The haphazard single track road had reached a dramatic conclusion, coming to a forceful end just beyond a panoramic and pristine Uig beach. This remote westerly dead end situated on the Isle of Lewis was perched near where the famous Lewis Chessmen had been discovered hundreds of years previously. All we were trying to do in comparison was find a whisky distillery.
Our Sat Nav had decided to end its assistance by leading us literally up the garden path of the only building within sight. Faced with a dramatic failure it was time to go off grid and use our instincts. Aided by our faithful Citroen C1 hire car, the gear stick clunked into reverse and a three point turn ensued. This windswept UK outpost is almost Scandinavian rather than Scottish. Thankfully it was a pleasant summer’s day, but a chill still inhabited this ancient landscape. The starkness of our environment was heighted by the lack of luxury that our chariot offered; where was the glory of the #tormore4mobile and its heated seats?
Back at Edinburgh airport that’s where!
Having researched Abhainn Dearg distillery prior to planning this visit, I knew that we were in the right locale. The rugged landscape was dominated by a herd of staunch and disapproving Highland Cattle who it seemed had little else to do apart from watch our every move. Abhainn Dearg is Gaelic for Red River and it is a very small farm distillery affair. One that unlike Kilchoman on Islay, doesn’t believe in the benefit of road signs or a breadcrumb trail.
Retracing our steps back along the shore, I was intent on re-evaluating the only possible farm or cluster of buildings we had identified. Even approaching this settlement from the coastal road did not seem to offer much promise. Then all of a sudden then we noticed a couple of casks perched underneath a slope on the far perimeter of the farmland. This is the universal sign for any whisky enthusiast and hints at a possible producer. Either that or these were more orphans set to become containers for plants.
Turning onto the farm track we drifted past the casks that only now revealed visible messages such as car park and Abhainn Dearg, meaning our journey was at its end. Here is the most Westerly distillery in the United Kingdom, one when established in 2008, representing the first legal distillery in the Outer Hebrides in almost 200 years. Of course such a fact doesn’t camouflage the fact that illicit distilling would have taken on Lewis and other islands that form the Outer Hebrides.
I once read a captivating whisky book that delved into the world of the customs and excise. In this the Islay distilleries were fairly controlled compared to Talisker on the Isle of Skye. Where various illegal activities were part of everyday life. Part of Talisker’s safety next was its remoteness from the excise men. Lewis and the Outer Hebrides geographically are even more detached from the power of Westminster. This point is underlined by the relic of an old illicit still that sits, resting against the outer wall at Abhainn Dearg.
This relic provided the inspiration for the stills that form a central part of the distillery today.
The previous owner of the still is unknown; having kindly left the illicit forbearer as an anonymous gift to the legal distillery.
The marriage gift is perfect. Abhainn Dearg is a small operation and runs only when the red river flows and there is enough barley to create whisky. It’s never been about quantity and the more time I spent with the Abhainn Dearg Single Malt the more I grew to appreciate its rugged charms.
A collection of outbuildings house what we know as a distillery. The first small almost shed like building is dominated by a metal trough within its single room that hangs over a small peat kiln. This is the malting area. Outside the barley is left to steep for a couple of days before being placed into the trough to be kiln smoked by local peat. Then it is cast on the stone floor to begin the malting process. Here is a rare example of a 100% floor malting operation in a distillery. The few that still utilise the process nowadays only mainly cater for 10-20% of their own annual needs. Whilst I’m sure that they would like to up that percentage, we’re informed that the costs are too prohibitive. Today’s whisky is all about costs rather than the actual experience itself. For Abhainn Dearg the amount of malt required is not sufficient to involve commercial maltsters. It goes against Marko’s aim for the distillery to be self-sufficient and representative of the Outer Hebrides.
The tour itself only costs £5 and is a refreshing tonic to the scripted, corporate and ultimately soulless tours that are on offer at many distilleries today.
The question of photographs was raised and I was advised that the distillery hasn’t burnt down yet and isn’t likely to today, so take as many as you want.
Music to my ears and some of the results are within this article. You see Abhainn Dearg isn’t like any other UK distillery that I have visited.
We depart the visitor welcome area that also serves as the tasting bar at the end of the tour. As the entrance faces the wrong way, it’s only found by weaving your way past a couple of outer buildings, it overlooks the panoramic setting of the red river and the desolate landscape of Lewis. It’s an inspiring view and the tour highlights the importance of the river in the production of whisky. If the river is too low then production ceases, or doesn’t even start for the day. Thankfully the torrent was more than respectful and Abhainn Dearg was in operation during our visit.
The main building on site houses the distilling elements. The mashtun and washbacks are not out of the ordinary until you turn the corner are confronted by those unique stills. It’s one of those memorable whisky moments.
Consider the photograph above for a moment. This still area is unique in my travels so far and shuns the modern and computerised features that dominate so much whisky production. Even distilleries that represent a handcrafted, skilful ethic such as Daftmill and Ballindalloch have to step aside for Abhainn Dearg; it’s something else.
A working distillery, Marko is seen nearby tending to the open spirit safe. The unique clatter of this distillation reverberates around the room. The floor is wet and we have to watch where we step next. It’s a health and safety corporate nightmare. Yet this is returning us to what whisky is all about and far away from the mainland regime, it feels more alive and captivating than I can put into words.
The group moves on but I remain transfixed by the stills that have an essence of their own. These could have been lifted from a fictional steampunk world or the Wizard of Oz. Forcing myself to move on, our next stop is the one and only warehouse. Our guide is brutally honest thereby continuing the refreshing organic feel to the site. Facts and figures are far from her mind but its clear production happens only when all the staple ingredients are available. If your bottle label is squint then it’s her fault! And literally this is done over the kitchen sink. It’s all totally devolved from what we expect from whisky production today.
A final dram and opportunity to purchase a bottle awaits us back at the reception area. A couple of merchandise options are also at hand. It’s one of the shortest distillery tours but I expect there’s nothing to stop you returning to certain areas unaided; just one more visit back to those stills…