The New Hebridean

IN

We’re delighted to have whisky writer Dave Broom producing a series of essays for us. It’s probably no secret that we have ideas at Bruichladdich about “terroir” in whisky; nor that Dave’s definition and ideas around terroir differ slightly from ours [see this Introductory article for the background].

Since 2001, we’ve been working hard to get closer to our ingredients, to properly value local talent, and to not just accept the industry status quo as “good enough”. It’s brilliant to find that, increasingly, we are not alone in our approach. 

In this, the first essay, Dave looks at emerging West Coast distilleries who have followed in our wake.

Dave Broom [DB]: Take a look at a distillery map of Scotland from 10 years ago, but instead of seeing where the concentrations of stills are, look at the gaps. Then ask why are they there? Why is Islay the sole Hebridean island with a large concentration? Why is whisky-making on the west coast such a rarity?

One answer lies in the agricultural improvements of the late 18th and early 19th century and their links with the ending of illicit distillation, and the Clearances. It lies in the differing approaches of landowners and whether they created an integrated model of farm, small-scale industry, and town (like Islay) or not.

The consequences were far-reaching, economically and culturally. It saw the decline of Gaelic, the commencement of a reading of the landscape in which the emptied lands were the epitome of a Romantic ideal and, with the passing of the 1823 Excise Act, the end of a community/collective-based, way of making whisky.

‘Whisky-making isn’t in our blood,’ says Isle of Harris Distillery’s storyteller, Mike Donald. ‘The fertile island of Pabbay was where distilling happened. It was cleared. Depopulation means the loss of people, stories, ways of working, and language. These things are fragile.’

Distilling has returned to not just to Harris, but across the Hebrides and the peninsulas of the west coast. (I use “Hebridean’ here to include both island and west coast distilleries.) The gaps are being filled.

Alex Bruce of Ardnamurchan

Revival

The reasons for this revival are varied. For Isle of Raasay’s co-founder Alasdair Day it was part of a personal quest to draw on his whisky-making heritage. He was thinking of a distillery in the Borders, but co-founder Bill Dobbie and his school friend Ian Hector Ross had Raasay connections.

Torabhaig on Skye’s Sleat peninsula started as the brainchild of the late Sir Ian Noble (founder of Sabhail Mòr Ostaig Gaelic college) who sold the undeveloped site to Dr. Frederik Paulsen’s Marussia in 2013, an ideal fit as one of Paulsen’s philanthropic interests is preserving threatened languages, cultures, and craft.

The impulse behind Harris was similarly philanthropic. ‘Founder, Anderson ‘Burr’ Bakewell’s original purpose was to create long-lasting employment,’ says production manager, Kenny MacLean, ‘and had the idea of this being a social distillery. We don’t make any big decisions without thinking what impact it will have on the community.’

Nc’nean on Morvern, was part of a wider project starting in 2002 when founder/CEO Annabel Thomas’ parents bought Drimnin Estate and started projects to make it self-sufficient. ‘There was a toss up between distillery and holiday cottages,’ explains visitor manager Amy Stammers. ‘Holiday cottages only employ people for half the year. A distillery meant people moving here and staying here.’

For Alex Bruce, the main reason for building Ardnamurchan was to ensure the survival of his independent bottling firm, Adelphi, given the way third party stocks were dwindling and increasing in price. From the get-go, the location had a significant impact on how the distillery was to be run.

‘Once we had chosen the site, the question was how to best fit its location and that’s when the whole concept of sustainability and circular economy started,’ he says. ‘Ardnamurchan is a small, remote, place. It was obvious we should be as symbiotic with the estate as possible.’ The result was the installation of a biomass boiler fuelled by local, sustainable, forestry, supplemented by power from a hydro-electric generator in the river which also supplies the cooling water.

Self-sufficiency was also important to Nc’nean, which also has a biomass boiler fuelled by trees from the estate. This year the distillery achieved Net Zero in Scope 1 and 2 emissions. It also only uses organic barley and, from 2022, is switching maltings from Muntons in Stowmarket, to Inverness and reducing the number of farms from 10 to two. ‘It helps to reduce our overall carbon footprint, allows us to work with the farmers to reduce theirs, and develop regenerative farming solutions.’

Ardnamurchan also utilises blockchain technology. ‘Everything is detailed in it, from barley, through the process, to the warehouse and supply chain,’ says Bruce. ‘It also monitors all inputs and outputs which will be vital in developing greater sustainability – and it gives the consumer transparency.’ Rather than being on the fringes, these apparently ‘remote’ sites are leading discussions about sustainability.

The role of a distillery in locations such as these is significantly different to one in, say, Speyside. Think of it as an ecology, with the distillery as a keystone species within an area, supporting a complex and diverse ecosystem. Its arrival brings in new jobs, creating new businesses. It has also allowed a generation to return home.

Think of it as an ecology

Mike Donald came back to Harris from Glasgow allowing him to earn a living which he couldn’t do from crofting or weaving, while Norman Gillies returned to Raasay after years working offshore. After the oil crash he became site engineer on the distillery project. He’s now the manager, with 25 employees, all living locally, many of whom are returnees.

‘The distillery’s completely changed what is possible here,’ he says. ‘Now there’s a reason to stay and do something a job where you have scope to progress. The scale of this business on an island of 170 people with an ageing population is enormous.’ he says.

The same story is repeated at all the sites. At Torabhaig, all the staff are being funded through the IBD qualification and, once a year, two are given the opportunity to make their own whisky. Provided it complies with SWA rules, anything goes – peating levels, kilning temperatures, yeast, cut points, oak.

The reasons for this revival are varied. For Isle of Raasay’s co-founder Alasdair Day it was part of a personal quest to draw on his whisky-making heritage. He was thinking of a distillery in the Borders, but co-founder Bill Dobbie and his school friend Ian Hector Ross had Raasay connections.

Torabhaig on Skye’s Sleat peninsula started as the brainchild of the late Sir Ian Noble (founder of Sabhail Mòr Ostaig Gaelic college) who sold the undeveloped site to Dr. Frederik Paulsen’s Marussia in 2013, an ideal fit as one of Paulsen’s philanthropic interests is preserving threatened languages, cultures, and craft.

Mike Donald of Harris Distillery

The impulse behind Harris was similarly philanthropic. ‘Founder, Anderson ‘Burr’ Bakewell’s original purpose was to create long-lasting employment,’ says production manager, Kenny MacLean, ‘and had the idea of this being a social distillery. We don’t make any big decisions without thinking what impact will it have on the community.’

‘The next stage is pushing for the next generation,’ says Bruce. Ardnamurchan already gives each pupil in the local primary school a cask of whisky which they can use – when of legal age, naturally – to help fund university fees etc. ‘We’re keen to implement a project next year for one of the team to go into the secondary schools and give them first-hand experience of what it is like to work here. It should be people on the ground doing the job everyday, not CEOs. That’s more tangible to the kids.’

The sticking point is housing. ‘Harris is incredibly popular with people wanting to secure an island retreat,’ says Mike Donald. ’30% of houses here are holiday homes, so as a young person you’re priced out of the market quickly. There’s crofting land here with two to three acres going for £250,000. It’s ridiculous!

‘There has to be a lot of joined-up thinking between businesses like us, local trusts, the crofting federation, and the council to try and rein in the market, otherwise we’ll end up as a playground for the wealthy.’ And with a diminishing workforce.

Raasay ‘The distillery’s completely changed what is possible here”

The West Harris Trust has recently built some affordable housing, while there’s five houses planned for Raasay, but, says Day, ‘there is more to be done with talking to the people with holiday houses which lie empty, a lot of joining of dots. Anyone who builds houses wants to sell them at a profit which immediately makes them unaffordable to young people.’

The distilleries as major employers are at the heart of this issue. They’re not ‘production units’ but a focal point of a community, which adds on a layer of social responsibility.

‘When you look at employers on Morvern, aside from tourism/estates/farms it’s us and the sand mine,’ says Thomas. ‘What I hope we can achieve is either retention in or attraction to a younger generation in those communities, because things like the sustainability of the local primary school is essential to the viability of the community, and as more houses are used for lets, retirement, or second homes, the number of children falls. Hopefully, we can contribute to stemming that flow, if not reverse it.’

By necessity, a more remote location also creates a different way of thinking. ‘If there’s a problem, you just do it,’ says Gillies. ‘There’s always a workaround, but we’re probably more used to that here. You can train up people, learn to do things yourself, and create the infrastructure. You become more self-sufficient.’

Ardnamurchan now employs 29 people, all of whom live locally and who, in Bruce’s words, are ‘not only experienced in making good whisky, but making good whisky in that place with all the different associated problems. Having a biomass boiler meant we couldn’t just pick up the phone to someone round the corner and say “how do I fix this?” because no-one had done it before – and there isn’t anyone round the corner! It’s not Islay or Speyside.’

Stills at Nc’Nean, Drimnin

Flavour and Future

For all the shared issues, there’s no unified Hebridean whisky style. Ardnamurchan’s oysters and oils isvery different to Nc’nean’s gentle fruits. Raasay’s light smoke and dark fruits, sits in contrast to the crystalline salinity of Torabhaig.

All are experimenting. Raasay, and Ardnamurchan make peated and unpeated spirit, then blend. Raasay has cooling jackets to alter the reflux in the still to help make heavier or lighter spirit. All are looking at different yeasts. Torabhaig is experimenting with kilning techniques, Raasay looking at different oak and cask types, as well as barley strains (including growing on the island).

A Hebridean whisky trail is underway, a festival planned for next year. The grouping is also likely to increase. A Barra distillery is at planning stage, while there’s talk of distilleries on Benbecula, Uist, and Tiree.

Is it too early to start talking of a movement? ‘When you look at these distilleries they are definitely the ones I feel the most akin to,’ says Thomas. ‘I think there is something philosophical which we share. Maybe we need to get some sort of new West Coast Distillery Association up and running.’

In his seminal work, ‘The Other Side of Sorrow’, historian James Hunter wrote how the future of the Highland economy shouldn’t be based around the region being a cross between a national park and an open air folk museum. The key was connectivity, environmental and social rehabilitation, and economic investment; undoing the mistakes of 150 plus years. Talk of regenerative agriculture is important. So too though is a regenerative community – social biodiversity.

In this new ‘world’ the distillery’s role shifts from being producer into a focal point inextricably linked to the social needs of its community and with that – as the distillers all agree – comes a moral dimension. Whisky becomes a co-operative occupation benefiting a community. As it used to be.

 

Further Reading

More about Bruichladdich, the largest private employer on Islay >

More about  Islay’s housing situation here >

Rewatch NcNean’s Annabel Thomas, and other distillers, in discussion apropos of the COP26 climate change conference here. “Whisky is Agriculture” >

More about Bruichladdich’s holistic approach here >

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