Whisky Travel: The awakening spirits of the Outer Hebrides

Whisky Travel: The awakening spirits of the Outer Hebrides

Isle of Harris and Abhainn Dearg distilleries are converting the wonders of these Outer Hebridean islands to liquid gold

Regional Focus | 12 Jan 2022 | Issue 179 | By Abbie Moulton

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It’s midnight in the Outer Hebrides and I’m standing, silent and still, watching a deer that’s paused on the crest of a hill. Ahead of us, the landscape stretches and sprawls for miles, climbing and falling all the way to the mountains in the distance. Despite the hour, it’s still light. The sky is tinged with pink, a flash of peach streaks across the sky. It’s midsummer, and we’re being treated to a special extended viewing of the gloaming. The sun will barely dip below the horizon before it appears again in the morning; when it does, it will unveil wildflower-speckled marshes, craggy hills, and mountains that plummet into the sea beside white sand beaches. These diverse landscapes converge on the Isles of Harris and Lewis, a place of dramatic contrasts.

I’m here to visit the source of Larkfire, ‘Wild Water for Whisky’. Like all the best ideas, the inspiration for Larkfire struck around the dining table, with an open bottle of a good single malt. Co-founder James McIntosh asked for a drop of water to add to the dram, which raised the question, “tap or bottle?” – that triggered a journey into the wild in search of the answer. The issue, McIntosh found, is that whisky is so chemically complex, the addition of either is likely to change the composition. Tap water, a cocktail of fluoride, chlorine and nitrate, with traces of oestrogen and even arsenic if you’re unlucky enough to live in a hard water region, can bully and bruise the spirit. Bottled water is often selected for its mineral properties, its ‘clean’ taste, and so can also impart its own character. A study by Swedish chemists Björn Karlsson and Ran Friedman confirmed the benefits of adding water in the first place: from a molecular perspective, they found that it releases the flavour compounds from the bonds of ethanol, freeing them and awakening the mix of aromas in the glass.
Larkfire, wild water for whisky

Their advice for the best blank canvas was to find something neutral and treated to remove impurities, like de-ionised water, but this lacked a certain romance. Good whisky deserves good water, and McIntosh was determined to find a source that was naturally neutral.

He would need an abundance of clear, clean H2O, free from chemicals and untainted by the influence of minerals. This led him to a three-billion-year-old rock on the edge of the Atlantic. The Outer Hebridean Isles of Harris and Lewis have some of the oldest foundations in Europe, two thirds as old as the earth itself. Centuries of volcanic metamorphosis, continental collision and erosion by glaciers have formed the jagged peaks and mountains that define the skyline. With evidence of humanity that stretches back as early as 6,000 BC, the islands were home to some of the earliest settlements in Britain. If these ancient rocks could talk, they’d whisper in a distinctly Hebridean blend of Gaelic and Old Norse, and tell tales of Neolithic stone ceremonies, Iron-Age farming, Viking invasions, castles of the Clan MacLeod, and conflicts between landowners. Relics of their prehistoric past brand the island: Calanais Standing Stones, the ruins of Dun Carloway Broch, and the carved tomb of St Clement’s Church are all awe-inspiring.
Abhainn Dearg distillery site

Not actually two separate islands, but rather two sides of the same divided by mountains, the landscapes of Harris and Lewis are worlds apart; vast open peatlands and sweeping grasslands define Lewis in the north, while jagged peaks and lunar-esque rocks and boulders shape Harris in the south. With a single distillery on either side, I was curious as to whether this dual nature and same dramatic contrasts would be reflected in the liquid.

When driving across the island, the road bends and scythes through the terrain, unfolding a new scene with every turn of the wheel. The east coast of Harris is known as ‘the Bays’ in tribute to its miniature fjords. In the port town of Tarbert, Isle of Harris Distillery stands brilliant white against the mossy green of the surrounding hills. Sleek and minimal, and without a pagoda roof, it looks less like a traditional distillery and more like a feat of New Nordic architecture. Fitting perhaps – with its inaugural single malt, The Hearach, still awaiting release, Isle of Harris makes up part of Scotch’s new-wave movement. “Our founder, Burr Bakewell, wanted everyone coming through the door to be met with the fire,” distillery host Sandra Fraser adds. “It’s symbolic of the warmth of Hebridean hospitality.” The friendly sing-song of her accent perfectly mirrors the sentiment.
Abhainn Dearg distillery site

Anderson ‘Burr’ Bakewell opened the distillery in 2015. He’d seen the decades’ decline of young people residing on the island, and wanted to create a sustainable solution to the lack of employment, not just for now but for years to come. Seeing the success of other island distilleries, he said, “We’ve got such beautiful soft, clear waters here on the island, let’s convert that to liquid gold!” The entire founding team, ‘The Tarbert Ten’, were recruited from the island, with sensory training and a good drop of blind faith compensating for any gaps in experience. In the still room, a single copper still stands over a congregation of wooden mash tuns. With soaring high ceilings and light flooding through the arch of windows, it’s church and altar of the spirit. The air is filled with the scent of sweet malt, digestive biscuit and a distinct hint of smoke – today is the first of a limited private run of just 100 heavily peated casks. The flagship Hearach, though, will be lighter in style, and is currently slumbering in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. “The whisky will tell us when it’s ready,” says Fraser. “As the first [whisky made] on the Isle of Harris, there’s no house style to follow. We’ll let it show us what the Harris style will be.”

Nosing the new make shows bright floral and citrus notes, and a light touch of tropical fruit. There’s a freshness in the air here in Harris, and the new make feels vibrant, almost energetic, like the Hebridean winds. As for the date of release? “It’s in the hands of the gods,” says Fraser, with a smile. “One of our values here living on the island is that ‘life takes time’...”
Warehouse and casks on Isle of Lewis

Winding back over the island towards Lewis, we dive in and out of sunshine and cloud, the chiaroscuro of light and shade heightening the drama of the landscape. I’m thinking about the efforts to recruit younger generations back to the island. In today’s fast-paced, ‘always on’ society, the idea of simply waiting for something because “life takes time” is as refreshing as the rain clouds we’re driving through. Between the striking scenery and the slower pace of life, there are worse places to live and work.

On the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, the pathway to Uig Sands beach is guarded by a solitary king. The wooden statue marks the site of discovery of the Lewis Chessmen, 78 ivory chess pieces left by Vikings in the 12th century. The beach is a flash of pure white sand against deep turquoise – ‘gorm’ is the Gaelic word for this particular blue-green of the water. Mangersta Bothy, a striking stone and wood shelter, hugs the cliff face above as waves come crashing below.

The nearby Red River has a violent and bloodied history. The land, once under Norse control, was the site of fierce revolt as locals fought to regain what was theirs: a brutal fight to the death that, as legend has it, saw the river run red. There’s no trace of that now, though, and today it’s the water source of Abhainn Dearg (Gaelic for ‘red river’) Craft Distillery, built by Marko Tayburn in 2008. A traditionalist and locavore, Mark sources all but the yeast from the island, and runs the processes by hand. Barley sourced from Stornoway is malted by peat fire on site, in what might just be the smallest maltings in Scotland, and the liquid runs through two handmade stills. Unique to the island, the stills are tall and cylindrical with narrow necks that look like witches hats. “When whisky making was illicit, everyone used these,” Tayburn tells me. “They were easier to hide when the tax collectors came.” Dogmatic in his dedication to manual crafting, he doesn’t measure the cut points of the spirit, preferring to go by taste. As he puts it, “The tongue and the taste buds have taken millions of years to evolve.”
Following the team inside Isle of Harris Distillery

If Isle of Harris Distillery looks to the future, then Abhainn Dearg stands in proud reverence of the past. The Lewis Distillery is traditional down to the Celtic font of the branding, and Tayburn dips in and out of Gaelic as he talks through the making of his ‘uisge beatha’. Bottled as single cask release (there isn’t the volume to blend), American bourbon, Madeira and wine casks and sherry butts are racked in the small warehouse. The heavily peated Madeira cask is dark and savoury; smoked meat and seaweed, and dark floral heather on the nose. On the palate, it’s rugged like the terrain. Tayburn says he’s trying to give people a taste of the island, and he doesn’t mind if not everybody likes it. Divisive? Yes, but it’s an experience for anyone keen to see the historical ways of the water of life.

The two distilleries emphasise the many contrasts on the islands. One looks forward while the other honours the past, yet the spirit of the island flows through each, and both have a wildness to them.
Following the team inside Isle of Harris Distillery

It was this wildness that drew James McIntosh to the islands and the source for Larkfire, which we find in the hollow of a valley. A cool, clear loch, flanked on either side by slopes of bracken and heath: wild water, three billion years in the making. It’s thanks to the island’s unique rock formation: Lewisian Gneiss, formed over millions of years, so dense and tightly layered that it’s too hard for the water to filter through, picking up minerals. Instead, it pools on top, remaining soft and pure. So pure, McIntosh says, he’s seen people drinking it straight from the ground. Larkfire came out of a love for the Scottish islands, “The stark beauty, ever-changing seasons, and the way the light affects the landscape…” he muses, “And then there are the people. We wanted to be a part of a community, and we want to give back to that community.” This ethos is why a percentage of the sales go back to the island via the Stornoway Trust, which looks after the acres of land from which the water is sourced. McIntosh hopes that they might one day be in a position to create jobs that add benefit to the community, too.

Now, though, it’s just the beginning. The lark is a bird with a spiritual meaning, signifying the dawning, or awakening. In Larkfire, the water is designed to awaken spirits, and to bring the fire of that Hebridean warmth and wildness elsewhere.
Following the team inside Isle of Harris Distillery
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