In the world of whisky “ghost distilleries” possess a persistent mysticism. It’s easy to understand why. The term refers to facilities that have long since shuttered and yet a precious, ever-dwindling supply of liquid remains stored away, awaiting bottling. Once this stock is gone, it’s time to give up the ghost for good—because this particular place will be nothing more than a memory. And since people invariably want what they can’t have, these scant supplies consistently fetch a sizable fortune on the open market.
If you’re an avid fan of whisky, 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. Far less familiar, however, is the name Ladyburn. According to some collectors it is the lost gem of the Scotch landscape.
Jonathan Driver is tasked with making sure you know what you’re missing. He is overseeing the very measured—and monumentally-priced—release of Ladyburn’s back catalog, so to speak. As managing director of William Grant & Sons’ Private Clients division, he is under the employ of the very same parent company that decided to shutdown the stills all those years ago.
The lowland producer was only in operation from 1966 until 1975, to be exact. But during that relatively short period of production, the distillate was predominantly laid down in ex-sherry butts of superior quality. So what’s rolling out of the barrel today, at a minimum of 52 years in age, is deeply rich, robust and rounded. Less than 200 casks of it are left in existence.
To up the collector’s appeal, Driver and his team have dressed this luscious liquid in bottles showcasing the artwork of celebrated talents from the 20th Century. Ladyburn Edition One was a collaboration with David Bailey, a British fashion photographer best known for his images of ‘60s-era celebrities. In December of 2021, a single bottle of Ladyburn from the 1966 vintage—featuring a Bailey portrait of John Lennon as its label—was sold at auction for just over £80,000.
The Ladyburn Edition Two highlights the photographic collection of Norman Parkinson, as curated by global fashion guru Suzy Menkes. It is strictly limited to 210 hand numbered bottles. Each one flaunts one of ten individual Norman Parkinson color prints, taken between the years of 1960 to 1969. There’s also an additional 11th ‘black swan’ bottling, adorned with a monochrome image. Seeing how much just one single decanter was valued at in December, you can use your imagination to guess how much a set of 11 will soon command at auction.
Released in June, they can only be purchased through special appointment with the Private Clients team. If you’ve got a small fortune to spare on single malt, you’ll be rewarded with something that’s full of liveliness and spunk for a spirit of this age. That vibrancy is immediately detectable in a nose that vacillates between anise and rose petal. On the tongue, an outsized serving of stewed stone fruit gives way to an unrelenting finish of smoked leather and tobacco spice, all of it surfing a satin-like, mouthfeel.
This ultra-luxury single malt, sitting at 46.5% ABV and 55 years in age, is positioned well beyond the reach of most. But that doesn’t mean you can’t dream. Below, Jonathan Driver helps pipe in some additional fantasy fuel. In an exclusive Forbes interview he waxes philosophical 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’ve been involved in various roles in Scotch whisky since the 1980s. From that time, I have had the privilege of observing this fascinating industry of collectible whiskies rise as it has over the years. The growth of the single malt market and the interest in rarity and uniqueness grew out of a wine-literate consumer base. As wealth has been created over recent years, there has been a parallel growth of collectable single malt whisky. For the last two decades I have been involved specifically in the private client business which included being part of the founding team of Whyte & Mackay’s avant-garde private clients business, which expanded its reach to Asian, European and North American collecting networks.”
What made that so avant-garde?
Jonathan Driver: “At this point, there was a sea change. We were looking differently at the rare and the unique in whisky, to the point where single malt parcels that had not been able to be commercialized historically, now became attractive. Within weeks of joining William Grant & Sons to set up the Private Clients division, I was tasting stocks from old, rare and unique whisky stocks from the family archive released for sale to private clients. I had never tasted Ladyburn before. It was evident that this was exceptional, but we had such limited stocks.”
What makes Ladyburn such a special distillery? And where did it get that unique name from?
Jonathan Driver: “Ladyburn occupies a remarkable place in the history of whisky. It marks the inflection point in whisky manifesting two styles of whisky – premodern [before 1960] and modern. Ladyburn epitomises 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, 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 revision of capacity was needed, and the business was forced to make a choice: Ladyburn or The Balvenie? Ladyburn’s sacrifice allowed Balvenie to fulfill its destiny. After only operating from 1966 until 1975, Ladyburn closed and no trace remains. The Ladyburn stills went to The Balvenie, and the learnings from Ladyburn informed the rebuilding of Glenfiddich in the 1970s. In automotive terms, Ladyburn was a true ‘concept car.’ [The distillery’s] name derives from the small river Lady Burn, which runs into the sea just north of where the distillery was located [outside of Girvan, Scotland].”
If they were making distillate this incredible, why did they ever shutter 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, along with economic challenges of the 1970s—including the oil crisis—many distilleries shut down in the 1980s. What became known as the ‘Whisky Loch’ afflicted the industry in the 1970s and 1980s, where too much whisky was produced in comparison to waning 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 focusing on capacity and the market landscape.”
Was the distillery mothballed at first, or just immediately dissembled?
Jonathan Driver: “The distillery was immediately dismantled with assets transferred within the group. It was a difficult family decision due to the distinct 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 role in the ultimate flavour of the liquid?
Jonathan Driver: “There are no records on specific grain sourcing as it is forensically retained today, and no records of specific cask sourcing either. The casks would have been purchased through specialist brokers of the time and the majority of casks bought by William Grant & Sons in this period were European Oak. It is significant that the casks sourced to house distillate in 1966 were all European Oak casks and therefore bring that early 20th Century, perhaps even late 19th Century wood influence.”
How much stock is left of Ladyburn after this? How many barrels in total approximately, and how many more releases can we look forward to in the future?
Jonathan Driver: “The situation is constantly changing due to evaporation and influence of the wood. We have a small parcel of Ladyburn 1966, 1973 and 1974. There is nothing in intervening years. There is only a finite quantity of casks and Ladyburn liquid left and stocks are dwindling fast. The current release is Ladyburn 1966 Edition Two, which is available exclusively through the Private Client channels.”
Talk about the substantial differences between the first and second releases.
Jonathan Driver: “The distillates of the time were powerfully influenced by the wood—European Oak in this instance. There are nuances from cask to cask. Across all the tasting notes there are small differences, playing to a maturation-led style. Ladyburn One and Ladyburn Two share the same character, with extreme time in the wood drawing out the following nuances: Ladyburn One has a linseed nose with a more astringent style. It has dark chocolate notes, but carries the patina of age that you only ever find in extremely rare and old whiskies. Ladyburn Two has a Christmas cake note. It’s sweeter with darker fruit and spice. This is a big, dark rich, extraordinary wood driven aroma and wood notes.”
The newest release is packaged very differently from how we’ve grown accustomed to seeing ultra-premium scotch releases. Tell us about the thought that went into that. And are these products actively being marketed to a different clientele than typical ultra-rare scotches?
Jonathan Driver: “The Ladyburn Edition Triptych series is a uniquely labelled art and whisky collectors set from one of the shortest-lived distilleries in history. Edition Two is a 55-year-old whisky bottled in 2021 paired with sought-after photography by Norman Parkinson, celebrating the pioneering fashion and spirit of transformation of the 1960s, as revealed in Parkinson’s works and Ladyburn whisky. Rarely seen works from David Bailey: Edition One, pioneering photography, and Norman Parkinson: Edition Two, transforming fashion, each bring Ladyburn whisky to the fore as a cultural artifact; the third edition will lead on design. Designed to be displayed like a work of art, the dark mahogany-coloured ultra rare Ladyburn 1966 is bottled in unique artist labelled decanters, each carefully curated to align with the ideas of transformation and boldness that characterised the 1960s. Ladyburn was only in operation for nine years between 1966 and 1975, yet this brief pioneering period spans the two decades that transformed the future of Scotch whisky. The Triptych is a family, whilst each release has its own story and personality, they are designed to sit together in the manner of an art collection.”