Take a peek inside the Isle of Raasay Distillery, the latest Scotch whisky-maker to open its doors…
Most people have never heard of the Isle of Raasay. Shaped like a wisp of smoke, the Inner Hebridean islet lies off the east coast of Skye, tucked between the much larger island and the mainland. But its little-known status looks likely to change, among whisky fans at least – the island now has its own distillery, and it’s one that looks set to top those must-visit lists.
Raasay’s appeal is as obvious as it is alluring. The island’s permanent population stands at 170. It’s got rugged outcrops, forested areas, remote beaches. It’s off the beaten track, accessible only by boat from another island. And it has the warmest of welcomes from locals and distillery team alike – even if the weather isn’t as keen to oblige.
But on 16 September not even the early drizzle could dampen celebrations as The Isle of Raasay Distillery opened its doors for the first time. While other Hebridean islands are well-known for their booming whisky trade, Raasay had previously kept it all on the down low. The new distillery is the island’s first legal whisky producer, brought to life by R&B Distillers and its two co-founders Alasdair Day and Bill Dobbie.
The duo at the fore of the R&B Distillers team (which stands for Raasay and Borders, in case you were wondering – yes, there is a second distillery in the pipeline with Peebles the other proposed location) have long held a fascination with whisky-making in the Hebrides. Day inherited a cellar book of whiskies blended by one Borders-based great-grandfather; the other hailed from the Isle of Lewis. (In fact, Day’s Tweeddale range of whiskies based on the recipes in the book has been a sell-out success.) Dobbie had hoped to see a distillery on Raasay since visiting with a childhood friend. He then snapped up the disused Borodale House, and set about transforming it into a distillery and adjacent visitor centre.
The pipe band arrives at the new Isle of Raasay Distillery
Back to the opening – and the celebratory mood was set with the arrival of the Isle of Skye Pipe Band, which marched right off the ferry and up to the distillery. It was a spectacle, and not just because of the band’s rambunctious arrival. The entire island had turned out to witness the official opening. “Build it and they will come,” said whisky writer Dave Broom as be prepared to cut the ribbon and officially open the distillery alongside Day. And came they did. It was genuinely moving to see how much this new distillery means to the local community.
The entire island turned out for the festivities
On to the distillery itself. The R&B team broke ground on the site in June 2016, and the former hotel has come a long way since then. “It’s the distillery with the best view,” distiller Iain Robertson said the evening before. And looking out from the front of the site over the water towards Skye, you’d be hard-pressed to argue.
The view from the new visitor centre, adjacent to the distillery
The Isle of Raasay Distillery shares its water source with an old Celtic well, which lies not far from the shiny new 30 tonne hopper standing proud alongside the new building. It took a 26 tonne delivery of malted barley the week we arrived, with the comparatively teeny grist mill then set to work at a rate of one tonne per hour.
The hopper and grist mill at Raasay
For an island shaped like a wisp of smoke, it seems fitting that this first batch was peated to 45ppm. “We want to balance the sweetness with the smoke,” said Day as we toured the distillery. The first full distillation run was only completed the day before, so the team is not sure of the post-distillation phenol count yet, Day added.
On to the mash tun, which processes a one tonne mash, producing a clear wort.
Inside the Raasay mash tun
There are six washbacks in-situ. Why so many? Each 5,000l wash undergoes a 95-hour fermentation. “The longer the fermentation, the more fruity character,” said Day. “We’ve set out to make whisky that is complex.” Each washback is equipped with cooking jackets to slow the yeast take-off and prolong the ferment, he added.
Co-founder Alasdair Day and one of the washbacks
Raasay has one pair of stills: one wash and one spirit copper pot sit at the end of the production space right by a full-height glass window overlooking the bay and across to Skye. The 5,000 litre wash still comes equipped with a water-jacketed lynne arm “so we can get the spirit denser earlier”, said Day.
With the stills
Over on the 3,600 litre spirit still and the lynne arm is inclined for a “purer, lighter spirit”. “Generally speaking, lighter spirit will mature more quickly,” he added.
The Isle of Raasay Distillery’s first cask
Sitting just across from the pair of stills lies the first Isle of Raasay Distillery cask. And it’s got an intriguing history. The French oak barrique had a former life holding three batches of Tuscan red wine, before housing local beer, and also accommodating While We Wait
whisky (the single malt from an unnamed distillery vatted to represent the future Raasay character. The idea is to enjoy the whisky literally while we wait for the new spirit to come of age).
The very wine and beer previously matured in the first Raasay cask
Did we have a sneaky sample? Yes we did. And the new make is super
fruity, backed by a punch of peat, with the cask filled at a robust 70% abv. Is it tasty? Yes. Are we impatient for the next three years to pass? Indeed. But caution – the first 100 casks (heavily peated first-fill bourbon) have been assigned for members of the Raasay Whisky Club only.
“We want complexity in a young whisky,” summed up Day. Expect to see lots of high-char, high-toast virgin oak in use, alongside wine casks, with both unpeated and heavily peated liquid coming off those Isle of Raasay Distillery stills. Roll on 2021…