Malt of the Moment
Abhainn Dearg is the most remote of all the Scottish distilleries, being situated on the Isle of Lewis. Its dramatic westerly placing amidst the rugged terrain and sparsely populated Uig...
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Abhainn Dearg is the most remote of all the Scottish distilleries, being situated on the Isle of Lewis. Its dramatic westerly placing amidst the rugged terrain and sparsely populated Uig parish ensures a stunning location. Historically the area is widely known for the discovery of the Lewis Chessmen and for its fabulous beaches, but tales of illicit distilling and canny locals have passed into folklore over the centuries.
Prior to the foundation of Abhainn Dearg in 2008, the last legal distillery on Lewis was Shoeburn distillery in 1829, which enjoyed a brief but colourful existence. Little of its spirit left the island as such was the thirst locally, yet it could not compete with the vast availability of illicit whisky and the disapproval of the church establishment. The Isle of Lewis retains its own character and nature, with the mainland of Scotland seemingly very distant. This is particularly true when considering the influence of Westminster and the taxmen, which would have been considerably weaker than the threat facing illicit distillers elsewhere.
Abhainn Dearg takes its name from its water source that runs alongside the distillery and translated from Gaelic means the Red River. From a distance it may look like a small cluster of windswept farm outbuildings, perched alongside a fast running stream, but originally it was a fish farm. Only as you draw closer do clues about its purpose begin to materialise. Mark Tayburn had a vision of bringing back distilling on a legal basis to the Outer Hebrides. If this wasn’t enough he wanted to utilise traditional methods and resources to ensure a faithful product, otherwise described as from the field to the bottle. The result is a unique distillery and a very distinctive whisky.
Small distilleries may have appeared across Scotland since 2007, but these tend to be based on more modern practises and equipment. Arriving at Abhainn Dearg, sitting against the outer wall is a very old, well-used illicit still, with a neck shape that is reminiscent of a witch’s hat. The origins of this still are provokingly vague with it being donated anonymously, however it provided the inspiration for the distinctive stills. The design is unique amongst existing Scottish distilleries and evocative of a bygone age where locals would create their own spirit for personal consumption and amongst friends.
There’s an honesty and practicality evident at Abhainn Dearg; when the river is low the distillery shuts down production, the barley is left outside in a plastic tank to step for a couple of days before being dried via a small peat fire that is situated underneath a converted trough. These are not modern machines capable of great efficiencies, but a more hands on craft approach. The stills are only capable of holding around 2000 litres each and take advantage of 2 worm tubs. Both mash tuns can cope with 500kg each, whilst the wash backs can handle 7500 litres in comparison. This amounts to an annual capacity of just 20,000 litres; a mere drop in the ocean compared mainland distilleries.
The barley itself initially was a challenge as the crop was rarely planted in this region of Uig due to harsh conditions. Marko preferred the outdated Golden Promise variant that has fallen out of popularity due to more advanced strains offering higher yields. Prior to this fall from grace it was the consistent ingredient to the glory days of The Macallan and further afield Karuizawa, who specifically demanded Golden Promise grown from Scotland. Since establishing the distillery, local support has ensured the crop has returned to Lewis with no need to ship malt from the mainland and the distillery tour is small but perfectly formed.
Currently, Abhainn Dearg is concentrating on its 10-year-old debut whisky due towards the end of 2018. It has already released the Spirit of Lewis bottling, which is their distinctive new make spirit aged for a couple of months in sherry casks. A single malt aged 3 years is also available and shows a youthful, rugged character, full of distinctive Lewis potential. With such a small production output and what must be the smallest warehouse in Scotland for maturating whisky, Abhainn Dearg is doing things its own way.