It’s an incredible crisp winter’s day—minus three degrees Celsius before wind chill—and so still that the quiet leaves my city ears ringing. In the distance, I can see the Red Cuillin mountains on the nearby Isle of Skye, today topped with snow. A bird flies past. A lone car passes by on the road. Aside from the occasional bleat from a flock of sheep in a field, everything is peaceful.
It’s not quite the end of the world, but the Isle of Raasay, a tiny Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland, definitely qualifies as remote. It is here that Iain Robertson runs a whisky distillery. Isle of Raasay Distillery began distilling last year and produces single malt Scotch from a glass-fronted building overlooking the mountains.
Sounds idyllic, right? Who wouldn’t want Robertson’s job? Whisky on tap and beautiful scenery. But think of this: you can only get to Raasay by ferry from the mainland. There’s no supermarket. No petrol station. No takeaway.
Instead, Raasay’s population of 160 make do with an eclectically stocked village shop-cum-post-office in Invararish, and by borrowing diesel stored in jerrycans from neighbours when the ferry isn’t running. If you fancy a pizza then you could do a run for everyone, set out at three in the afternoon and head to the town of Portree on Skye, and back in time for the last ferry. And then reheat it in the microwave.
“I think there would be a lot of folk who like the idea but who’d get fed up quite easily,” Robertson admits.
But not this guy. Since July last year, and for the bulk of the winter—battered by storms—Robertson has been living in a caravan. “Winter’s been very cold,” he says, simply. “But I think it’s great.”
What lures a man to the back-end of nowhere to make whisky? After all, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland are littered with stills, some much closer to urban amenities.
“The chance to start a new distillery from the ground up,” Robertson replies. “It was what I was looking for and this was my chance to do it.”
Isle of Raasay Distillery is the first legal distillery on the island. There’s no doubt that people living here in the past made their own distillations, if only to take the edge off the weather. Still, with access only by ferry, and a tiny population, it’s also not an obvious place to set up a new distillery. Nevertheless, that’s what Alisdair Day, one of the founders of R&B Distillers, when looking for the perfect place to make a new Scotch, did.
Making whisky isn’t as simple a proposition as buying stills, putting them in a building, and pressing go. Get into conversation with a whisky fan and you’ll realise that there are multiple elements that can have an impact on the flavour. To such an extent that when copper stills are refurbished, the distillers taking care of them ensure all the dints are put in, exactly as they were. It could be superstition. Or perhaps there’s something in it.
Starting a new distillery was no less complicated for Day, and doing it on an island with no legitimate history of whisky-making added another challenge. For a start, would they be able to get the construction vehicles and materials across on the ferry? (“The crane nearly tipped the ferry over,” laughs Day.) Was there decent water to actually make the spirit with? Could they persuade a distiller to move to the back end of beyond to oversee the process?
Without good water there can be no whisky and rainy though the weather is on Raasay, its water is problematic. The island is known for its iron. Along the coast from the distillery are the dystopian remains of former iron mineworks, built to fuel the metal needs of the First World War and closed shortly afterwards. The land is riddled with rich seams of iron ore, but iron in water, and therefore in any whisky made with it, would be a disaster—its ferrous presence turns the liquid black.
Happily, one of the Raasay locals gave Day a clue as to where a pure water source might be found on the island. In front of an old hotel was the site of an Iron Age settlement. Part of the Gaelic oral tradition of the island tells that there had been a well there too, named “Tobar na Ba Baine,” the well of the white cow. Where the white cow came into it, no one knew. But perhaps the water was there, and maybe the water would be good. Day arranged for an experimental drilling and the story bore itself out. There was water there in abundance, and it was iron-free.
Better still, the old hotel was up for sale. The site for a new distillery was determined and work began to build it with full backing from the islanders. The locals took up jobs—Norman Gillies, born and raised on the island, started out as site engineer and construction foreman and then moved on to become the distillery manager. Joseph McGowan also worked on the build and then took a job as a distillery operative. Even the local postwoman, Barbara Camilli, was enticed to leave her job delivering the island’s mail to join the team. Nevertheless, a distillery is nothing without a distiller. Enticing someone to move to a place so remote, and so exposed to the elements was the final obstacle to overcome.
Day found his man in Edinburgh. Robertson was graduating from the brewing and distilling course at Heriot Watt University, a man with the skills and a long-held desire to move the islands of Scotland.
“The recipe was made up already,” explains Robertson. “But how to achieve that, that’s down to me. I need to take care of that in the distillation. There’s also a wee bit of space for more inventive ideas. Talisker, our nearest whisky to here, make a fantastic whisky, but they’re not going to change the recipe, there’s no input for the final product. I get to have a say. That was so key.”
Day had found his dream distiller and Robertson, his dream job.
The first time the still ran, the new spirit ran clear, and the casks could start to be filled straight away, ready to make Raasay’s first official whisky. Like the island itself, the spirit will be unique. But most importantly, it’ll be a testament to what you can do when you don’t despise the small things, but set out to celebrate them.