Way back in the summer of 2019, a group of us were planning a visit to the new Hebridean distillery on the Isle of Raasay for the following Spring. And then we all know what happened next. All plans were postponed but we were confident that we'd make it there in April 2021. And then, ahem, we all know what happened next. So, in 2022 - just two years in the making - our planning finally came to fruition and we were delighted to set foot on this tiny, but perfectly formed, island where distilling returned in September 2017.
En route to Raasay, we stopped by Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William. A dram and a chat together with a few wee photo opportunities with Brian, made this an infinitely better option than the local service station. Ben Nevis is a distillery I had wanted to visit for quite a while so it was great to finally manage to take a look around. There'll be a post on this in the not so distant future as I'd like to include some tasting notes on the 10 years release.
Our next stop was Torabhaig, which opened in 2017. Again, since the inaugural release from the newest distillery on Skye, this has been a distillery on my 'must visit' list. So, there'll also be a separate post focusing on this distillery as I'd like to include some tasting notes for both the first and latest Torabhaig Distillery releases.
So, it's to Raasay we're heading just now.
After a short 15 minute ferry crossing from Sconser on Skye, we arrived at our destination. There aren't many working distilleries where you can stay overnight - in fact, the Isle of Raasay may be the only one in Scotland - but the hotel which is part of the distillery complex is just next door. Borodale House was a Victorian villa but has been beautifully converted into a six bedroom hotel. Perhaps there's some rivalry amongst Scotch whisky producers as to who has the best distillery view. If that's the case, Raasay has to be up there! The views (over to the Cuillins on Skye) from the hotel and distillery are absolutely stunning; especially when the weather was as kind as it was for us: blue skies for the duration of our road trip.
At dinner at Raasay House, we were joined by distillery founder Alasdair Day and his wife, Sharon. The food was fantastic and afterwards, at around 9pm, Alasdair suggested it would be a nice idea if we all headed to the warehouse for a tasting. The suggestion was met with resounding agreement. Well, it would have been rude not to really, wouldn't it?
At this point, we were like kids in a sweet shop! Alasdair suggested a number of casks to try and the most memorable for me was the Manzanilla cask: some delicious olive and chamomile tea notes mixed with hints of green apple and raspberry. Nobody was there to write tasting notes though; this was all about enjoying the whisky and the warehouse experience. We tried a number of different cask samples and, in my humble opinon, the complexity of the spirit completely defies its age. Raasay clearly demonstrates that young whisky can be absolutely excellent.
The following morning, we took a look around the distillery itself. There's a 1.1 ton mash tun and six washbacks made from stainless steel. Fermentation times at the Isle of Raasay are both short and long: four short fermentations lasting 67 hours and six long fermentations lasting 118 hours. At the distillery, only Scottish barley is used which is malted (off site, of course) using Highland peat; there's a 50/50 split of distilling peated and unpeated spirit.
Production information re fermentation times, barley types, spirit cuts etc is clearly and openly given over on their website: https://raasaydistillery.com/raasay-whisky/single-malt/ so there's no need for me to repeat it all here. Once the casks are filled (at a strength of 63.5%), they're moved to the nearby warehouse where, it should be pointed out, that all of the Isle of Rassay's whisky is matured; all the spirit is distilled, matured and bottled on the island.
In the warehouse, as well as the manzanilla casks, we noticed red wine barriques from Bordeaux and chinquapin oak casks. Not many Scotch whisky distilleries are using the latter (GlenAllachie is one other which comes to mind) and this is where smaller distilleries and whisky producers have the advantage. Whereas older, more established distilleries generally look to ensure consistency in the flavour profiles of their core expressions, new distilleries can afford to be more experimental and innovative.
On that note, though, for those who make the journey to visit the distillery, there is an exclusive bottling available to purchase from the visitor centre. This distillery special release is a little different to Raasay's signature expression, involving both rye and sherry casks. The whisky is initially matured in a peated ex-rye whiskey cask and then finished in ex-oloroso and PX quarter casks. The result is fantastic and, of course, I picked one up! Karen and I agreed to include this in a future Fife Whisky Festival tasting lineup which will take place in August just before tickets go on sale. Keep a look out for updates soon.
An overnight stay on the island of Raasay just wasn't anywhere near long enough. Our focus was, of course, to visit the distillery but the island has plenty of other things to offer. Another visit in the not too distant future is definitely on the cards where I hope to explore more of this wee whisky island.
Many thanks to Alasdair, Sharon and the entire Raasay team for such wonderful hospitality.
The next stop on our distilleries road trip was Ardnamurchan - look out for the write up on the blog next week.
*Thumbnail photo credit also goes to Nicola Young. She has a fancy iPhone 13. And I have a crappy Oppo SomethingOrOther as she has a tendency to point out ;-)
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