It was established on the Dornoch Firth in 1819 to serve as a market for grain grown by the Duke of Sutherland's tenant farmers. Clynelish quickly built an extremely strong reputation during the 19th century. However, the distillery fell on hard times in 1931 and closed its doors. The distillery reopened briefly after 1938, but was once again shuttered amid the grain shortages of WWII. Reopening once again in the post-War years, the distillery was updated in the 1960s and a new distillery was built alongside the original in 1967, copying the old stills as closely as possible but installing a significantly greater number of stills to increase production capacity. The original distillery closed for a short time and was then renamed and operated as Brora starting in 1969. The old distillery began to make a more heavily peated whisky to fill a gap in the owner's portfolio as heavier Islay-style whiskies were an important component in their blends. This ended in 1983, at which point the old distillery was closed for good. The new distillery continued to operate under the Clynelish name, primarily producing whisky for the Johnnie Walker Gold Label blend. Single malt Clynelish bottlings were semi-available during the 1990s in the "Flauna and Flora" incarnation, but got a bigger push in 2002, releasing the now standard 14 Year bottling.
Nose: briny, a bit of sherry, malt and peat, which becomes saltwater taffy, malt and bitter chocolate after dilution
Taste: sweet & sour up front, then malt, leading into sherry, salty chocolate and vegetal peat, which becomes sweeter with water, gaining gobs of creamy malt and honey up front
Finish: malt, sherry, a touch of salty peat, bittersweet chocolate and pepper, which becomes drier with water
This whisky really introduced me to the concept of maritime flavors in a single malt. While there are long, heated debates about whether or not whisky can really taste salty, my guess is that much like the way that a whisky can smell sweet even though there's no way for the nose to directly detect sugar (check out the first video around 2:30), there are flavors and smells in the whisky that the brain associates with saltiness, so it assumes that there must be actual NaCl present and fills in the perceived blank. But whatever it is, this whisky really reminds me of a seashore, with the salt tang and wet vegetation all swirling around.
To me this whisky falls somewhere in between Arran 10 and Highland Park 12 in terms of peat. Much like the Arran the peat seems more vegetal than smoky, but unlike Arran, Clynelish does use a medium-peated barley malt. This makes it an excellent way to ease into peat-ier single malts without going all the way into heavier Island and Islay whiskies. In terms of sherry influence, Clynelish is much closer to the Arran than Highland Park. Though if you want to try a version with greater sherry influence, there is a Distiller's Edition, which is unfortunately seems to be difficult to find in the States. But the regular Clynelish 14 is still solid and usually runs somewhere between $45 and $55, which makes it a rather good value given its age and the quality of the whisky.