victorian era – and another when it was used by the US navy to produce mines and submarine nets during WW1. Nevertheless, the candle that burns half as long burns twice as bright – at one point Glen Albyn was producing 75,000 gallons of whisky and a variety of its production methods were both esoteric and fascinatingly different – D-shared wormtubs, a watercourse directly from Loch Ness and Saladin box maltings.
Its closure in 1983 was followed by demolition in 1986 and a repurposing into a retail park two years later. Now it's an ideal location to pick up a new washing machine or a replacement carpet.
Bottles of Glen Albyn are far from ten-a-penny. Whiskybase only lists 178 released expressions (much of its production either blended away or lost to the annals of time) – and over the last decade only Gordon & MacPhail have produced new releases – both from 70’s stock, both possessing large age statements. Likely whatever little is left of Glen Albyn is getting to the point where its owners will want to be bottling it. There's little left in casks - and what liquid there is lurks within bottles (both opened and unopened) within collections.
This presents an interesting point in terms of the assessment of 'rarity' that the whisky community will have to get to grips with over the coming decades – closed/lost distilleries are one thing – no liquid left to bottle from the stocks of those distilleries is a fundamentally different proposition. Compare Port Ellen to Karuizawa. Both long closed, but bottlings from each are still occurring - albeit infrequently. How will their legends change when all of the casks have been emptied? And will the reopening (albeit as an entirely new distillery simply bearing the same name and on the same site) of one futher affect the myth of its liquid past?
Anyhow - Glen Albyn - our review bottle hails from February 1969, and is a vatting of two casks (483 + 484) reassuringly described as ‘oak wood’. 600 bottles were released by Signatory in a dumpy shaped bottle in August of 1989. You won’t see many bottles around – not even on auction sites. You might see some miniatures though – as 1000 individually numbered 5cl’s were produced.
Nose: Highly expressive, animated and still possessing a heady booziness. Peach melba, over ripe pineapple juice and guava are enriched by milky coffee, crème patisserie and nougat. Polish follows – joined by a curious pepper, anise, mint and oregano infusion. Running throughout – dry dusty cellars, stale candle wax and cracked cashew nuts. The addition of water cuts through the overt rawness, emphasising homemade lemonade, ginger, sunflower oil and golden syrup.
Taste: A brassy (literally – metal polish) and brash arrival that’s tart, immediately drying and punctuated by potent spirit. Candied lemons, soured pineapple and green apples are joined by dried leaves, wood varnish and penetrating pepperiness. The development calms somewhat, but is still piercingly tart and arid – citric power, chiselled minerality, powered mint leaves and bitter dark chocolate. Water once again applies the breaks – barley water and grapefruit juice but with a heightened sense of steeliness.
Finish: Medium to long with Andrew’s Liver Salts, crumbled limestone, lemon balm and residue hot spirit.
Whilst historically interesting, this Glen Albyn isn’t actually all that pleasant to drink. The nose presents with polished fruits and creaminess alongside a thought-provoking selection of near otherworldly aromas. Alas, it’s punctuated by a rawness which extends and expands into the palate - where things become at best - challenging, at worse - actively disagreeable. It’s rather the case in point that sometimes the past is sadly best left forgotten. The so-called golden era of Scotch is often a retrospective extrapolation of the best rather than a consolidation of its actual entirety.