As annoying as flight delays are, one shouldn’t let it sour a good holiday. Sitting here in the sparse yet functional Stornoway airport departure lounge, I’m afforded the opportunity to commence this article whilst it’s still fresh in my mind. After all, I’m not going to get to Glasgow any quicker now am I?
The opportunity to visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris on a long weekend was too good miss. The Outer Hebrides are a mesmerising blend of rugged landscapes and idyllic beaches, caressed by crystal clear waters that together form some of the best in the UK, if not Europe. This island setting provides bountiful produce from the hills and seas with the locals seemingly never dissuaded by a challenge. Compared to other Isles I’ve visited, it all feels more connected; in tune with the modern needs of today whilst respectful of the past and any environmental impact.
Living on the mainland you take simple things for granted, such as being able to pay by card, as opposed to carrying cash everywhere. The price of petrol isn’t too bad considering where you find yourself; as far west as the BBC weather presenter dares to point. Varied roads offer thrilling single track experiences to huge straights across the heather and peat Hebridean tundra, or a rugged rollercoaster around the stunning tiny island of Scalpay.
The drive from our luxurious base on the Isle of Lewis just north of Stornoway, to the Isle of Harris and its port of Tarbert was only 40 miles on paper. In reality it took us along the shores of Loch Erisort and Loch Seaforth before ascending into mountainous terrain then dropping down onto Harris itself.
During this road trek, my mind was mainly on the Isle of Harris distillery. Only fleetingly distracted by the regular island hazard of free roaming sheep seemingly oblivious to passing vehicles. The local approach from Harris has been refreshing by bringing sustainable employment to the area and hopefully enticing younger generations to persist with life on the isle. Much like my least favourite Islay distillery (Bruichladdich), they are a major source of local employment already despite being a relatively young distillery.
The aim is to retain as much of the process, commencing from the field to the bottle on the shelf; you’re not merely buying an alcoholic drink. No, you’re buying something that stands for the Isle of Harris and its people. Similarly where Bruichladdich has to step aside for the mainland to provide its malting via Inverness, the Harris distillery follows suit.
Situated beside the ferry terminal, the distillery is conveniently placed centrally within Tarbert and will grow to become a focal point. The purpose built design offers a café within the main building that houses the production area, distiller shop and offices. Comprising of its one mash tun, several washbacks and the two stills created in Italy there is plenty of space. Scottish stills are always more preferable and its craftsmen are victims of their own success having a waiting book of at least 18 months last time I heard, hence the Italian option.
Two outer buildings contain the first warehouse and a bottling line which is extremely busy given the success of Harris gin. We are in the midst of a gin boom and this immediate cash generator has been leapt upon by many distillers. I’m not a fan of gin in general nor aim to be, but my colleagues vouch for the quality of the Harris gin and the design of the bottle is very inspiring.
The shaped glass and colour echo the stunning landscapes of Harris itself and during our time at the distillery it was extremely popular. Priced at £35 a bottle its the more premium end of the gin market, but this hasn’t dissuaded visitors from seeking out the distillery or a quick detour whilst they wait for the ferry to commence boarding. The gin is certainly hitting the right notes despite a very deliberately limited distribution (I have become a gin mule for the ladies of the office with this visit) and has already smashed its sales target for 2016.
The bottle design hints at what awaits us when Harris bottles its first whisky. The concept comes via the same firm responsible for the Compass Box range of whiskies, which explains their presence in the distillery shop. I only hope that the Harris whisky is superior to what I’ve experienced from Compass Box recently.
For the record I’m already a member of the Harris distillery 1916 initiative so I’ll receive a bottle of the first official whisky when it leaves the cask. Not only content with this I also have shares in a couple of casks with the distillery selling the first two hundred casks to private individuals. These will be all for a future piece and who knows I may give away a bottle from my own cask as a prize? It is very unusual that I am passionate about a new project or distillery. Even more so by committing to this degree however the focus on being a social project and improving the local region all hit home with me on my travels across Scotland.
For the tour itself I’d recommend booking in advance. Spaces are limited and the tours themselves do not run every five minutes; rather just a handful of times per day. The nature of the tour is that each just comprises of ten or so attendees by design. The first room of the tour (pictured above) symbolises the Isle of Harris with its tweed balls on a giant abacus representing the flavour characteristics. Harris has some of the oldest rocks in the world with a particular type of stone only found on isle or the moon, or in this room. The copper edging moves us closer to whisky and it’s in the room where we sit down with two drams.
What is currently called the distillery dram hints at what the distillers believe the final Harris whisky will taste like. For driving purposes I have squirreled away a sample which I’ve reviewed below. It comprises of three widely available whiskies blended together by the team and not Compass Box; it acts as a signpost to what awaits us one day. New make spirits are being considered right up to a peated malt at 15ppm and the same philosophy when it comes to bottling. Rather than engage in the popular blogger pastime of suggesting possible producers for the whiskies within the dram, I preferred to sit down at home with this creation:
Harris Distillery Dram concept whisky
Colour: maple syrup
Nose: a noticeable fragrance once poured with caramelised apples, almonds and peanuts. A hint of margarine and vanilla from the wood. There’s a whisp of smoke in here as well and a handful of strawberries trying to break out alongside a glut of orange juice.
Taste: first arrival is the peat and this essence prolongs through the tasting right through to the finish and some black pepper. In-between more oranges, grapefruit, decaying foliage and its too watery and threadbare on the palate.
Overall: the different layers here nose very much like a well orchestrated blended Scotch whisky.
Our other dram on the tour is potentially far more exciting, as it is the starting point for Harris whisky in the form of its new make spirit. There are no plans from what I understand to bottle and release the spirit like others have done such as Kingsbarns distillery. The tour is the only way to engage with the spirit that has been created with outside assistance from Dr Jim Swan. In my Wolfburn single malt whisky review I speculated that with all these consultants and specialists in the industry, we were potentially sowing the seeds of a identikit spirit across the industry. We won’t know the answer to this until the next decade arrives. For now this new make is straight off the stills and is served at a 70% strength:
Harris Distillery new make spirit
Colour: no point is there?
Nose: very creamy with the sharpness of green apples. Also noticeable are white grapes and juicy lemons. Some icing sugar, milk chocolate, shortbread and UHU All Purpose Adhesive – that popular glue from my childhood with the distinctive black and yellow colour scheme. Ok, I should be saying bananas instead but it was the glue that came to mind!
Taste: pungent at this strength and very clean. Freshly done cotton sheets, liquorice, cream and scone with a hint of roasted coffee.
Overall: quite a generic nose on this new make offering and slightly disappointing. Having experienced a few from the new crop of distilleries its perfectly middle-of-the-road amongst this field. This character is one that can be changed and already I know of at least one newish distillery that has changed their new make spirit. It’s not bad; far from it in fact but just average. With the wood element being so influential during maturation it may develop through patience and only time will tell.
Drams aside, we moved upstairs to the table area that played host to the key components of what make up a whisky. This feature allows visitors to taste, touch and identify what each of the examples are. It’s a fun experience and brings together the group which for our visit comprised of gin lovers, a family and whisky enthusiasts. Behind this area the same principle is applied to the botanicals that together form the Harris gin. Being able to taste and smell these ingredients was welcomed by the group and represented a stimulating exercise despite a glass jar being battered off my lip by accident; these things happen.
Also within this room are the jellybean dispensers that offer flavours hopefully present in the finished whisky. I could be dubious, but again it promotes interaction from the group including youngsters and we all have a sweet tooth. It’s clearly a distillery tour but unlike many others you’ll experience on the mainland.
After the Willy Wonka theme dissipates, the tour routines to familiar distillery practice by moving into the production area. Here just one area plays host to the all the stages of distilling from the mill to the single mashtun, a group of washbacks and the two Italian stills. In the corner sits the hardest working gin still in Scotland and I was pleased to see this separated from the whisky distillation equipment given the pronounced flavours gin can deliver and the difficulty in cleaning to remove any traces of it.
A small area of the production floor is utilised as a vantage point for photographs. I’m pleased to be able to show some of these here within the article and not just the exteriors of buildings. A no photography rule is in place at the warehouse where it was possible to see the first casks starting to be filled and stacked for the long wait. Sadly I didn’t managed to find my own cask shares as these things never seem to run in numerical order and the warehouse is only in its infancy. Fortunately we did spot my name on a cask stave as part of the 1916 programme so I’ll be watching over these casks and many more for years to come.
The tour takes just over an hour and is priced at a very reasonable £10. Whilst our host was not a seasoned whisky veteran she was local, engaging and informative, especially around the gin aspect and origins of the distillery itself. My own thoughts are this was a perfect accompaniment to the aims and aspirations of a social distillery that is more widely known at this point in time for its gin.
In future years I’m sure more in-depth and detailed whisky tour options will become available for those who wish to make the trip to the Outer Hebrides. Already it’s a trip well worth planning with flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow offering reasonable value and affordable car hire options if you prefer not to take the ferry and mainland road option. The Harris distillery is going places and I’m glad to be on-board for the journey.