Spirits often afford us an excuse to romanticize the unknown. Take Scotch whisky. For most people, it conjures bucolic scenes of rugged green hills dotted with sheep. The connection between spirit and place is immediate.
However, many don’t know there was a time when forces conspired to challenge that connection. Prohibition, economic unrest and the corporate globalization of booze production led to the closure of nearly half of the nation’s distilleries by the mid-20th century. These closures meant the loss not just of nuanced and specifically regional whiskies but also of history and stories—the tales of who was making and drinking the spirits that came to define Scotland.
Scott Watson, left, and global brand ambassador Ewan Henderson
In 2012, The Lost Distillery Company launched in order to restore both the stories and whiskies of these dead distillers. Scott Watson and Brian Woods, veterans of major liquor brands such as Diageo, wanted to renew the country’s love of its native drink so they teamed up with professor Michael Moss of the University of Glasgow and their in-house archivist in order to uncover any historical records that could give clues as to the old recipes.
The distillery currently bottles six expressions from various regions such as Highland, Lowland, Speyside and Islay. The whiskies range in flavor and style, from the lighter and tangier Auchnagie and Stratheden to Towiemore, Benachie, Gerston and Lossit, their most robust blend.
“With professor Moss and advice from other distillers, in addition to our own knowledge, we pulled together to echo the whiskies’ DNA and their flavors,” says Woods. “That’s where we started. But first we needed to figure out that DNA and the whisky’s individual elements.”
“We were horrified to discover that half of all of Scotland’s whisky distilleries were destroyed over the last century, which was a large part of Scotland’s heritage,” he says. “It was a real shame. Whole communities were devastated. We felt that we could do something to keep the legacy of some of these old distilleries going.”
Reasons for the closures vary from poor transport and issues with the water supply to straight-up isolation. Every label gives the reason for that distillery’s closure, as well as notes on the founder and dates through which they produced, making each bottle something of a history lesson. Oh, and the scotch is pretty darn good, too: The distillery has been winning awards and high praise since its inception, including a gold medal in the blended malt Scotch whisky category at the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition.
Choosing precisely which whiskies to resurrect proved to be tricky. “We wanted to have a regional set of distilleries from all over the country,” says Woods. “But we also tended to go for the distilleries and whiskies that had more available information for us to work with.”
Despite how challenging it can be to create a good throwback product based on minimal historical knowledge, The Lost Distillery Company sees the project as necessary. Moreover, the distillery feels it provides an opportunity to reinvigorate the entire category in the place of its birth.
“Scotch hasn’t been popular because there’s a stigma that people don’t want to drink the same spirits that their elders drank,” says Woods. “People want to carve their own path and discover their own likes aside from what their parents have been drinking.”
And that lack of youthful appeal, according to Woods, is all the more reason to focus on bringing these lost whiskies back from the dead and insist on their relevance. “This is more than just producing whiskies,” says Woods. “This is about communicating an important part of Scotland’s heritage and keeping it alive.”