Friday Focus - Raasay Distillery
The Island of Raasay, located between its larger neighbour the Isle of Skye and the rugged West Coast of Highland Scotland, is 14 miles long and just 3 miles wide with a population of approximately 160 residents. An island with a long history of illicit distillation, the opening of Raasay distillery in 2017 saw the first production of legal spirit.
A combination of factors such as location, climate and geography have long proven difficult for Scotlands islands. Depopulation being a major factor which began with the forced clearances of settlements and communities in the 18th and 19th centuries to make way for sheep and cattle farming and continuing in the present day with islanders leaving in search of work on the mainland.
Island life has its obvious attractions: stunning landscape, a slower pace of life and strong sense of community but let's not forget how difficult it must be. Logistically, the dependancy on ferry services is a huge factor for islanders in terms of accessibility and obtaining supplies and the rugged landscape and climate certainly has its limitations when it comes to farming the land.
Innovation is however driving change on Raasay. Community and businesses alike are coming together to develop and support schemes aimed at making island life easier, developing resilience, promoting sustainability and ultimately not just retaining its people but also attracting people to the islands shores.
Raasay distillery has recently launched its 'Raasay Pioneers' campaign focussing on members of the distillery team based on the island driving innovation. 10% of the islands population work at the distillery and the ethos is to 'produce, mature, bottle and market every drop directly from the island' allowing the 'Ratharsich' (Gaelic for the folk of Raasay) and the island to directly influence the character of the spirit produced. This gives the product real authenticity when it comes to the subject of provenance.
The Raasay Spirit
This begins with the main ingredients involved in the distillation of whisky: water, barley and yeast. Water is in abundance, sourced directly from Tobar na Bà Bàine 'the Well of the Pale Cow'. The aforementioned rugged landscape of the island however makes the growing of barley for use in the production of whisky a little more problematic. The islands climate (apparently 100% wetter than Scotlands main barley producing regions) results in the growing season being much shorter, not allowing standard barley varieties enough time to ripen. Drawing from evidence of past distillation (albeit illegal) on the island which showed enough barley had been grown to support such activity in the past, Raasay began to investigate the possibility of growing barley on the island again for use in the distillation process. Between 2017 and 2019 trials were undertaken in collaboration with the University of Highlands and Islands and with the help of local Raasay farmer Andrew Gillies, they began testing a number of varieties to measure growth performance. The aim being to use potentially successful Raasay grown barley in the malting process for future special releases with 100% Scottish grown barley used in the production of all other spirit.
Raasay's award winning Scottish Island Gin was the first legal spirit to be produced on the island and distilled using ten botanicals including locally grown Raasay juniper, specially selected by local botanist Dr Stephen Bungard. Although a relatively new distillery, Raasay are looking to produce a style of whisky reflective of Hebridean whiskies from the past, presenting with a lightly smoked, fruity quality. However, they are going about it in a very experimental way, compared with the more traditional methods employed in the production of single malt. The long fermentation process helps to draw out the dark fruit flavours before both peated and unpeated spirit are matured in three different types of cask: first fill ex rye oak barrels, new Chinkapin oak casks and first fill ex Bordeaux red wine casks. Once matured, the 6 casks are then vatted together to produce a single malt consistent with the flavour desired by Raasay.
People Driving Innovation
The 'Raasay Pioneers' campaign very much focusses on the people that make Raasay what it is. In particular, highlighting a younger generation of employees driving innovation, bringing their craft and expertise to projects that result in mutual benefits for the distillery and the island community as a whole. Raasay Renewables Ltd was set up in 2020 to promote and develop environmentally sustainable projects on the island and is co-chaired by two distillery employees. The hydro-electric scheme currently in development aims to harness Raasay's water to generate power for the island as well as raise a community income for investment in other projects. Such projects grant the island community a degree of self sufficiency and build economic resilience in these uncertain times.
In working towards a greener, more sustainable approach to production, the distillery is looking to develop a hydrogen energy scheme whereby waste products from distillation are converted into hydrogen energy that can be used to power the production operation at the distillery.
The experimental approach to production at Raasay Distillery coupled with a desire to explore and learn from the traditions and experience of the islands past really demonstrate the distilleries energy and desire to overcome obstacles through innovation. Working to the islands strengths as part of the wider community brings benefits to not just the distillery operation but also in supporting the preservation of island life.
We're hoping to visit Raasay this summer to take in the islands beauty, climb some hills and learn what the distillery has planned for the future. We're excited to to find out more, so we'll keep you posted.
If you're looking for the latest batch of Raasay single malt & gin, you can purchase via this link.