According to Shakespeare, not that much, if his famous line were to be believed.

But delve deeper into the story of The Hearach, and you will no doubt – as might the mighty pensmith himself – change your mind. 

The Hearach – pronounced HEAR-AHH, with a soft ending – is the first single malt whisky from the Isle of Harris distillery

Isle of Harris Distillery

The aptly-named Isle of Harris Distillery

The Isle of Harris’s only distillery

Better known first and foremost as a maker of great gin, the distillery launched its initial whisky to the world in autumn 2023. Whilst it is thought distilling did take place on the island in the past, none has been present since the 1840s when the Highland Clearances were in full swing and many residents left their homelands. And certainly then, anything being created would not have been a single malt like we know today.

And so the team behind the whisky decided to give it a strong name to reflect its people and place. 

In Gaelic, The Hearach means ‘a native to the Isle of Harris’ and is said to embody all that the distillery is proud of – the fact its establishment and purpose was specifically to bring jobs and livelihood back to this wee island. 

Situated in the Outer Hebrides off of Scotland’s northwest coast near to the Isle of Lewis and its neighbouring capital of Stornaway (well known for its famous black pudding), the Isle of Harris is a small outcrop which until recently also had a dwindling population. Lured – as so many young folk are – to the mainland to seek their fortunes (or perhaps the worldly nightclubs of Glasgow) the island’s population had declined nearly 50 per cent over the previous 50 years. Understandably, this had an impact on all local resources, from schools to amenities, as there was less and less demand for them. Perhaps its best known export, Harris Tweed cloth from which everything from handbags to kilts and cushions are made, is still made fully on the island but it had for a long time become more of a stop off for tourists making the journey along Scotland’s archipelago of islands than for anything else. 

The distillery’s story begins back In 2011 when planning permission was initially sought to build the site. The distillery construction began in 2014 and the first spirit ran from its stills in late 2015. The water is sourced from across the Abhainn Cnoc a’ Charrain, which the distillery says is some of the softest water of any used at a Scottish distillery, while a long fermentation process and maturation on the island, which is surprisingly temperate despite its northerly location due to the warming Gulf Stream. 

Washbacks at the Isle of Harris distillery

Washbacks at the Isle of Harris distillery

The Hearach story

When the distillery first came to fruition nearly a decade ago, 10 people – all locals – were employed across the various areas of the distillery. Today that number has grown to more than 50 permanent staff, no small feat on an island with only 2000 residents. That growth has in part been due to the success of its Isle of Harris gin, packaged in a distinct blue bottle with swirling patterns etched in the glass, mimicking the watery surrounds. Using local ingredients – such as sugar kelp, sourced by local freediver and naturist Lewis Mackenzie who hand harvests it each year – it’s taken home numerous awards over the years from Best Scottish Gin to Best Scottish Gin Distillery, all of which helped to build the kudos for the company and grow excitement for the initial release of The Hearach whisky which was patiently maturing away in nearby warehouses.

Perhaps most interestingly, the average age of the staff is 25, ensuring that the skills being taught when it comes to distilling are passed down to those likely to settle down for a future on the island. The website is filled with the stories of these staff members, with the blog lovingly introducing each one as they join the family and help build on its future. Very sweetly, in one highlights reel of 2021, the team even announced the birth of three new children to various staff members, and the news that one had bought their first house on the island. Being proud of the legacy they’re creating is made apparent at every step. 

The Isle of Harris Distillery

Look at that blue sea!

The Scottish Maldives

And why wouldn’t someone want to stay there? Having decamped to the countryside myself recently after a long stint in London, I can identify with the need to get some of the big city life but then go back to a more quiet existence down the line. If you take a look at any of the distillery’s publicity videos and it’s easy to be caught up in the beauty of the place where the spirit is made. Harris is an island that, in the right weather, could be mistaken for somewhere in the Maldives – expansive stretches of golden sand, bright turquoise waters, purple hued mountains. It’s a gem of the Scottish coast and its lands are something the distillery intends to make full use of. The company’s tagline is: ‘People and Place, Woven Together’ and it’s clear to see that these touch points have been brought into every part of what they are currently doing. 

In order to continue that narrative, the entire process is done on the island by locals – from the distilling process, to maturation, marrying and bottling of the final product. Even the tasting notes – which aren’t your typical tasting notes for a whisky – are done as stories shared by the locals of what the nose and taste of the dram reminds them of. The company says it aims to produce a Harris whisky, and not one like any others that are out there – therefore they’d prefer if you made up your mind on what the whisky reminds you of when you nose and taste it, rather than feeding in those classic notes to you. On the packaging you’ll instead find stories of memories which the locals provide after trying the product, to give a sense of its place and people.

Isle of Harris blenders

The blending team of Shona Macleod & Harry Wood RS

Making Hearach single malt

For the initial whisky release, batches are created of about 12,000 bottles. The whisky is made up of lightly peated whisky matured for a minimum of four years in a combination of American oak casks, alongside a proportion of whisky aged in fino and oloroso casks. After choosing the casks, each batch is then married in vessels for a minimum of 12 weeks to help create consistency and an amalgamation of flavours. It’s bottled at 46% and each batch is given a special code which allows the end consumer to look it up online and discover the exact marriage and content of the bottle they’ve gotten their hands on. Housed in a wide shouldered, stout bottle with engraved lines and a hefty cork, the art deco esthetic gives it an added premiumisation much like its gin release. 

Upon nosing and tasting a recent bottle here at Master of Malt Towers the whisky was surprisingly delicate for its age, soft and sweet with gentle fruits. And while peated, that smoke was in more of a bonfire capacity, comforting and warming. 

The distillery has worked hard to attract visitors to its shores and the village of East Loch Tarbert where it is located, all of which further enriches the island with tourists willing to spend hard earned coinage in the island’s shops and of course at the distillery. It was helped out by a BBC Alba documentary which followed the first year in the life of its operations, showing the highs and challenges that a small start up faces. Since then, King Charles (then, Prince of Wales) has visited, alongside more than 150,000 other people. 

Distillery team at Isle of Harris

The distillery is at the heart of the Isle of Harris community

A social enterprise

As part of the social enterprise ethos is also a determination to bring in as many other aspects of the island as possible. If you head to the company’s website, a section called ‘Ceremony’ makes for an intriguing discovery – local soundscape artist Fraser MacBeath has created an immersive piece of music capturing the natural sounds and melodies of the island. One is invited to pour a dram of The Hearach, and sit back to enjoy the sounds as they wash over your ears while the whisky washes over your palate. 

It’s clear that the distillery is determined to make the most of its island home, to showcase to the world how much it has to offer. I have been impressed, as the years have gone by, at how they’ve managed to create such a strong brand out of the natural beauty and what is there on tap. No need to fabricate stories when the spot you call your distillery’s home is actually, quite genuinely filled with them. 

The great Bard may have thought that a ‘rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ but The Hearach whisky’s name means a lot more than just the word which it has been given. Well done to the team for honouring sense of place, people and environment in such an authentic way. The whisky, by any other name, actually wouldn’t be as powerful and to that I raise a dram. 

The Hearach 70cl is available from Master of Malt. Click on links for prices and to buy.