Distillery Focus

Raasay Reborn

Legal malt spirit is flowing for the first time on this Hebridean isle
By Christopher Coates
The romantic, community-owned isle of Raasay is a rugged and atmospheric strip of rocky coastline and muscular hills, about 14 miles long and three miles wide, that boasts spectacular views across the Sound of Raasay toward Skye and the inner sound to Applecross on the mainland. The island has a population of around 150 people, though many of those are seasonal, and over the years it has become a popular destination for outward bound excursions. Once held by the Macleod Clan (not the Macleods of Skye but relations of the Lewis Macleods), the island was sold in the 1840s as the ruling family never truly recovered financially from the fallout of the Jacobite Rising a century earlier.

An iron mine operated at Inverarish from 1913–1919 and the village that can be seen there today is mostly contemporaneous with that project, which significantly boosted the island’s dwindling resident population. Production at the site began in earnest with the outbreak of WWI and the ore mined there was shipped from a purpose-built pier at Suisnish, which can still be seen today, to the supply chain of the British Ministry of Munitions. With many of the Raasay men supporting the war effort abroad, around 260 German POWs were brought in to work for the operation. Relations with the locals were reportedly positive, though many of the POWs succumbed to the ‘Spanish flu’ during an epidemic that tore through the island’s population. In a cruel twist of fate, these hardworking men had survived the war but still never made it home to their families. They are buried on the island.

Like many places in rural Scotland, Raasay has a long history of illicit whisky distillation in its various hidden glens, such as at Eyre, where the remains of an historic outdoor distillation site can still be visited by those who know where to look. However, it wasn’t until September 2017 that legal malt spirit flowed from stills on Raasay, an occasion that was itself the culmination of years of hard work by founder Alasdair Day; his business partner Bill Dobbie, tech entrepreneur and founder of online dating platform Cupid; Iain Robertson, distiller and graduate of Heriot-Watt University’s brewing and distilling course; and a small but dedicated team of visitor centre staff led by Iain Hector Ross, visitor centre manager.

Alasdair’s experience working at the sharp end of the dairy industry has ensured he’s no stranger to the idea of flavour development and ageing, nor intimidated by the immense complexity of food science, health and safety, and logistics.

However, it was the desire to pick up where his whisky-blender great-grandfather left off that led to the launch of his first brand, The Tweeddale. Though undoubtedly possessing a natural flair for blending, he had a hidden ace up his sleeve: his great-grandfather’s cellar book of whisky recipes. Drawing on this knowledge that had been quietly passed down the generations of his family, Alasdair created his earliest blended Scotch whiskies – all of which were very well received. In fact, the Tweeddale 12 Years Old Batch 2 took the title of Best Scotch Blended Whisky (12 Years and Under) at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards and subsequent expressions have all scored between 8.6 and 9.0 in this title’s blind tasting reviews. Not bad for a man with no prior industry experience, who quit his job to pursue a dream of starting a whisky company! “I’m guessing most people would have packed the whisky in and concentrated on the comfortable job, nice company car and all of those things,” says Alasdair. “But I went the other way.”

Alasdair’s initial plan was to emulate his ancestor’s business in Coldstream, where the Victorian blender also had a brewing business, and in time establish a Borders Distillery. However, Bill had learned, by way of an old friend from school, Iain Hector Ross, that a potentially suitable site on Raasay was up for sale that would offer a unique location proposition for any future whisky brand. Iain’s wife is from the island and her astute recommendation led to Bill purchasing the derelict Borodale House. This handsome Victorian home is named for a nearby Iron Age broch and occupies a spectacular site with views out to Skye’s breathtaking Cuillin Hills. This purchase and the viability of the site for a distillery led to the parent company being named Raasay & Borders Distillers, though it’s worth noting that the company is not related to the new Borders Distillery at Hawick, founded by The Three Stills Company.

After visiting for the first time in May 2014, Alasdair began working with plant engineers Allen Associates on the earliest designs for a Raasay Distillery. “I was very fortunate being able to go to them and say, ‘This is the style of whisky we want to make,’ and we designed the process around that,” he says. “We designed the distillery purposefully to produce different styles and flavours on site.”
Unlike those new-wave distilleries choosing to hold off on releasing whisky until it is at least 10 years old, single malt from Raasay will be on the shelves as soon as possible. “We’ve set out to make an amazing three-years-old whisky. For us it’s all about quality, layers, depth and complexity at three years old. That’s not how most people are set up,” says Alasdair. “Time will tell, but I was confident a year ago when we had our new make. Now, over a year later, we can see it’s working.”

Key to this development of complex flavours at a young age is an unusual plant setup, long fermentations and quirky wood policy. “We’ve got cooling jackets on the washbacks, a cooling jacket on the lyne arm of our wash still, and a six-copper-plate purifier off the spirit still lyne arm. We think we’ve got six, maybe seven different recipes that we can run through on the same plant,” Alasdair explains.

The cooling jackets on the washbacks ensure fermentation doesn’t become too vigorous, burning the yeast out before it has finished doing the vital work of creating alcohol and flavour compounds. “The view was that slower fermentations were, I hesitate to use the word ‘better’, but they give you different flavour characteristics, specifically those fruity characteristics,” says Alasdair. “It’s really with all of that in mind that we’ve got these cooling jackets on so that we can actually check (I’m not going to say control, because we can’t) the development of the fermentation. What we want to do is drive these sweet fruity flavours, and certainly the new make we’ve got so far would verify that.” What’s more, the team have also begun trials with Champagne yeast, with a view to introducing its use for unpeated production as an addition to the distillers’ yeast used thus far.

When activated, the water jacket on the wash still lyne arm collects condensate and returns it to the pot. Though it has only been activated a handful of times so far, the Raasay team have found that using this unusual piece of kit yields a heavier and more concentrated spirit – flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that extra copper contact equals a lighter spirit. The idea is that this will be of particular use for producing heavier peated spirit, distinct from their usual light and fruity heavily peated style. Trials are ongoing.

Another area of experimentation is malt. At the behest of the distillery team, barley has been grown on Raasay for the first time in 40 years.
As the climate is unsuited to cultivation, this initial trial yielded only enough malt for one third of a mash but the team are now working with the University of the Highlands & Islands to find a variety better suited to the local environment. They have also conducted trials with bere, a heritage strain of six-row barley that delivers markedly different spirit character when compared to modern varieties.

Unusually, Alasdair has chosen to generally avoid traditional cask types in order to produce whiskies that are distinct from those being released by other new players. “We don’t have any Bourbon barrels, we don’t have any sherry casks, and we don’t have any STRs,” he says. Instead, the distillery has been filling ex rye barrels from Woodford Reserve, ex Bordeaux red wine barriques and heavily charred virgin oak casks made from chinkapin (Quercus muehlenbergii), a white oak variety, sometimes known as chestnut oak, sourced from North America.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant or pompous, but my view is that innovation is possible within the current rules set out for the production of Scotch whisky. You just have to think about it. It’s not about just putting spirit in gimmicky wood for the sake of it.”

Alasdair’s ultimate aim is to create a diversified stock model that will allow for the creation of wildly different core expressions that are blended using varying proportions of these very distinct spirits. This model follows the broad principles of the recipe for Raasay While We Wait, which he crafted by blending heavily peated and unpeated Highland single malt whiskies from the same distillery before re-racking the resulting liquid into wine casks for a finishing period. “It’s not the easiest way to make Scotch whisky,” admits Alasdair with a smile. “But this is what happens when a blender builds a distillery.”
Founder Alasdair  Day samples the Raasay spirit
Founder Alasdair Day samples the Raasay spirit