Barley. Yeast. Water. What else is there? Many companies within the whisky industry hardly ever talk about barley though. Sometimes you might get a photo op with a farmer in the field. You might get a mention of this key ingredient – the very stuff from which single malt whisky is made – at the start of a distillery tour. You couldn’t imagine wine producers talking so little about grapes and vines.
But there are some whisky producers out there who do care about barley. Alasdair Day, the founder of Raasay Distillery, is one of those people. I’ve sampled a couple of the “While We Wait” whiskies, which are whiskies sourced elsewhere designed to give us an indication of the forthcoming Raasay style, and I’ve been following the operation with a keen eye.
When a press release pinged into my inbox, there was a very nice discussion about the new operation starting distilling for the first time. That’s nice enough – but there are so many stories of distilleries coming online, and it’s hard for me to get excited about just that alone. What interested me, however, was the other thing that Alasdair at Raasay Distillery is doing, which isn’t been shouted about much, but which deserves to be examined. Raasay Distillery is trialling different barley varieties on the island, examining what grows best in these challenging local conditions.
The reason is that Alasdair’s interested in the provenance of the ingredients – rather than some strange bricks-and-mortar idea of provenance, which one tends to find in the whisky industry.
(I once overheard a brand ambassador declare the terroir of Talisker, whatever that means, considering the barley could come from anywhere.) Alasdair wants to create a true Raasay whisky – with locally sourced, locally grown inputs – and we just can’t ignore such things on Malt. So I got in touch with Alasdair to discover a little more about his intriguing plans around the barley trials, and for the new distillery.
Malt: The barley trials are fascinating to read about. Can you share a little more about the background and what’s going on so far?
Alasdair: We wanted to grow some of our barley locally on Raasay so that in the future we have at least one release a year of Raasay whisky made with barley grown on the Island.
However, the issue is that none of the commercially available varieties suitable for distilling e.g. Concerto will ripen on Raasay. In recent years the plant breeders have concentrated on developing higher yielding varieties, but the increase in yield has been gained by increasing the length growing period, which ultimately means these varieties take longer grow and ripen much later in the year. Although this is not an issue in the south of England, it is much more of an issue in Scotland. Needless to say on Raasay, a wee island off an island, off the North West coast of Scotland, the growing season is much shorter and much wetter.
So working with Interface, Peter Martin at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Andrew Gillies, a crofter on the Island, we developed our trial for Raasay. We had two commercial varieties as our control, Concerto and Tartan. We then identified three early ripening varieties: Bere, an ancient variety that would have been grown on a Raasay in the past (at least over 40 years ago), Kannas a variety from Sweden, and Iskria a variety from Iceland.
Andrew Gillies provided the field at Mill Park on Raasay. It had not been ploughed for over 40 years, but Bere would have been grown here by Andrew’s family in the past. In short, all of the varieties grew well. The Bere, in particular, looked like it was “meant to be there”. However, only the Bere, Kannas and Iskria ripened.
Another issue we have is that there is no infrastructure to support barley growing on Raasay or the surrounding area. So when it came to harvest we had to borrow a wee plot combine and bring it down from Orkney. We managed to harvest all of the Kannas, IsKria and some of the Bere. Bere is a six-row barley and grows significantly taller than the other varieties. This, in simple terms, means it is very top-heavy and is prone to logging (falling over and getting tangled up with itself). This makes harvesting it with a combine very challenging indeed.
The next missing piece of the puzzle was being able to dry the barley after harvest. So immediately after harvest Billy Scott, who brought the combine down from Orkney, rushed down to the James Hutton Institute at Dundee with the barley and they have dried it for us.
So now we have some dry barley that we intend to micro malt in 250kg batches. We also have some peat cut and drying on Raasay that we hope to use for the malting. Then if all goes well we may make our first very, very small batch of Raasay whisky made from Raasay barley, malted with Raasay peat, in the spring next year. Yes, I accept that we are trying to do the impossible, but now that we have identified suitable early ripening varieties to grow on Raasay we intend to focus on resolving some of the infrastructure issues when we do it all again next year.
We’ve also still to do all of the analysis on the Kannas and Iskria, with regard to protein, nitrogen and their suitability for distilling. I do know that Iskria is used for brewing. As for the Bere, well obviously Bruichladdich are doing a great job with this, so there may be hope there too if we work hard on our agronomy.
As for our fermentation times, our shortest will be 62 hours, our longest 110 hours, giving us an average fermentation time of 95 hours. We have 6 x 5000-litre washbacks with cooling jackets to allow us to do this. We also have had our first delivery of 26 tonnes of heavily peated malt (Concerto ~45 ppm) from Bairds in Inverness, which is what we’ll start with. We have run our grist mill for the first time and have just over a tonne of grist ready to go.
Malt: There are just a handful of distilleries who really care this much about the provenance of their barley. What’s the reason – in your mind – for going to such lengths? It’s expensive enough to start a distillery, let alone to really focus on the key crops in this way.
The Provence of Raasay is key for us. Our water comes from a Celtic / Iron Age well on the site. It has a high mineral content from the volcanic rock it runs over, before ending up in the Torridonian sandstone that we draw it from. I think it is unusual to have hard water as most Scotch Whisky distilleries have soft water. We will use the same water for the process, cask reduction and bottling reduction in the future. Our spirit will be matured in our warehouse on site on Raasay.
Having all of this, I think we need to have some local barley and peat to have the local provenance, a true Raasay whisky.
Malt: Why do you think that so few distilleries seek to explore what is one of the most important parts of the whisky production process – that raw ingredient?
I think most distilleries know how difficult it can be to take this approach. Especially when the malting companies provide such consistently high-quality distillers malt.
Malt: Regarding Raasay’s history, then – has there been any illicit distilling in the past? Is there a legacy to speak of and recreate (though I imagine you’d be wanting to do your own thing)?
Yes, there has been illicit distilling on Raasay in the past which has been documented. There is also still some physical evidence of illicit distilling at Eyre on Raasay although still well hidden. We do think that it would have been Western Isles Bere barley that would have been used.
So when we say we are the first legal distillers on Raasay, we are exactly that.
Malt: Has doing your own thing extended to the shape of the stills as well, and how do you think your spirit will ultimately sit among others in the industry?
Our stills are from Tuscany made to our design and specification. We have cooling on the wash still inclined lyne arm which can be on or off, giving us additional reflux that feeds back into the wash still when it is on. We also have additional copper / a small purifier before the condenser after the spirit still. Again this can be off or on.
We have tried to build in as much flexibility into our process as possible, which will hopefully allow us to produce several different recipes.
Malt: What lessons have you learned from Raasay that you’ll be implementing with your Borders project?
Our Borders distillery is very much still an aspiration. You are right that we have learnt a huge amount from building our Raasay distillery, but it has always been our intention to produce a very different whisky in the Borders in the future, but for now this remains an ambition of mine.
Malt: Tuscany! Is that where you got the idea for the Tuscan wine cask finish for your While We Wait whiskies then? And can you talk a bit more about those whiskies – can we expect more and will they be representative of the style you hope to produce?
Yes, that’s exactly it. When I was at Frilli in Tuscany discussing our still requirements I also visited some small vineyards producing super Tuscan red wines. They buy fresh French Oak barriques, which they use for three vintages before they change them. We have purchased these from one vineyard for the last two years and used them for our Raasay while we wait.
The style we are looking to create on Raasay is peaty and fruity. The finish in the Tuscan red wine cask has given us the fruity notes we were looking for.
We have just launched our 3rd release of Raasay While We Wait. Each release has been finished slightly differently. The first release had 8 weeks in the red wine casks, the 2nd release was the same liquid but had 18 months in the red wine casks, and the 3rd release is some of the original liquid which had 22 months in the wine cask blended with a vatting that had 8 weeks in the red wine casks. So the 3rd release finish is “half way” between the 1st and 2nd releases.
The liquid is a lightly peated Highland Single malt, a vatting of an unpeated malt and a heavily peated malt from the same Highland distillery, resulting in about 15 ppm at bottling.
Malt: Finally, what do the next few months hold for you at Raasay?
The next few months will hopefully see our first spirit run and the time we need to refine our spirit. Our Visitor Centre will hopefully be ready to open for tours by the end of October and we will hopefully be able to invite our members to stay from November.