No matter how many times you see a distillery release its inaugural whisky, it never stops being exciting. When that whisky distillery is the first to be built on Skye in 190 years and only the second legal site to operate on the island, that really ramps up the anticipation. Torabhaig has been firmly on whisky fans’ radar ever since the plans to build it were announced. At long last, its first expression, Torabhaig Legacy 2017, is here. Well, it is tomorrow. Keep your eye out on the MoM blog for details of how you might be able to get hold of a bottle (UPDATE: The post is now live).
A peak behind the curtain
Today, we’re going to look at how this whisky was made, how this production process has influenced its profile and review the spirit itself. But before we get to that, the first thing to note about this release is how Torabhaig is doing things a little differently. The inaugural whisky is not a permanent expression. Instead, it will be the first of four bottlings in the Legacy Series which will straddle Torabhaig’s formative years until a single malt that has been aged for ten years (which we can expect to see in 2028) is ready. That means that what we’re tasting today is more of a peek behind the curtain. The brand is letting us see the process of its whisky’s evolution into what will eventually become its signature style.
Neil Mathieson, chief executive at Mossburn Distillers, the company behind Torabhaig, explains that since production began in January 2017 various changes have been implemented to achieve the ideal style. Over the last four years, the distillers have experimented with the peating levels, yeast and barley varieties (single farmer’s grain and speciality malts etc.), the effect of the harvest and how the mashing, fermentation and distillation process affects the Torabhaig spirit. “For the first few years we’ll be possibly surprising ourselves and hoping that everybody enjoys the journey,” he says.
Mathieson reveals the initial inspiration for Torabhaig whisky was the earthy, vegetal aromas of Lagavulin and the piercing phenolics on the Laphroaig. The intention was never to make a whisky that tasted like Talisker. “There is room on the island for two distinct styles. It would be a great privilege to be spoken of in the same tone as Talisker, however, because they are a standard-bearer”.
Constantly evolving process
Through this constantly evolving process, the brand has defined its ideal profile as an island-style malt whisky with “well-tempered” peat profile and a fruit-forward character that’s been “shaped by Skye”; the factors contributing to this are pure island spring water sourced from the Allt Breacach and the Allt Gleann burns and the tempestuous climate the maturation takes place in. We’ll see elements of this in the first release, but Mathieson also says that peatiness is even more gentle than people might expect and that we won’t see this profile again since then the grain and phenol levels have since been changed. “The next two releases are looking like they will be heavier in peat”.
That gentler quality was influenced by the shape and size of the 8000-litre wash still and 5000-litre spirit still made by Forsyths of Rothes, which have traditional downward sloping lyne arms and condensers but a wider neck than typical. This adds an element of reflux which allows aromatic phenols and a more gentle flavour to come through, according to Mathieson. It was built this way due to height restrictions within the distillery, which is housed in a listed 200-year-old farmstead.
The site for Torabhaig was actually chosen by Sir Iain Noble, who founded Pràban na Linne in 1976 (we have an article from Ian Buxton coming up delving further into this story). Sadly, Noble passed in 2010 before he could see his plan through and Mossburn Distillers took advantage of the established planning permission. Work began in July 2014, but it was a complicated construction (the roof had to be removed to get the stills in and the master stonemason actually ended up living there during the rebuild). The reward for patience and perseverance, however, was a scenic distillery that’s rich in history and local lore, which will surely appeal to tourists and whisky geeks alike.
How the whisky is made and matured
The latter will be intrigued to learn that all of Torabhaig’s barley is sourced from Scotland and is milled on-site on a roller mill and then mashed in the 1.5-tonne capacity mash tun. The grain is currently peated to at least 75ppm, an increase for the initial 60-65ppm standard. In order to attain a more full-bodied, peaty profile, the dominant barley strain was also changed, from Concerto to Laureate, as has the strain of yeast and fermentation times. Fermentation currently lasts between 70-100 hours, on some runs as long as 120, in eight traditional Douglas fir wooden washbacks. There’s also a cooling pond on-site, which is a method of cooling hot water from the condensers before it’s returned to the river not often seen anymore.
As for maturation, more than 50% of Torabhaig whisky is currently being aged in first-fill bourbon casks and the remaining percentage is predominantly refill. The wood programme also includes Port, Madeira, Cognac, Sauternes, Bordeaux wine and virgin European oak casks between the 200-500-litres in size, however. Each batch produces 80-100 barrels, and once you account for grain and yeast variations as well as the various cask styles Mathieson estimates there are about 40 different profiles of Torabhaig whisky currently maturing. The spread of warehouses includes dunnaged, racked and palletised, so Mathieson says an assessment on what effect these different styles of storage have will be undertaken in the coming years.
All of this work is overseen by a total of nine distillers. Initially an experienced team of consultant brewers, distillers and malts men helped the apprentices learn the craft while they studied and achieved their qualifications before all nine were ready to take on the roles themselves. This remarkable approach was informed by a desire for a team who understood every stage of production, which in turn breeds an environment of constant experimentation and innovation. Mathieson says the influence of each distiller is profound. They’ll each have their names printed on the labels and he hopes they’ll all stay to see through the full maturation of their own distillate.
This brings us to the whisky itself: Torabhaig Legacy 2017. It’s a single vintage expression aged solely in ex-bourbon from the first quarter’s distillation made with Concerto barley and Pinnacle MG+ yeast. The label also informs us that the in-grain phenols are 55ppm and the residual phenols are 16ppm. It was bottled at 46% ABV and there are just over 3,000 bottles available in the UK.
The first thing you notice about Torabhaig Legacy 2017 is that it’s not full of youthful aggression or imbued with too much wood character to give the impression of more years in cask. Instead, there’s a harmonious balance of the distillery’s fresh and fruity new make character with the influence of first-fill bourbon barrels and a tonne of coastal characteristics which give it the sense of a good young island dram. It’s every bit as gentle and mellow as we were told to expect, however, and this does mean it lacks some presence and texture initially. Give it time and let it breathe though, and complexity is your reward. All in all, it’s a very promising first chapter for Torabhaig.
Torabhaig Legacy 2017 tasting notes:
Nose: Whispers of coastal peat pass through vanilla and a rich, warming apple note, like the inside of a freshly baked crumble. There’s also wet oak, limestone, mineral salts, seaweed, cockle brine, dried grass and a slight vegetal element among a very pleasant note of sherbet lemons. Underneath there are touches of toasted almond, darker fruits, sugary latte, white pepper and toffee.
Palate: The peat is more pronounced here and has an ashy profile with a touch of iodine. More briny sweetness and orchard fruit (apples and pears mostly) are present too, as well as notes of tinned apricots, wild herbs, fennel, brown bread with salted butter, shellfish doused in lemon juice and freshly cracked black pepper. Throughout there are some light floral and medicinal elements, while the cask adds flavours of vanilla, banana and roasted nuts.
Finish: The finish is lightly charred with wood smoke and has plenty of that salty, seaside charm (cockle brine, rock pools etc.) There’s also browning apples, eucalyptus, a little chewy liquorice and dark fruit.