Is it the rarest Scotch whiskey in the world?

In the whiskey world, “ghost distilleries” possess a lingering mysticism. It is easy to understand why. The term refers to facilities that have long since closed and yet a precious and ever-diminishing supply of liquid remains stored, awaiting bottling. Once that stock is gone, it’s time to give up the ghost for good, because that particular place will be just a memory. And since people invariably want what they can’t have, these scarce supplies consistently fetch a considerable fortune on the open market.

If you’re a huge whiskey lover, you’ve no doubt heard of some of the most sought-after examples: Port Ellen and Brora in Scotland, Stitzel-Weller in Bourbon Country, Karuizawa in Japan. Much less familiar, however, is the name Ladyburn. According to some collectors, it is the lost gem of the Scottish landscape.

Jonathan Driver is responsible for making sure you know what you’re missing. He’s overseeing the very measured – and at a monumental price – release of Ladyburn’s back catalogue, so to speak. As Managing Director of the Private Clients division of William Grant & Sons, he is employed by the same parent company that decided to shut down stills all those years ago.

The lowland producer only ran from 1966 to 1975, to be exact. But during this relatively short production period, the distillate was mostly deposited in old premium sherry butts. So what comes out of per barrel today, at a minimum 52 years old, is deeply rich, robust and round. There are less than 200 barrels left.

To enhance collector appeal, Driver and his team have dressed this luscious liquid in bottles showcasing the artwork of famous 20th century talents. Ladyburn Edition One was a collaboration with David Bailey, a British fashion photographer best known for his 60s celebrity images. In December 2021, a single bottle of Ladyburn from the 1966 vintage – with a Bailey portrait of John Lennon as the label – was sold at auction for just over £80,000.

The Ladyburn Edition Two highlights Norman Parkinson’s photography collection, curated by global fashion guru Suzy Menkes. It is strictly limited to 210 hand-numbered bottles. Each displays one of ten individual color prints of Norman Parkinson, taken between the 1960s and 1969. There is also an additional 11th ‘black swan’ bottling, adorned with a monochrome image. Seeing how much a single decanter was priced in December, you can use your imagination to guess how much a set of 11 will soon be auctioning off.

Released in June, they can only be purchased by appointment with the Individual Clients team. If you have a small fortune to spare in single malt, you’ll be rewarded with something full of liveliness and feistiness for a spirit of this age. This liveliness is immediately detectable in a nose that oscillates between anise and rose petal. On the tongue, an oversized portion of stone fruit compote gives way to an unrelenting finish of smoky leather and tobacco spice, all riding a satiny mouthfeel.

This ultra-luxurious single malt, sitting at 46.5% ABV and 55 years old, is well beyond the reach of most. But that doesn’t mean you can’t dream. Below, Jonathan Driver helps provide some extra fantastic fuel. Exclusively Forbes interview, he becomes a philosopher about his life, Ladyburn, and everything.

Tell us about your career in the industry and how you eventually got involved with Ladyburn.

Jonathan Driver: “I have played various roles in Scotch whiskey since the 1980s. Since then I have had the privilege of watching this fascinating industry of collectible whiskeys grow over the years. The growth of the single market malt and interest in rarity and uniqueness grew out of a consumer base knowledgeable about wine.As wealth has been created in recent years, there has been a parallel growth in single malt whiskey Over the past two decades I have been involved specifically in the private client sector, including being part of the founding team of Whyte & Mackay’s pioneering private client business, which expanded its reach to Asian, European and North American collection networks.

What made this so cutting edge?

Jonathan Driver: “At this point, there was a sea change. We looked at the rare and the unique in whiskey differently, to the point that plots of single malt that could not be marketed historically became attractive. A few weeks after joining William Grant & Sons to create the Private Clients division, I was tasting old, rare and unique stocks of whiskey from the family archives offered for sale to private clients. I had never tasted Ladyburn before. It was obvious that it was exceptional, but we had such limited stocks.

What makes Ladyburn such a special distillery? And where does this unique name come from?

Jonathan Driver: “Ladyburn occupies a remarkable place in the history of whisky. It marks the inflection point of whiskey manifesting two styles of whiskey – premodern [before 1960] and modern. Ladyburn embodies the bravery of the Grant family in building the distillery of the future – the two brothers Charles and Sandy, joint managing directors and their uncle, Eric Lloyd Roberts, president and mentor to his two nephews. It was an “avant-garde” project, building a distillery like no other, its beautiful and efficient mechanization a pantheon of modernity. By the mid-1970s, a drastic capacity overhaul was needed and the company was forced to make a choice: Ladyburn or The Balvenie? Ladyburn’s sacrifice allowed Balvenie to fulfill her destiny. After only operating from 1966 to 1975, Ladyburn closed and no trace remains. Ladyburn’s stills went to The Balvenie, and Ladyburn’s teachings informed 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 Lady Burn River, which empties into the sea just north of where the distillery used to be [outside of Girvan, Scotland].”

If they were making such an amazing distillate, why did they shut down in the first place?

Jonathan Driver: “Ladyburn was technologically advanced and played a key role in the development of single malt Scotch whisky, leading the category through experimentation. However, due to changing tastes and trends favoring vodka at this time, as well as the economic challenges of the 1970s, including the oil crisis, many distilleries closed in the 1980s. What became known as ‘Whisky Loch’ plagued the industry in the 1970s and 1980s, where too much whiskey was produced relative to the decline in demand caused by the rising popularity of other spirits. Ladyburn was one of the first distilleries to close in 1975. The decision was purely commercial focusing on capacity and the market landscape.

Was the distillery first mothballed or simply dismantled?

Jonathan Driver: “The distillery was immediately dismantled with assets transferred within the group. It was a difficult family decision due to the obvious lack of confidence in the market at the time.

What can we say about the grain sourcing and barrel sourcing of these particular expressions and how they play a part in the ultimate flavor of the liquid?

Jonathan Driver: “There is no record of the specific grain sourcing as it is forensically preserved today, and no record of the specific cask sourcing either. The casks would have been purchased through specialist brokers of the time and the majority of casks purchased by William Grant & Sons at this time were European oak. It is significant that the barrels from the house distillate in 1966 were all European oak barrels and therefore bring that early 20e Century, maybe even late 19e Century wood influence.

How much stock of Ladyburn is left after this? Approximately how many barrels in total, and how many more releases can we expect in the future?

Jonathan Driver: “The situation is constantly changing due to evaporation and the influence of wood. We have a small parcel of Ladyburn 1966, 1973 and 1974. There is nothing in the years in between. There are only a finite amount of Ladyburn casks and liquid left and supplies are rapidly running out. The current version is Ladyburn 1966 Edition Two, which is available exclusively through the Private Client channels.

Talk about the substantial differences between the first and second versions.

Jonathan Driver: “The distillates of the time were strongly influenced by wood, European oak in this case. There are nuances from one cask to another. Across all the tasting notes, there are small differences, playing on a style focused on maturation. Ladyburn One and Ladyburn Two share the same character, with extreme time in the wood bringing out the following nuances: Ladyburn One has a linen nose with a more astringent style. It has hints of dark chocolate, but carries the patina of age that is only found in extremely rare and ancient whiskies. Ladyburn Two has a note of Christmas cake. It is softer with black fruits and spices. It is an extraordinary, rich and dark aroma and wood notes.

The latest release is packaged very differently from how we’ve grown accustomed to seeing ultra-premium scotch releases. Tell us about the thinking that led to this. And are these products actively marketed to a different clientele than typical ultra-rare scotches?

Jonathan Driver: “The Ladyburn Edition Triptych series is a collector’s set of art and uniquely labeled whiskey from one of the most ephemeral distilleries in history. Edition Two is a 55-year-old whiskey bottled in 2021 paired with sought-after photography by Norman Parkinson, celebrating the pioneering fashion and transformative spirit of the 1960s, as revealed in Parkinson’s artwork and Ladyburn whisky. Rarely seen works by David Bailey: Edition One, pioneering photography, and Norman Parkinson: Edition Two, transforming fashion, each bring Ladyburn whiskey to the fore as a cultural artifact; the third edition will focus on design. Designed to be displayed as a work of art, the ultra-rare 1966 Ladyburn in dark mahogany is bottled in unique, artist-labeled decanters, each carefully curated to align with the ideas of transformation and boldness that have typified the 1960s. Ladyburn was only in business for nine years between 1966 and 1975, but this brief pioneering period spans the two decades that transformed the future of Scotch whisky. The Triptych is a family, while each release has its own story and personality, they are designed to sit together like an art collection.

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