First legal distillery on the island: Alasdair Day about the Isle of Raasay Distillery

Raasay is a tiny island off the east coast of Skye in the Hebrides in northwestern Scotland – with just 161 inhabitants and comparable in size to Manhattan. The Isle of Raasay Distillery has been there since 2017. It is the first legal distillery on the island. It produces – how could it be otherwise – Single Malt Scotch Whisky. But once a year, whisky production is stopped for one or two weeks. During this time, the still is used to produce the Isle of Raasay Hebridean Gin.

In this interview, Alasdair Day, one of the two founders of the Isle of Raasay Distillery, talks about the island of Raasay and the illegal distillation there. He also talks about the whiskies and the gin, which recently received new packaging.

How long has the Isle of Raasay Distillery been in existence?

Alasdair Day: I co-founded R&B Distillers Limited with Bill in July 2014 and we started trading in January 2015. We received our planning approval for Raasay Distillery in February 2016 and broke ground in June 2016. We started distilling on Raasay in September 2017 and released our first single malt in November 2020.

Where exactly is the Isle of Raasay located?

Alasdair Day: The Isle of Raasay lies off the East coast of the Skye in the Hebrides in the North West of Scotland. It is a wee island just 14 miles long and 3 miles wide (about the same size as Manhattan) but with a population of 161 people.

The island has deep roots in illicit distilling. Tell us about it!

Alasdair Day: Illicit distilling was common in the remote, rural areas in Scotland. Crofters would grow barley to feed their animals and any excess that would not last the winter would be brewed into beer. But as beer goes off too it would then be distilled in small quantities. Before 1781 anyone could distil alcohol in Scotland so it would not have been considered illicit before then.

However, although you were allowed to distil before 1781 you were not allowed to sell it, it had to be for your own consumption (along with friends, family or shared for free with anyone). As whisky became ever more popular the first tax on selling whisky was introduced in 1644 so this is when the illicit whisky trade really started in Scotland (to avoid paying tax).

For the next 150 years smuggling became normal in Scotland until 1823 when the Excise Act was passed, which allowed the distilling of whisky for a licence fee of £10. Smuggling slowly died out but in the more remote areas illicit distilling continued a small scale, including on Raasay. There are at least two sites on Raasay that I am aware of that continued to distill illicitly until more recent modern times.

When did distilling become legal there?

Alasdair Day: Our distillery on the Isle of Raasay became the first legal distillery on the island when we received our distillers licence and started distilling in September 2017.

What are the advantages and perhaps disadvantages of the distillery’s secluded location?

Alasdair Day: We do everything on Raasay. We have our own well on site and use the water from the well at every step in the process (from mashing, fermentation, cooling, cask reduction and bottling reduction). Every drop of spirit is distilled, matured and bottled on Raasay.

We have even grown our own barley on Raasay too. We think this gives real provenance and a sense of place to our single malt. There is of course a ferry from Skye to Raasay and this does of course add to the costs of our raw materials and cost of transporting our whisky to our markets and customers.

What was the first spirit to leave the island legally?

Alasdair Day: Our inaugural release in November 2020 was the first legal single malt whisky to leave the island. Although we did release our first Isle of Raasay Hebridean Gin in July 2019 so technically this would have been the first legal spirit to leave the island.

Describe to us the gin. What makes it stand out? How is it made?

Alasdair Day: We only distil our gin once a year. We stop whisky production for one to two weeks. We then use our spirit still to rectify our Gin. When we designed the distillery we included a vapour / gin basket in the design. By opening a valve we can divert the spirit vapours from the lyne arm through the vapour basket containing the more fragile botanicals which then pass through the condenser. The more hardy botanicals i.e. juniper (some of which we forage on Raasay), the liquorice root and orris root go directly into the spirit still.

Our gin is crisp, fresh and citrus in part this is due to the lemon and sweet orange peel that we add to the vapour basket but also from the coriander too. We also have Rhubarb root as one of our botanicals. When we original bought the site and building (Borodale House) for the distillery there was Rhubarb growing out the back so this was an inspiration for Rhubarb root as one of our botanicals.

The gin has received a new packaging design. What is new?

Alasdair Day: We wanted to create an Isle of Raasay spirit family. So when our single malt bottle design received a great reception and packaging awards we were keen to bring the textured design into our Isle of Raaasy Hebridean gin bottle.

The design incorporates the geology of Raasay which in turn influences the mineral content of the water from our well that we use in the production of our gin. Although our gin bottle is cylindrical and our single malt bottle is rectangular making them distinctively different at the same time they are recognisably part of our Raasay “family”.

Back to the whisky: A whole 17,478 whisky fans from all over the world applied for an advance copy of the Isle of Raasay Single Malt a few years ago. Did you expect that at the time?

Alasdair Day: We hoped that there would be demand for our inaugural release. It was really fantastic to sell out in September 2020 before we bottled and dispatched our inaugural release in the November.

What whiskies do you now have in your portfolio?

Alasdair Day: We have our signature Isle of Raasay Hebridean single malt which we currently vat and bottle twice a year once in spring (R01.x) and once in autumn (R02.x). We have a six cask recipe and have released single cask bottlings of each of the single cask:

  • Peated ex rye
  • Peated chinkapin
  • Peated ex Bordeaux red wine
  • Unpeated ex Rye
  • Unpeated chinkapin
  • Unpeated ex Bordeaux red wine

We also have released a sherry finish bottling which is our peated spirit matured in ex rye barrels then vatted and finished in a combination of oloroso & PX quarter casks.

For a few years now, you have been working together in distribution with Kirsch Import. How did the collaboration come about?

Alasdair Day: We started working with Kirsch when we were building the distillery on Raasay before we had our single malt available. We met them when we were looking for an importer and distributor in Germany and they really liked what we were doing on Raasay.

And what do you appreciate about the collaboration?

Alasdair Day: Kirsch ist a great company to work with. They have visited Raasay on several occasions and have a fantastic understand our distillery, the island, the people and of course our spirits. They work hard with us to promote of whisky and gin in Germany.

What is the future of the Isle of Raasay Distillery?

Alasdair Day: We will continue with the seasonal batches of our signature single malt, single cask bottlings and sherry finish. We have plans to release a very special bottling as a distillery exclusive next year.

Isle of Raasay Distillery | | |

+++ We would like to thank Alasdair Day for the open and very interesting interview and wish him continued success! If you also have an interesting brand, then we should talk. Just send us an email with the subject “about-drinks interview” to – we look forward to hearing from you! +++

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