In the world of whiskey, “ghost distilleries” possess an enduring mystique. It’s easy to see why. The term refers to facilities long since closed yet holding a precious, increasingly scarce supply of liquid awaiting bottling. Once that supply is gone, it’s time to give up the ghost forever – because this special place will only be a memory. And since people always want what they can’t have, these scarce supplies routinely fetch sizable fortunes on the open market.
If you’re an avid whiskey fanatic, you’ve no doubt heard of some of the most coveted examples: Port Ellen and Brora in Scotland, Stitzel-Weller in Bourbon Country, Karuizawa in Japan. The name Ladyburn, on the other hand, is far less common. According to some collectors, it is the lost jewel of the scottish landscape.
It’s Jonathan Driver’s job to make sure you know what you’re missing. He sort of oversees the very measured – and monumentally cheap – release of Ladyburn’s back catalogue. As managing director of the retail division of William Grant & Sons, he is employed by the same parent company that decided to close down the stills all those years ago.
The flatland producer only operated from 1966 to 1975 to be exact. But during this relatively short production time, the distillate was mostly aged in ex-sherry casks of the highest quality. So what rolls out the barrel today, at a minimum of 52 years, is deeply rich, robust and well-rounded. Less than 200 barrels of it are still there.
To increase collectors’ appeal, Driver and his team have bottled this delicious liquid to showcase the artworks of celebrated 20th-century talents. Ladyburn Edition One was a collaboration with David Bailey, a British fashion photographer best known for his images of 1960s celebrities. In December 2021, a single bottle of 1966 Ladyburn – labeled with a Bailey portrait by John Lennon – fetched just over £80,000.
Ladyburn Edition Two highlights Norman Parkinson’s photographic collection, curated by global fashion guru Suzy Menkes. It is strictly limited to 210 hand-numbered bottles. Each bottle features one of ten individual Norman Parkinson color prints taken between 1960 and 1969. There is also an additional 11th “Black Swan” bottling adorned with a monochrome image. When you see just how much just a single decanter fetched in December, you can use your imagination to guess how much a set of 11 will soon fetch at auction.
They were released in June and can only be purchased after a special appointment with the retail team. If you have a small fortune to spare for single malt, you will be rewarded with something that is full of vibrancy and panache for a spirit of this age. This liveliness can be felt immediately in a nose that oscillates between aniseed and rose petals. On the tongue, an oversized helping of braised stone fruit gives way to a relentless finish of smoked leather and tobacco spice, all delivering a silky mouthfeel.
This ultra-luxe single malt at 46.5% ABV and aged 55 years is positioned well out of the reach of most. But that doesn’t mean you can’t dream. Below, Jonathan Driver helps usher in some extra fantasy fuel. In an exclusive forbes Interview, he gets philosophical about his life, Ladyburn and everything else.
Tell us about your career in the industry and how you ended up joining Ladyburn.
Jonathan driver: “I have been involved with Scotch Whiskey in various roles since the 1980s. Since that time I have had the privilege of witnessing the rise of this fascinating industry of collectible whiskeys over the years. The growth of the single malt market and an interest in rarity and uniqueness grew out of a wine-savvy consumer base. As wealth has been created in recent years there has been a parallel growth in collectible single malt whiskey. For the past two decades I have been specifically in the retail banking business, including being part of the founding team of Whyte & Mackay’s avant-garde retail banking business, which expanded its reach into Asian, European and North American collections networks.”
What made that so avant-garde?
Jonathan driver: “At this point there was a fundamental change. We took a different look at what was rare and unique in whiskey, to the point where single malt packages that historically could not be marketed now became attractive. Within a few weeks of joining William Grant & Sons to set up the retail division, I was sampling stocks of old, rare and unique stocks of whiskey from the family archives that were released for retail sale. I had never tried Ladyburn before. It was obvious this was an exception but we had such limited stock.”
What makes Ladyburn such a special distillery? And how did it get this unique name?
Jonathan driver: “Ladyburn holds a remarkable place in whiskey history. It marks the turning point in whiskey that manifests two whiskey styles – pre-modern [before 1960] and modern. Ladyburn embodies the courage of the Grant family in building the distillery of the future – brothers Charles and Sandy, joint managing directors, and their uncle Eric Lloyd Roberts, chairman and mentor to his two nephews. It was a “Vanguar” project, building a distillery like no other, its beautiful and efficient mechanization a pantheon of modernity. By the mid-1970s a radical overhaul of capacity was needed and the company had to make a choice: Ladyburn or The Balvenie? Ladyburn’s sacrifice allowed Balvenie to fulfill his destiny. Having only operated from 1966 to 1975, Ladyburn was closed and no trace remains. Ladyburn’s stills went to The Balvenie and the findings of Ladyburn influenced the rebuilding of Glenfiddich in the 1970s. In automotive terms, Ladyburn was a true “concept car”. [The distillery’s] The name derives from the small river Lady Burn, which flows into the sea north of where the distillery was located [outside of Girvan, Scotland].”
If they made such incredible distillate, why did they close in the first place?
Jonathan driver: “Ladyburn was technologically advanced and played a key role in the development of single malt Scotch whiskey, leading the category through experimentation. However, due to changing tastes and trends in favor of vodka at the time, as well as the economic challenges of the 1970s – including the oil crisis – many distilleries closed in the 1980s. What became known as the ‘whisky hole’ plagued the industry in the 1970s and 1980s, when too much whiskey was produced in comparison to falling demand caused by the growing popularity of other spirits. Ladyburn was one of the first distilleries to close in 1975. The decision was purely commercial and focused on capacity and the market landscape.”
Was the distillery initially mothballed or immediately dismantled?
Jonathan driver: “The distillery was immediately dismantled and assets transferred within the group. It was a difficult family decision due to the lack of confidence in the market at the time.”
What can we say about the grain sourcing and cask sourcing of these particular expressions and how they play a role in the ultimate flavor of the liquid?
Jonathan driver: “There are no specific grain sourcing records as forensically preserved today, nor any specific cask sourcing records. The casks were purchased through specialist brokers of the time and the majority of the casks purchased by William Grant & Sons during this period were European oak casks. It is significant that the casks sourced for aging distillates in 1966 were all European oak casks and hence bring this early 20’sth Century, maybe even late 19thth Wood Influence of the Century.”
How much stock is left of Ladyburn after that? Approximately how many casks in total and how many more releases can we look forward to in the future?
Jonathan driver: “Due to evaporation and the influence of the wood, the situation is constantly changing. We have a small package of Ladyburn 1966, 1973 and 1974. Nothing is available in the years in between. There are only a limited amount of casks and Ladyburn liquid left, and supplies are running low fast. The current release is Ladyburn 1966 Edition Two, which is only available through the Private Client channels.”
Discuss the key differences between the first and second versions.
Jonathan driver: “The distillates of the time were heavily influenced by wood – in this case European oak. There are nuances from cask to cask. There are small differences across all tasting notes, befitting an age-oriented style. Ladyburn One and Ladyburn Two share the same character, with the extreme time in the wood bringing out the following nuances: Ladyburn One has a flaxseed nose with a more astringent style. It has dark chocolate notes but bears the patina of age found only on extremely rare and aged whiskeys. Ladyburn Two has a Christmas cake note. It’s sweeter with darker fruits and spices. This is a big, dark, rich, exceptional wood-driven aroma and wood notes.”
The latest release is packaged very differently than we’re used to seeing ultra-premium Scotch releases. Tell us about the thought behind it. And are these products being actively marketed to a different clientele than typical ultra-rare Scotch?
Jonathan driver: “The Ladyburn Edition Triptych range is a uniquely marked fine art and whiskey collectors set from one of the shortest lived distilleries in history. Edition Two is a 55-year-old whiskey bottled in 2021 paired with coveted photographs by Norman Parkinson, celebrating the breakthrough fashion and spirit of transformation of the 1960s as reflected in Parkinson’s work and Ladyburn Whisky. Rarely seen works by David Bailey: Edition One, groundbreaking photography, and Norman Parkinson: Edition Two, transformative fashion, bring Ladyburn whiskey to the fore as a cultural artifact; The third edition will deal with the design. Designed to be displayed like a work of art, dark, mahogany-hued, ultra-rare Ladyburn 1966 is bottled in one-of-a-kind artist-labeled decanters, all carefully curated to reflect the ideas of transformation and boldness that defined the 1960s characterized. Ladyburn operated for just nine years between 1966 and 1975, but that brief pioneering period spans the two decades that changed the future of Scotch whiskey. The triptych is a family, while each release has its own story and personality, they are designed to sit together like an art collection.”