Over the past five years or so, to cash-on on the increasing popularity of the craft beer, whisky producers both big and small have gradually started used the term “craft distilling”. Ask many of these people what the term actual means, and I bet they’ll struggle to tell you, with many simply throwing it round as a marketing term. But when visiting Abhainn Dearg distillery this summer, I might finally have found the term’s true meaning.
Abhainn Dearg, which comes from the Gaelic for red river, sits on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis – just a stone’s throw from the mighty Atlantic Ocean. First established in 2008, the distillery in the brainchild of Mark Tayburn, who found it crazy that the Outer Hebrides wasn’t making its own whisky. In fact, it’s been over 170 years since a distillery was last producing whisky on the islands.
The philosophy and process of Abhainn Dearg date right back to the last time the whisky was produced on the islands. EVERYTHING is done by hand, from the malting of the barley and emptying of the mash tun, to the filling and labelling of the bottles.
The distillery operates a “field to bottle” mentality, with the barley used coming from its own fields and the peat cut from Mark’s own croft. It also harnesses the purest, unfiltered water from the eponymous “Red River”, which also helps to power the site.
The stills are like nothing you’ll have seen before. Modelled on the illicit stills of the 18th and 19th centuries, they’re relatively squat, with a neck which emerges at a 45-degree angle.
After production, Abhainn Dearg’s spirit is matured in a mixture of sherry and bourbon casks from Craigellachie’s Speyside Cooperage. The site only produces around 10,000 bottles each year, which it says is just enough to meet the demand of the thousands of people who visit annually, along with sales on the internet and via a couple of trusted outlets.
Its first product – The Spirit of Lewis – rolled out the doors in 2010, marking the first time in almost 170 years that a spirit had been produced on the islands. But this was too young to be called whisky, which would eventually follow the next year. There have been a number of releases over the years, but 2018 will be the first year that’ll see a fully-fledged Abhainn Dearg whisky hit the shelves.
We couldn’t possibly visit without treating ourselves to a couple of bottles and, although it’s not the greatest whisky I’ve ever tasted, there are all the hallmarks are there of something very exciting to come in the near future.
So the next time you hear someone utter the term “craft distilling”, send them Mark’s way to witness what a truly hand-crafted distilling operation looks like.
You can find out more about the distillery by logging on to www.abhainndearg.co.uk