I’ve written more than a couple of articles challenging the state of the industry recently, be it the green credentials or the implications of the secondary market on the pleasure of drinking whisky. I’ve spent time calling for tangible facts and figures and transparency, but today I’d like to talk about something intangible: being good guys!
It’s a strange concept that I wrestle with when chatting with my children (ages five and six). To them, the good guys are always brightly coloured like the Power Rangers and the bad guys are dressed in black. That’s a concept challenged on multiple levels by characters such as Black Panther. When you are five and six, the good guys are the police who uphold the law. When you are an adult, we are more aware of the failings of individual officers and the institutional failures of many police forces.
In whisky I have heard many folk describing people as good guys whilst basically meaning “great to go for a dram with,” whilst also turning a blind eye to their smutty humour or flipping on the side. Am I a good guy for casting a critical eye over the whisky world, or a bad guy for stirring up trouble? I guess it’s up to you. We have to consider if we should ever really refer to good guys at all in this gender considerate world!
Why does this matter? I was thinking about this a lot before I called the team at Isle of Raasay Distillery good people. But I am confident to say they are good folk. Friends who visited the island this summer and noted how much the distillery has put a buzz into the local community. Dave Broom has written beautifully, poetically about the benefits the distillery has realised on the island. He has had a great chance to see it first-hand being involved in an advisory capacity since the inception of the distillery. Malt has followed Raasay since the early days of Raasay While We Waitin 2016 and the wider conceptual project in an interview with Alasdiar Day in 2017 along with a good fistful of other encounters along the way.
When William Dobbie, Business Development Director at Raasay’s parent company, got in touch about reviewing the Signature Malt (released in May 2021) he offered a whole bottle along with one of the inaugural releases as well. Very generous, indeed. I sent a sample off for The Whisky Sleuth, poured one for me to write tasting notes, and split the remainder of each bottle with members of our whisky club who had yet to try Raasay. You’ll not see too many Whisky-influencers passing on their freebies. Pay. It. Forward.
I had also purchased a bottle of the Makar’s Malt, which has allowed us to review all three below. Distillery co-founder Alastair Day, Operations Director and Raasay Islander Norman Gillies, the Whisky Sleuth, and I met on zoom and had a great chat. Both the Sleuth and I had largely written our tasting notes prior to the chat, so I thought I’d rather like to get under the skin of a business that is reinvigorating an island community.
Planning applications for the distillery and hotel at Borodale House were largely supported by the community council and local residents, with only a handful of minor concerns typical of any development. Perhaps more importantly, Raasay has decided to locate so much production and distribution on the island and has selected islanders to fill the roles. In fact, many roles simply cannot be done by non-islanders due to the ferry schedule.
Looking forward to a sustainable island, in partnership with the local community, Isle of Raasay Distillery is seeking creative solutions to housing shortages. Stable housing is critical for communities; many still live in leased accommodation and depopulation has left a legacy of heritable property that remains in private hands but is only occupied for two weeks of the summer. Each new appointment at the distillery requires consideration of the available housing and how that will impact on the community.
Raasay actively considered the suitability of key recruits for island life, well beyond an appraisal of their technical skills. Each team member is selected to add to the community wherever possible. Living Wage accreditation and working with Skills Development Scotland to develop the competencies of staff within the distillery workforce also helps bolster the community.
Raasay is reversing a regional population decline that has been steady since the highland clearances of the early 1800s. This was only partially stalled by opportunities on the East Coast from Oil and Gas that allowed workers to commute offshore and return to their island communities. Norman Gillies, Raasay Operations Director, worked extensively in civil construction and oil & gas prior to gaining the opportunity to return to the island with Raasay:
“Decent employment on the island was very tough to find at the time, despite significant construction projects such as Raasay House reconstruction (twice) and the construction of the new pier these were outside contractor led projects with few opportunities for Islanders,” Norman says. “Working away was OK, rotations did allow my wife and I some good times together, but it wasn’t the same as being on the island full time. Things were fine but there was not really anything to get excited about.”
Norman returned to the island for the construction of the distillery and was eventually asked to stay on as permanent staff. “Now there is a real energy about the island; we have employed 25 people, which is a huge proportion of the working age [population]. People are getting comfortable pay and the community spirit is reflected in the work we do at the distillery. Islanders are multi-skilled by nature, and work at Raasay can involve changing the beds in the hotel one day and bottling whisky the very next day. In the beginning even distillers were changing beds. It’s an interesting and dynamic place to work.”
Alasdair Day commented that the community is the team that work at the distillery, but they also like to reach out to create events for visitors and locals alike. “Now having an on-sales licence has allowed for local musician events, family events, and the like within the distillery visitor centre. Norman had his wedding here, so really we love to get the locals involved and it’s always fairly lively!” Norman has been doing his bit for the population count too, welcoming his son into the world this summer. Congratulations to him!
Early indications are that the distillery itself will have reversed the population decline with families who had previously left the island returning to work at the distillery. Although the last census data has the number at 161, it is likely to be at least 200 at the next census. On the Raasay bottles the population of Raasay is proudly displayed as the official 161, but I would really love to see a less official but more dynamic measure of population. For example: can you imagine drinkers connecting with the community knowing that the changes in population recorded on the various batches of Raasay signature malt reflect the wonders of birth and the tragedies of death on this small island community?
The impact of the distillery on the island has been used a case study by Visit Scotland. Partnering with many local businesses on both Raasay and Skye is crucial to the business model. On the island itself, the distillery’s waste draff is feeding most of the livestock on the island for free, and the distillery is working with local farmers to grow barely on the island again. For more on the barley look to Mark’s interview with Alasdiar Day. Local accommodation and hotels on Raasay and on Skye, local chocolatiers, caterers etc all mutually benefit from collaboration. `
The distillery is particularly important for attracting visitors to the island year-round, rather than summer only. Between 2015 and 2018 the ferry traffic increased by 36%. Friends of mine who will have visited Raasay three times this year confirm that, if it were not for the distillery, they would not have done so.
Is it worth the trip? Well, in 2019 the Isle of Raasay Distillery was awarded Tourist Destination of the Year at the Scottish Whisky Awards, followed by Best Brand Experience the following year. Trip Advisor reviews of the Hotel are standing at an “Excellent” rating of 4.5/5 being marked down for minor things; “TV not being aligned with the bed” and “bed too soft,” and, believe it or not, “whisky too young. You get the picture, here! Certainly a must visit distillery on the Hebridean Whisky Trail – soon to be as famous as the North Coast 500! Not sounding exclusive enough for you? Why not enjoy a luxurious fresh seafood meal on the nearby Isle of Rona before a tour of the distillery on Raasay transported by the Seaflower? You might even Spot Barney the Humpback Whale.
What can we expect from the good people at Isle of Raasay Distillery going forward? Well, single cask releases representing the individual components of the signature single malt are proving popular; each component was previously reviewed by The Whisky Sleuth. There are distillery exclusive single casks that remain available only to those who make the trip. Batch 2 of the Signature Single Malt will be out shortly. It is a vatting of 84 casks which features more peat in the mix. This results in a (still lightly peated) 12 ppm in the bottle, double the level of batch 1. The first Sherry finished release should continue to push the flavour envelope, having initially spent 2 years in ex-rye casks.
I could tell you about the highly technical development of the malt, or the complex fermentation and distilling processes that impart unique character to the new make, or the premium cask policy… but I think the team at Raasay and the wider island community would much rather you visited them to find out for yourself!
Isle of Raasay Signature Malt Whisky Moine (Lightly Peated) – Review
46.4% ABV roughly £45 This is a blend of 3 types of casks separately filled with peated whisky and unpeated whisky and brought together for these batches: rye whisky casks, chinkapin virgin oak casks and Bordeaux red wine casks.
Colour: Golden hour.
On the nose: Sweetness and malt, a flash of new make, pale orchard fruits waft quickly past, prominent rye followed by blackcurrant and brambles, then peat. A slight funkiness with time.
In the mouth: warming spices, really thick mouthfeel, oil, peat and smoke along with juicy red fruit. Red fruit on the finish, along with rye and a mineral element and finally blackcurrant Tunes® lozenges.
I’m glad I had a reasonable sample to get to know this malt. I first tasted it on a really hot and sunny day, and all three of these whiskies were a bit too big and spicy for me. With a little time and 10o C less temperature they really came into their own, but particularly this Signature. I cannot wait to enjoy more of this in the Autumn. And as for Batch 2? I’ll certainly be hunting down a bottle. The funk elevates this young dram with some echoes of Springbank or Ben Nevis. This was their aim to produce an old-fashioned West-Coast style whisky. Alasdair Day suggested that their eyes had been on nearby Talisker as an inspiration.
The Whisky Sleuth’s Notes
Colour: Hazy hay.
On the nose: There’s no mistaking a youthful peaty spirit to begin, with grist and starch, lemon peel, ozone, rock pools and peat. There’s a funky base layer of sour yoghurt, hoppy IPA and farmyard filled with manure. Digging deeper there are sweeter notes of tannic cranberry juice, blackberry jam and toffee. In the background there is a note of dark malty German rye bread.
In the mouth: Much sweeter than the nose suggests. I get toffee, vanilla cream, raisin bread, prune juice, and blackberry jam. A little citrus from candied orange peel and grapefruit bitters is very welcome and cuts through the sweetness. A nice creamy spice rounds things out. Like 60% chocolate with chilli flakes, before the gentle peat and sooty coal smoke finishes things off.
A decent mouthfeel, sweet peat and funk, what more could you want from a core batch release? In my previous Raasay review I attempted my own little blend of component cask types, and reading back on those notes there are actually a few similarities. The nose here is a little meltier and starchier, and reminds me a little of Kilkerran heavily peated, which is a complement before you ask! This is easily my favourite of the ‘new distillery’ batch releases I’ve tried yet, far beyond the likes of Ardnamuchan and Torabhaig. I think the only way is up as the whisky gets older.
Isle of Raasay Inaugural Release 2020 – Review
Lightly peated; 52% ABV; was £99.99 but sold out on presale. Still plenty on the secondary market. First Fill Tennessee Whisky Casks with a First Fill Bordeaux Red Wine Finish.
The Whisky Sleuth’s Notes
Colour: Rosé wine.
On the nose: Even funkier than the signature! Grapefruit, souring strawberry yoghurt, and quite a bit of manure kicks things off. Then wafts of smoked cheese, sauerkraut, spicy chorizo and sweet red peppers dial up that funk to maximum. There’s also a warmth to it, not just from the spice, though I do get some cayenne pepper and plenty of smoky pimento, but it’s almost like the smell from a wood fired pizza oven. With water there’s more citrus, but I’m losing all the savoury notes.
In the mouth: Raspberry jam, and fresh raspberries and strawberries first, then comes the spices with chilli and cayenne pepper. It seems the pizza oven has a pizza in it! It’s pepperoni with a sweet tomato and red pepper base and smoked mozzarella. The finish has tart cranberries, orange rind, wood smoke and campfire ash. As with the nose, with water it becomes a bit less interesting, the balance shifts to tart red berries and citrus without as many of the interesting savoury notes.
Pepperoni pizza, that’s a first! It is a real pleasure to taste the finished article, and looking back on my previous notes on Malt, this is an altogether different beast. I’m loving the savoury and funky aspects here. It is worth mentioning that I don’t mind lactic notes at all. Sour natural yoghurt is a favourite not of mine actually, but I do know that some can get off-putting baby sick from it instead, so that is something to bear in mind. A pretty bold first release I’d say. Scoring wise, I have to take that price point into account even though I know first releases command a premium
On the nose: Peat forward, flamed sugar, bourbon casks bringing some gentle spices for complexity, the wine is well integrated and brings lovely red fruits such as crushed wild raspberries.
In the mouth: Peat and flamed sugar as promised by the nose; red jam and ground ginger, a pinch of cayenne pepper, soot, some characteristic minerality and a slight soapy texture on the finish.
This is a very tasty whisky but does not have the same character as the signature or the Makar’s Malt reviewed below. It’s almost generic peated whisky in great casks. Could this pass for a peated BenRiach or a peated malt from Loch Lomond in good casks? Perhaps. It’s a great start for the distillery but the signature malt has quickly come along and significantly surpa2ssed this.
Isle of Raasay Makar’s Malt Single Cask 2018/3 – Review
Lightly peated in first fill Bordeaux red wine cask. 53.2% ABV; £75 at launch. The first single cask released to celebrate International Woman’s Day. 10% of proceeds go to Glasgow Women’s Library.
Colour: Deep golden sunset.
On the nose: Raw oak, peat, vinous, lots of wood spice, cough medicine, crepe bandage, Deep Heat® cream, lots of water required to mellow this complex beast. The funkiness is here too, memories of over-young Springbank from the cage.
In the mouth: Lots of wood spice, a real funkiness to this, damp pine needles, the spirit seems to have pulled a lot of wood notes out of this cask, more cough medicine, quite dry and tannic and ashy with some struck match. This is so viscous even with a huge slug of water. It remains spicy and medicinal. With water more soot and ash, a bit industrial in a L.S. Lowry paints a West Coast Puffer kind of way, it’s more approachable overall with water. There is pipe tobacco and bitter dark chocolate on the finish.
Honestly, I loved the packaging for this. The Here’s Tae Ye poem by Scotland’s previous Makar (National Poet) Jackie Kay adorning the label, and the signature rugged fossil embedded glass bottle. To a great extent, I could not care less if the whisky was great or not as I was sold on the story. In the end it’s decent and that’s fine by me. Initially my least favourite of the three, this did grow on me and edges the inaugural due to the funkiness and layers of complexity. But, if you ask me, the Signature really is the product that all the cask selection and distilling process is geared around and it’s no wonder it’s a more competent sip all round. I thoroughly recommend you buy lots of that to drink and worry less about the single cask output that will have the collectors and flippers scrambling over each other.
The Whisky Sleuth’s Notes
Colour: Golden glow.
On the nose: The similarities to the inaugural are striking, if not unsurprising given the maturation, but we are in more refined and balanced territory now. The farmyard and smoked paprika are immediately recognisable, but offset with sweeter red fruits, sultanas, and smoked red chilli jam. The chorizo is more like a smoke honey glazed ham, but besides that I get the same notes of smoked cheese, sauerkraut, and manure, just softer and more integrated. With a bit of time coal dust appears, along with the inside of a car mechanic’s workshop and dirty copper coins.
In the mouth: Again the palate feels more balanced. Sweet, ripe raspberries and strawberries, and their respective jams, meet soot, wood smoke and cayenne pepper. Golden sultanas, mable glazed ham and cranberry jelly. Wet hay and farmyard funk lead the way for a very long finish with lingering earthy coffee grounds, peat and cigar smoke. A nice surprise of orange zest and bitters to complete the picture.
Definitely my favourite of the three, we are in seriously good whisky territory here. All the fun of the others but with added maturity beyond its years, and balance, it’s safe to say that I am very jealous of all of those who can win the ballots for these single casks, but I have it on good authority that a visit to the distillery will be equally rewarding. Something to look forward to on a future trip.