An inside look at the Scottish island of Raasay's first legal distillery

We visit the first legal distillery on the Isle of Raasay in Scotland to learn how tradition and history are influencing the birth of a very modern whisky

On a day like this, it is pretty glam," says Alasdair Day, co-founder of craft whisky brand R&B Distillers, as we jump out of the car beside a road sign reading just that: Glam. We've been driving this scenic high road – one of only two on the 14-mile-long, three-mile-wide Scottish island of Raasay – since breakfast, gawping at views of tumbledown castles, abandoned jetties and the calm sea lochs of the Inner Hebrides as we go. Turning towards the coast, the morning sun scythes down through the late-winter sky, burning off the remaining clouds and revealing the most distant of Skye's Cuillin mountains way out on the horizon to the west.

It's not often you get weather this good on Raasay, Day tells me. Winter has been long and hard, just as it always is here on an island with limited infrastructure, a population of around 160, a single village shop selling enough essentials to remove the need for daily trips to Skye on the ferry, and a petrol station that's operated out of a jerry can in a garden shed. But that's not to say it hasn't been fruitful: last winter was the very first in which a distillery created spirit on the island.

A legal distillery, that is. Look in the right places, says Raasay Distillery guide, scotch aficionado and writer of The Whisky Dictionary Iain Hector Ross, and you'll find under-the-radar illicit stills that go way back to the country's bootlegging past.

These stills wouldn't have been made purely to ensure a dram was available for the islanders when the boats weren't delivering, either. During the 18th and 19th centuries, tax rates on malted grain were raised, causing larger distilleries to opt for unmalted raw grain, which brought into being less than appetising tipples like corn spirit and grain whisky. Therefore, these non-taxpaying illicit stills – often tucked out of sight near secluded water sources – became the de facto homes of real whisky, which was smuggled to market and sold at a high price.

While this wasn't single-malt scotch as we know it – the kind that's made in a single distillery and aged in oak for at least three years by law – it was nonetheless a Scottish spirit made in one place and given enough time to develop flavour and complexity. And legend has it that Raasay, however many stills it once had (the locals still have a moratorium on their locations today, so we have no official figure), was a hive of production. One that was such a good earner that the good people of Skye used to hang out their washing to let the distillers know the taxman was on his way across the Sound.

For everything we know about the windswept undergarms of the old folk of Skye, we know almost nothing about the flavour of the spirits that were produced back then. And as you can imagine, this is hardly the sort of setup that's going to share its old recipe books with anyone.

But that's where the fun begins. R&B's Isle of Raasay Distillery whisky, currently an ever-increasing array of single-malt spirit casks waiting to turn three and become scotch, isn't necessarily going to be about cracking the code to those illicit drams of yore. Nor is it going to be a distillery that politely follows the example of fellow Island distillers like nearby Talisker on Skye, or other Hebridean heavyweights on Islay and Jura further south. Perhaps most importantly, though, it's not a gratuitous manhandling of carte blanche to make an inauthentic product on an island without an immediately visible, tangible or tasteable distilling history.

look in the right places and you'll find old illicit stills in raasay

"Bootleggers would've made strong grain spirit and added botanicals to make it palatable, but anyone can go and do that, run it through a gin basket with botanicals and call it a gin," says Day, pointing to an as-yet unused botanical basket hidden behind the pot stills in Raasay's brand-new, state-of-the-art still room, "we could, and I'm not counting it out entirely, but we really wanted to do more than that."

More than that, R&B Distillers certainly has done. Named after the distillery in Raasay (the 'R') and the currently unbuilt Borders Distillery (the 'B') in Peebles, R&B is seeking to create top-class spirits in places that are no longer renowned for their whisky.

"Whisky is an investment," says Day, "it takes time – at least three years to make – but we think that this will definitely be worth the wait." And what a wait it's been. Raasay had never had a legal distillery, and the Scottish Borders were without a distillery from 1837 until 2018, when the Three Stills Company opened a new facility in Hawick.

With such a blank slate to produce from, everything the team at R&B does is an experiment; one that began around Day's kitchen table on the mainland one Christmas in the mid-noughties. He decided to mix together a number of the whiskies he had in his booze cupboard, aiming to concoct a palatable blend of a few of his favourite scotches. Then, it all cranked up a notch: he found his great-grandfather's cellar book, which detailed the refining and evolution of a blended scotch made for grocer J&A Davidson in the Scottish Borders between 1899 and 1916.

In 2010, he recreated the blend, calling it The Tweeddale and using whisky from the nine distilleries (or close, thoroughly-researched approximations in the case of those that'd shut up shop since 1916) in the original recipe. This: a complex and full-bodied whisky with sweet, sherry notes is now released in extremely limited batches of 1,200 bottles a year.

Since then, R&B has contract distilled two expressions of its future whiskies: Borders single grain and Raasay While We Wait, the first another nod to Day's great-grandfather, the second something to tide us over until we can get our hands on the real thing.

But the foundations have now been laid. The building of the distillery, the sourcing of its water from a nearby well dating back to the Iron Age, the conversion of an old guesthouse into a visitor centre and two hotels – one for tourists, and another for resident long-eared brown bats – has taken a long time, but now it's here. Glistening in copper and gold a single farmer's field away from the waterfront that overlooks the hills of Skye, it may just be the best distillery view in all of Scotland.

That's where I find myself – clouds whipping across the afternoon sky, distillery staff rolling newly filled casks across the warehouse floor, Day holding aloft a nosing glass of 63.5% Raasay spirit above a barrel marked January 2018. As the sun shafts into the cool sanctum of the distillery's hilltop maturation facility, the spirit in the glass glints rosé pink from the Medoc wine cask it's been ageing in here for the last few weeks.

we'll end up with a whisky that's bold for its years

I wait my turn patiently as everyone else sniffs, swirls, sips, recoils and grins at the brute strength and nascent possibility of the liquid in the glass. Then, when my time comes, I take the tiniest mouthful and my mind bounds into hyperdrive, dropping the exact science behind the spirit and running away with imaginative interpretations of this thimbleful of booze: young, crisp and ever-so slightly smoky, yet with a battenburg kind of sweetness, this raw spirit doesn't roll off the tongue. But then again, it's not meant to – this is a drink that'll have to be aged another 34 months before it actually becomes a bonafide bottle of scotch.

"Roughly 60% of the flavour comes from casking, and maybe 5% from the water type," says Iain Robertson, head distiller at Isle of Raasay Distillery, "When I'm drinking a good dram, I'm looking for something well-balanced, something complex and something with no flavour that's too powerful. The best I can do is make a spirit that's the perfect vessel for that when it gets in the barrel.

"After that," he says, "it's a 70/30 split of science and fate. Or 80/20 if we're lucky."

That slim glimmer of fate, that geographical and mineral constraint, and the magic that happens when liquid gets into an oak cask has had a big impact on Raasay's production. Initially dreamed up as a weightily-peated Island whisky, the discovery of a high level of manganese in Raasay spring water has caused a slight change of tack: put simply, more peat means less minerality, which in turn means less flavour and complexity when you come to drink it. Now alternating spirit runs between peated and unpeated malt, the whisky taking shape on the island is likely to be lighter than your average Island whisky, although still gently smoky, spicy and fruity.

This is certainly what the distillery's contract-produced single-malt sampler, Raasay While We Wait, tastes like, but the flavour of Raasay whisky, which will be ready first in September 2020, remains fluid: experiments are being made with Tuscan and French red wine casks, high-rye bourbon barrels and even champagne yeasts, which should highlight the manganese minerality found in the spirit. What's certain, though, is that we'll end up with a whisky that's big and bold for its years, and one with a clear vision.

Raasay Distillery may not benefit from 200-plus years of history like Bowmore or Balblair; this distillery lays no claim to harnessing the salty air of its age-old cellar or to making something mythical with an encyclopaedic old recipe book; what it does do, however, is give jobs to almost a tenth of the population of a small island, encourage tourism across the water from Skye and – just like most of the old distilleries started out doing – try to make the best product possible, while inflecting it with the environment it's created in. And that environment, from the fields being tested for barley production this summer to the peat bogs and streams that scatter the landscape around the flat-topped mountain of Dùn Caan, has been waiting to be tapped for thousands of years.

Want to learn more about scotch? Check out our beginner's guide to to Scottish whisky

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