Way out beyond the North West coast of Scotland, out on the stunning Outer Hebrides, right out on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis, in fact, quite literally on the edge of North West Europe, a little piece of whisky history is in the making. For Abhainn Dearg Distillery, or ‘Aveen Jarræk’ for those who lack the local tongue, releases its new Scotch Whisky, the first legal production in these western islands in well over 170 years.
Stewart MacKenzie of Seaforth owned the Isle of Lewis at the turn of the nineteenth century and established Dail Distillery at North Dell on the North West tip of the island. Malcolm McEachern was distilling malt whisky there in 1824 and 1825 followed by Donald McEachern in 1826 and 1827. Just a small distillery which in the first half of 1826 produced 2,592 gallons of proof spirit, however, it had closed by 1840.
The brand new Abhainn Dearg Distillery is situated well to the south and west of Dell near Camas Uig and close to the spot where the Lewis Chessmen were exposed on the edge of a coastal sand dune in 1831. This distillery is unlike any other distillery in Scotland due to its tiny 10,000 litre annual output and also it’s charismatic founder Mark Tayburn.
It is always exciting to hear of a new Scottish distillery being established and this one especially turned our whisky noses due to its unique and very remote location. So here at The Whisky Barrel, our blog team packed a bag and began the long, long, journey from Auld Reekie to the Outer Hebrides in search of this hidden gem of a distillery. A one-way road and ferry and road trip to Abhainn Dearg at Uig is a doddle at nine hours. But absolutely worth the effort.
Abhainn Dearg is a very, very small distillery and its size makes it special. The soft water used in the distillation runs off the surrounding Uig Hills where there is no arable faming to taint the water making it quite simply, cold and crystal clear.
Production takes place at a single building which houses two wee stainless-steel mash tuns, two little Oregon pine washbacks, two tiny stills each with its own oak worm tub where the alcohol vapours condense. Most unusually, the foreshots, middlecut and feits are stored in oak tanks since Marko is convinced that even this brief interaction with oak prior to filling into cask influences the flavours in his spirit.
The brand new spirit is matured in a cold and damp warehouse just a stone’s throw from the glorious white sandy Hebridean beach on the north Atlantic Ocean. However, output at Abhainn Dearg is barely enough to fill two hogsheads a week. Each cask is personally selected by Marko from the Speyside Cooperage. Once mature, Abhainn Dearg whisky is carefully bottled by hand on site.
Plans are afoot to use locally grown barley on land fertilised with local seaweed; the aim is ‘field to bottle’ Scotch Whisky in the next few years. This is a unique distillery that is almost off the conventional map but it is well and truly local in nature, including a small herd of Highland Cows to consume the draff from the mash.
14th October 2011 is a landmark occasion for Scotch Whisky. In 2010 Abhainn Dearg ‘exported’ spirit from the Isle of Lewis for the first time in 170 years but it was so young it could not claim to be whisky. Now the wait is over. A day of congratulations. A new single cask 3 year old single malt is being launched and Lewis whisky is headlining The Royal National Mod’s Festival of Scottish Gaelic song, arts and culture in Stornoway this week.
So what can we expect from the fledgling whisky? We asked Marko about this special whisky and what it’s like distilling in this most westerly location:
Q. Why did you decide to set-up a distillery in such a remote part of Scotland?
A. We felt that the type of water was ideal and the conditions for maturation are perfect to make good whisky.
Q. You've mentioned using local barley for Abhainn Dearg: where does your current supply come from and what difference will you expect Hebridean barley to have on your spirit?
A. The current supply of barley comes from Bairds near Inverness. The Hebridean barley is grown on land fertilised by Hebridean seaweed, no artificial fertilisers. So the flavours that come through will be crisp and reflect our location.
Q. The historic first release of Abhainn Dearg will take place during the Royal National Mod festival in October; what can we expect from your style of whisky?
A. It is a fine American oak with light ppm on malting and goes through a trickle distillation. Hebridean maturation and spirit reduced with water from the very same source as the water used in the first mash.
Q. You're filling into a variety of wood types including sherry and ex-bourbon; what are the challenges facing a micro distiller sourcing quality sherry casks?
A. In the current climate it is very hard to source high quality sherry casks but I believe that checking each cask individually before purchase is very important to ensure that quality is therefore right for each bottle produced.
Q. Abhainn Dearg offers visitor tours and a whisky School: how important are these to your business and where do these patrons travel from?
A. The tours of the distillery and the whisky school are very important to the business. They offer a close-up and hands on experience which allows visitors to see how spirit and whisky is made. We feel word of mouth is an excellent method of advertising so making sure they leave happy is very important.
Q. Have local communities been supportive of the business and have you managed to create any new jobs?
A. Yes the community has very much been very supportive since we started up which has been fantastic. We are only a small distillery but new jobs have been created.
Abhainn Dearg 3 Years Old Special Edition / 2008 / 46%
Nose: Unmistakable young spirit, sweet barley sugar, butterscotch, vanilla pods, pine forest and layers of sea salt. Remarkably similar to walking along the beach at Uig bay.
Palate: Hot and quite oaky, the barley sugar and vanillas apparent on the nose are all kept in check by lashings of pine needles and salivating sea salt.
Finish: The mouth feel is oily with a salty tang leaving a mineral and black tea coating.
Abhainn Dearg / 2011 / Fresh Oloroso Sherry Cask
Nose: Big alcohol hit, new make, winter pine forest and sea salt all wrapped up in lashings of sweet sherry.
Palate: Oloroso sherry meets seaweed, dark chocolate coated pine needles and minerals - wonderfully balanced even at just 9-months old
Finish: Long and rewarding, dark roast coffee beans, cocoa and seaweed. A very active cask indeed.
Abhainn Dearg / 2010 / Peated / Sauternes Cask
Nose: Briny smoke and sweet malt mask the classic new make, the Sauternes oak has soften the alcohol developing sweet raisin aromas.
Palate: A dram with real fire and entertainment, the briny peat and smoke fill the mouth as the alcohol erupts on the tongue. Young and malty with the oak stretching distant vanilla.
Finish: Long and delicate sweet finish, as the alcohol mellows the palate is enveloped in oil; this is destined to be an ace.
The Abhainn Dearg Single Malt is released on 14th October 2011 and is available to order from The Whisky Barrel here.