There is something that so fascinates us about the past that we want to recreate parts of it.
Historical dramas, for example, are the bread and bacon grease of the BBC. Civil War buffs spend weekends re-fighting battles with accurate uniforms, weapons and maneuvers – everything except the slaughter. Scientists, and science fiction writers, are intrigued with creating a Jurassic Ark of prehistoric animal species from bits of their surviving DNA. Chefs pull out cookbooks from centuries ago to recreate anew famous feasts long since consumed for today’s hungry foodies.
And so Brian Woods decided to create the Lost Distillery Company so that he could bring dead Scotches back to life one dram at a time.
Lost distilleries, lost wineries – almost every region that has produced alcoholic beverages has tales of ghost facilities, relics of past heydays before the region was hit hard by economic disasters or wars. There is a nostalgic romance about stumbling across remnants of their buildings in some grown-over wood.
“We don’t find old bottles with DNA in them,” Woods was quick to explain as we chatted on the phone from opposite sides of the Atlantic. “We founded the company in April of 2012 and had already spent about a year of informal work before that. We started production in 2013.” The idea was not to re-create distilleries, but instead to produce commercial Scotches that Woods believes taste like the ones being made by the distillers before their pot stills went belly up.
Wood estimates that are probably about a hundred ghost distilleries in Scotland who over the past century or so went out of business, their brands dying with them. Working with Professor Michael Moss of the University of Glasgow, Woods’ team vetted about 23 of these before deciding to pursue around 15. “We’ve made six so far and are working on a seventh,” he says.
Seldom does their research yield a taste from a bottle produced by a dead distillery. Rather, the team searches out any literature the distillery produced about its product and methodologies, info about Scotch-making styles at the time of death and the character of the local water, peat and grain that went into the whisky. “We first do a quick dive – about a month’s work – and if we decide to proceed, it’s about six-to-nine months of additional research,” Woods says.
Next comes the blending, which is the heart of a large portion of Scotch production anyway. The team collects samples of Scotch made at various current-day distilleries to recreate the taste they believe the dead distillery was producing when the last bottle clanked off the line. Of the six brought to market so far, the youngest is from a distillery that closed in 1931.
I tasted three of the recreations recently. The Towiemore from Speyside has floral and herbal notes and a touch of saltiness to go along with the mild peatiness. It closed in 1931. The Lossit has heavier peat, is smokier and has notes of iodine as is common with Islay Scotches. Although meaty, it has a fairly light body. It closed in 1867. The Jericho, from Aberdeenshire, is very smooth with caramel notes and floral accents. It closed in 1913.
“In addition to bringing back the Scotch, we are also bringing back its story,” Woods says, adding, “It’s the first new category of Scotch in 100 years.” Each costs about $43.
Do the whiskies taste that different than a similar range from the same regions being made today would taste? Not really, especially since they are blends were made today. But that’s not the point. There is a certain satisfaction for both the distiller and the drinker to say, “The last time the Scotch was produced was in 1869. What I’m drinking today is a close replication of it.
“The lineage continues.”