Artisan, micro, boutique, or just plain small? One thing is certain, Abhainn Dearg is a wee Scottish distillery. Located about an hour’s drive from Stornoway (black pudding capital of the world), The Whisky Barrel Blog team visited the Hebridean distillery back in October 2011 just as the first Scotch from the Western Isles in over 150 years was unveiled. The inaugural Abhainn Dearg Special Edition 46% release of just 2,011 bottles, matured in fresh ex-bourbon casks, has proved to be something of a talking point amongst the whiskipedia; some love the complex barley sugars and seaweed brine whilst others would prefer to wait for longer aged malt.
We’ve just a few bottles left of Abhainn Dearg Special Edition 50cl and Abhainn Dearg Special Edition 5cl miniature so don’t rest on your laurels if you’d like to sample this historic malt; the distillery won’t be releasing another aged single malt until late 2013 at the earliest. TheWhiskyBarrel.com has two exclusives from the distillery including Abhainn Dearg Cask Strength, a 3 year old bottled in January 2012, and Abhainn Dearg Spirit of Lewis Cask Strength matured for three months in a fresh sherry hogshead.
Ferries booked and valinch packed we return to the Isle of Lewis and Abhainn Dearg distillery, six months on from our last visit to see how the project and the distillery is progressing.
And boy is it progressing. A brand new shop is under construction to provide visitors a focal point on arrival, not to mention the always pleasing sight of purchasable Scotch whisky. To aid what has been a fast and busy birth, a new bottling plant is also being built to ensure the ‘field to bottle’ production does not fail to meet demand. But the plans don’t stop there. Following the triumph of the Abhainn Dearg Inaugural release the distillery is rightly focussing on the future and further success. There are plans afoot to increase production with an additional still, a bigger boiler as well as a new washback. Further to this, and fittingly so given Scotland’s extraordinary drive towards renewable energy, this wee island distillery aims to become a carbon neutral distiller by using the natural landscape to introduce hydro power generation.
The initial release revealed Abhainn Dearg as a non-peated Scotch in that it has been created using malt dried without the influence of peat smoke. Thankfully (for some of us) Marko Tayburn, the distillery owner, has set about distilling using a batch or two of malt with the same peat smoke influence as Laphroaig Scotch, at around 40ppm. This adds another element of variation to a distillery producing just 10,000 litres of spirit per annum.
Here at TheWhiskyBarrel.com we really really like maturation – it is this interaction between distilled spirit and oak casks which have previously contained anything from sweet oloroso sherry, Kentucky bourbon or even Salturns wine with the atmosphere of a damp Scottish warehouse which makes Scotch such a unique product. And so without any further ado and for the first time ever we present a vertical tasting of Abhainn Dearg including the oldest vintage cask in the distillery warehouse.
Abhainn Dearg New Make Spirit / Distilled April 2012
Nose: Very clean and fresh, farmyard aromas of strong sweet barley sugars and hay. Wet pine forest in the Autumn, heather hillside, kerosene, pollen, nutmeg with buttery notes and tinned pineapple.
Palate: Very hot and very spicy. Seaweed and pine needles, unmistakable sweet barely sugars leading to a short sharp and slightly dry finish.
Abhainn Dearg ex-Bourbon Cask #1 / 2008 Vintage 1st Cask Filled
Nose: As expected with fresh bourbon oak huge vanilla influence, barley sugar and buttery caramel. The seaside brine comes from the seaweed used to fertilise the barley and the beach just outside which teases out slightly musty molasses and dried fruits. Pineapple, mustard and more vanilla pods deliver a fascinating nose.
Plate: Starts very biscuity, buttery, oily, sweet vanilla and butterscotch leading to pine needles (a recurring theme here). The finish is long and warming, some ash, and oak. A real tussle between the American oak sweetness and the salty atmosphere is beginning to balance after over 40-months in cask.
Abhainn Dearg Fresh Oloroso Sherry Hogshead / Winter 2011 Vintage
Nose: Classic rich sweet sherry from a quality cask. Liquorice, chocolate raisins, cinnamon and boot polish. The salty air has delivered buckets of brine here, with the seaweed and pine forest standing shoulder-to shoulder with the sweet sherry oak.
Palate: As expected big brash sherry. A very busy bee; liquorice, ash and raisins leading to a long oily (and sweet!) finish. The sweet sherry avalanche just about keeping the incoming briny tide at bay until next time. Patience, patience!
Abhainn Dearg Virgin Oak Hogshead / 2010 Vintage
Nose: Very sweet, melting butter, pecan nuts, boot polish, mocha coffee, vanilla, heather honey and Scottish tablet. Remarkable, the colour and body is pure Japanese style, think full bodied Yamazaki. Ends with a floral perfume.
Palate: Very hot, spicy, nutty, runny honey, marmalade orange on burnt toast. With water the biscuit base opens to stem ginger, caramel and pine needles. The finish is sweet versus sour with the sharp brine winning out with a dry end. Best of the bunch and an ace in the making.
Abhainn Dearg Rioja Wine Cask / 2008 Vintage
Nose: Perfumed ripe grapefruit and sweet grape juice. There is an earthy quality, barely sugars, raisins and buttery Scottish tablet.
Palate: Quite soapy and with little body. Very sweet, very dry, very hot and oaky leading to a short and sharp citrus finish.
Abhainn Dearg Madeira Wine Cask / 2010 Vintage Peated
Nose: Very smoky as expected, TCP, antiseptic wipes and distant grape sweetness. The new make spirit is still prominent, oaky with vanilla pods, pine cones, barley sugar, burning embers, ash and butterscotch.
Palate: Fire and brimstone, not a world away from young and feisty Caol Ila. Bonfire in the mouth, full bodied with a long, oaky and vanilla finish leading to a lasting sweet buttery ending. Where did all the Madeira’s go?!
Abhainn Dearg Sauternes Wine Cask / Winter 2009 Vintage
Nose: Lot of complexity, huge hit of butterscotch, dark chocolate, nutty, hay, pine needles, nutmeg, fresh cut pineapple, sweet citrus, lemon peel and a floral perfume of summer hedgerow. Superb!
Palate: Very spicy with obvious cinnamon and nutmeg. Figs, dark chocolate, leather and lemon leading to a long sweet and spicy buttery finish. Potentially an ace for the future; the alcohols have mellowed best here of the wine casks.
Our thanks to Marko, his endless supply of tea bags and whoever cooks the steak pie on Calmac’s Tarbert ferry, well done that man. The Whisky Barrel will return!
Photographs © 2012 @scottjessuk