After 20 years where he worked with some of the largest global liquor conglomerates, Scott Watson turned his attention to a more adventurous mission: to recreate whiskies made at Scotland’s now-closed distilleries. He teamed up with archivists to track down historical clues to piece together flavor profiles, and has the “lost” whiskies made based on their findings. It brings spirits history to life. We talked with Watson, the co-founder of Lost Distillery, about how this concept came to be.
Why did you start The Lost Distillery?
I’ve always felt that it was a great shame that Scotland had lost so many of our whisky distilleries. Almost half of Scotland’s distilleries have been lost over the last century. We’ve lost all of that heritage and history.
Many years ago, when I was a young guy traveling through Scotland, I’d see the remnants of the old distilleries there. It’s always fascinated me. I have an interest in history anyway. I said, “What can we actually do to help resurrect some of that history and hopefully offer a reflection of what some of these whiskies were like back in the day?”
How do you re-create these “lost” whiskies?
What we do is we research how the distilleries operated back in the day. It’s not a particularly easy task. We have a group of archivists that go out and research how the distillery operated. We look at archives, reports, anything that gives information on how the distillery operated. We will gather information on the type or size of still, the capacity of distillery, elements such as the terroir, water and soil profiles, and how the distillery evolved over time.
It can take six months or a year to do that research. Then we come together and form an opinion of what the whisky would have been like back in the day. [Ed note: further detail about the research process is available here.]
How do you decide which “lost distilleries” to focus on?
Obviously, there are a fair number of distilleries that have closed. So we do preliminary research to understand: Will we be able get sufficient information? That’s No. 1, the depth of archive and historical reports. The next thing is the whisky stocks that we have. Can we create a meaningful modern creation with these whisky stocks? And the third aspect is looking at all the research we’ve got: Can we create a genuine modern reflection of that whisky?
One example is an Islay whisky called Lossit. It took us a huge amount of time. It was one of the first projects to complete in terms of the history and archive work, but it took an awful long time to agree on what a modern Lossit would smell and taste like. On some occasions, there almost were fights. It was quite challenging for us to sign off and agree to have it bottled. We were all so close to it.
How do you know if you’ve gotten it right?
We learn something new almost every week. It’s an ongoing process. We have distilleries where we’ve launched a particular Lost Distillery brand, and we’ll have people appearing all over the world who say, “I knew someone who worked at that distillery,” or we have records of that. It’s been amazing how people have joined us in this journey.
Tell us about the backstory of a favorite Lost Distillery bottling.
I was personally vested in Stratheden, our second release. Stratheden is housed in a small town I used to drive through many years ago, when I was out selling whiskies and gins and starting out in the industry. It’s in a small town of about 2,000 people in the lowlands of Scotland.
The whisky was world-renowned as one of the first single malts to make it beyond the borders of Scotland and sold down in London and the United States. That was quite unusual. The distillery was founded in 1829, and was owned by the Bonthrone family, and didn’t really evolve over its 100 years of operation. It really was a very particular style of whisky made on a very small still, an illicit still.
Alexander Bonthrone was a real pioneer. He got a local railway linked so he could get his whiskies to market, and built one of the first commercial malters in whisky. He would sell maltings up into Orkney, and then would bring Orkney peat down from the very far north island of Scotland into the lowlands to fire the still. So you’ve got a small still, oily [texture] as a result; Orkney peat, which gives a slight saline quality. His largest market was in the United States, and Prohibition was what closed the distillery. [The year] 1926 was the last time Stratheden was produced.
We thought the whole family [associated with Stratheden] had expired. But it turned out the Bonthrones were all in Australia. I got a call from [a decendant of the Bonthrones]. Her great-great grandfather was turning, I think it was 83 or 93, and would we mind giving him a small gift? So we sent him over a bottle of Stratheden.
So what did he think of the whisky?
We got a very thankful email back from the family. They seemed to think it was close. The next time I’m out in Australia, I’ve got to be sure to share another dram with him.