B

Berry Bros & Rudd 2017 Isle of Raasay Cask 36

Oral traditions of distilling on the Hebridean Islands have passed down from generation to generation, and tell stories of illicit distilling from the early 1700s. Though none have been formally documented, the tales still carry strong character and merit, and have lain their own distinct foundation stone in the distillery at Raasay.

The act of union in 1707 forced a Malt Tax in 1725 which drove most of Scotland’s distilleries to the grave. Other distilleries themselves too went “underground.”

Stories tell of a homeowner diverting a burn to run through his house in order to make whisky behind closed doors; an outdoor micro-distillery at Eyre Point; friends and family on Skye hanging out white garments in groups of three when the excisemen would come to pay a visit, as warning to the distillers to scarper and ditch the evidence.

Distilled Scotch Whisky was hidden in coffins, under altars, in the stables where horses would sleep; all just to escape the eyes of the dreaded taxman. A far cry from the modern-day operation at Isle of Raasay Distillery.

Generations ago, barley was harvested on the island as animal feed. Bere barley grew beautifully in the trials, but is not designed for mechanical harvesting. Iskria and Braga barley – from Iceland and Norway, respectively – are two strains of barley that have been grown on Raasay to make up the spirit that we know today, and which work much better in mechanical harvest. The Arctic circle varieties will grow and ripen between May and August, which works favourably on Raasay.

Alasdair Day’s great grandfather Richard Day was a Whisky Blender in Coldstream for J&A Davidson, who at the time were licenced grocers, and were responsible for the Coldstream Brewery. Day inherited a ledger which the family have branded the Cellar Book. The sales from 1881 to 1882 were in the book, but the blend recipes from 1899 to 1916 had also been penned in the back cover.

Day had toyed with the idea of setting up a hospitality or catering business, and on Christmas Day 2008 his dad suggested that he use the Cellar Book to form his own company, blending whiskies. Using the original recipe of Eight Single Malts and one Single Grain, The Tweeddale Blend – inspired by the original – resurfaced in May 2010.

Still working a full-time job, Day started buying casks and eventually was able to phase out the job to work full time in whisky, even licencing his own house at one point to fulfil online sales of the Tweeddale. Cask shortage forced Day to think how the business could continue. For all the money he’d spend on buying mature whiskies, he would have been as well building his own distillery, but that required investment.

Alasdair Day shook hands with Bill Dobbie, a serial entrepreneur in Internet, Telecom, and Technology. They consulted for about a year or so about other projects, and had even bid on already established distilleries, but had been miles off the asking price. They eventually decided that the best thing to do would be to just build a new distillery at Borrodale on Raasay.

Borrodale is steeped in history. Raasay House stands only 700 yards from the current site, and this was the home of the Clan McLeod after Brochel Castle, now in ruins. In the Jacobean times, Bonnie Prince Charlie had been chased out of Scotland at Lochaber after losing at Culloden, but had passed through Skye and Raasay on his way out. The Redcoats turned every leaf trying to find him, and other Jacobeans and burned the original Raasay House to the ground during the clearances.

Many years later, they built Borrodale house for the estate manager, who in the 1970s turned it into a hotel. After development and rebuilding, Raasay house burned down, again, and the Raasay Outdoor Centre group moved into Borrodale House. Once Raasay House was rebuilt, they moved back out to the original building and Borrodale house sat empty, rotting away for years until Day and Dobbie turned up with a paintbrush and a business plan.

Volcanic rock surrounds the distillery, and the distillery itself sits on top of Jurassic sandstone, which is incredibly absorbent and permeable. When the water runs through the rock, it carries a lot of minerals too which is “arguably the most important part of the Raasay whisky,” Day commented. They use the water for the process, for cooling, for cask reduction and for bottling.

Isle Of Raasay from the Stillhouse

The gathering room features an impressive layer cake of millions of years of history there for all to see. As the Single Malt neared its release date, Stranger and Stranger, a London based design company (responsible for Aberfeldy Whisky, Isle of Harris Gin, Italicus Bergamotto, and Royal Brackla bottle designs) strolled the island armed with modelling clay and the expert guidance of Day and Dobbie. After modelling round a stone near the distillery’s “Well of the Pale Cow,” they strolled the east coast beaches which are laden with fossils. One of the architects from the company had been given a fossil by his young son, which was also pressed into the cast. If you look closely at a bottle when you next pass it, you’ll notice the imprint. This connection may exemplify great thought and care for presents between parents and older children!

Drawing inspiration from other Hebridean Whiskies, Day wished to express the Raasay malt differently from other malts in the area. After studies of Bowmore, Tobermory and Talisker, Day decided Raasay had to be lighter on peat than the heavy Islay peat, and focus more on fragrance rather than medicinal notes to produce a contemporary Hebridean whisky. Day sat down with a chemical engineer firm to discuss longer fermentation and the use of cooling jackets on the washback to control the peak of the fermentation process.

The outcome of the partnership was to create a new make spirit to mature in six styles, then introduce them back together upon bottling. Depth of character would prove tricky to release at a young age, so marrying six casks of one run intensifies that depth and complexion, and ultimately disguises the youth of the spirit.

Machrihanish is the new project to be launched by R&B Distillers. Dhurrie farm (pronounced Jury) in Campbeltown, originally a dairy farm (now solely arable) was purchased in December 2021 by the firm. Laureate barley was grown and 20 tonnes of this were harvested in 2022, which was sent up to Raasay so a new malt run to be produced and tested.

The Artist’s Impression of Machrihanish

The neighbouring farm at Machrihanish has produced 90 tonnes of barley, which has already allowed Raasay to distil and talk about Campbeltown Barley before they’ve even broken ground at the new site. The practice that the distillery will focus on is that the company will work directly with farmers rather than maltsters. They will agree a price before the harvest. This important factor will bring joy to the local farmers who are in arable trade, as price is usually paid upon receipt and drying, rather than the price before harvest.

R&B Distillers have been in intense talks with the local council and planners, and – when the plans are approved and all is completed and up and running – Machrihanish will be the first farm distillery in the region for over 180 years. In keeping with modern day trends, the distillery will be focussing on field to bottle quality with a net zero production process. Such a statement will really bring back a reputation for traditional distilling to the Victorian Capital of Whisky.

Machrihanish single malt should work not as a contrast, but as a compliment to what R&B have achieved with The Raasay Single Malt. The release will be predominantly unpeated, focusing on Seasoned Spanish Cherry Oak full maturation, which is a different approach from Raasay. Machrihanish’s process will produce cloudy wart, but aim to operate a mash filter, as opposed to a mash tun. Mash filters usually produce clear wart, but cloudy make can be achieved. (This echoes the work of InchDairnie in Fife, who have been working this process already.) It helps in the process because the filters can be run twice in one day which helps with energy consumption and promotes sustainability, but again is in contrast to Raasay.
Fermentation process will be similar to Glen Scotia’s three-to-five-day process, which is similar to Raasay. Two wash stills and two spirit stills will allow the team to configure the line arms to produce a light and a heavy spirit at the same time.

If all goes well, Machrihanish will start Distilling in 2025 and will be able to release small releases in 2028.

Berry Bros & Rudd 2017 Isle of Raasay Cask 36 – Review

Hebridean Single Malt Scotch Whisky. 55.8% ABV. £65.

Colour: Dark Amber

On the nose: A brief greeting from this truly artisanal release of aniseed, clove cigarettes, cinema sweet popcorn, and dusty library books with a hint of barrel charr.

In the mouth: Delicious, creamy mouthfeel with punches of spicy, buttery goodness. A nutty smoke washes through with peat and undertones of alcohol punch. The alcohol mixes well despite the ABV, and isn’t overpowering. The PX and Olorosso quarter cask finishes bring up the rear of the dram, and last well through into the finish. Like meeting an old friend, these diverse and complex flavours all come together and get comfortable on your palate and sit and talk for a while. Sugared, hot apricot, chimney soot, and bonfire ash linger with Italian orange blossom.

Conclusions:

The quality is evident from the first nose through to the mid-palate and finish. It would be reckless to neck this at 11 PM after a tasting and a bottle I have grieved since finishing! This is definitely an exceptional whisky. A solid…

Score: 8/10

Comments: Tasted at room temperature; three drops of boiled water added with pipette.

CategoriesSingle Malt
DJ Gonnella

I am a drinks writer, spirit salesman, and the friendly neighbourhood whisky drinker in rural Aberdeenshire. A dad of 5 kids and parter to Ariane, a keen homepride enthusiast, and manager of a French patisserie. I’m at uni studying French and music, drinking whisky in my spare time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *