New distilleries are not just springing up on the island of Ireland. Scotland too has its crop of whisky producers springing up as the industry continues to grow. We previously talked about Kingsbarns, located firmly on the tourist route among the golf courses of the East Neuk of Fife. However, this week, we look at a distillery a bit further from the beaten track.
It is not easy to just drop by the Isle of Raasay Distillery. First, a visitor must make the trip out to Sconser on the Isle of Skye, by itself a fairly remote part of Scotland, from where the Raasay ferry departs. A close eye should be kept on the timetable: while there are a generous 11 sailings during the week, the three trips available on a Sunday leave an unprepared tourist at risk of an unplanned overnight stay on the island. However, given that the distillery hosts both a visitor centre and luxury accommodation, such a stay may not be the greatest disaster a whisky enthusiast could face.
Bill Dobbie and Alasdair Day founded the Isle of Raasay Distillery with the aim of establishing Scotland’s leading artisanal distillery. The location was a key part of this, with their website boasting of “remarkable geology, island shores… and unique water source.” They also boast a surprisingly young workforce, with an average age of about 30.
With production having started in 2017, the Isle of Raasay Distillery has only released two batches of whisky in May and September 2021 respectively. I missed out on the R-01 but managed to secure the R-02 for a recent whisky tasting event. So, what do these early releases tell us about the Isle of Raasay Distillery? Is it well on the way to becoming Scotland’s leading artisanal distillery?
Isle of Raasay R-02
Island Single Malt Whisky
46.4% ABV, matured in first-fill ex-Rye Whiskey, virgin Chinkapin oak, and first fill Bordeaux red wine as a 50% peated and 50% unpeated spirit, combined before bottling.
Natural colour, non-chill filtered.
£48.95 (The Whisky Exchange)
Nose: Finely balanced, with gentle peat and sweet, dry smoke. The sweetness takes the form of apple, blackberry, cherry, and vanilla. There is a slightly bitter undertone of burnt caramel and dark cocoa.
Palate: Fudge and pepper, with cream, cereal notes in the form of digestive biscuits, plums, and more berry: both blackberry and raspberry. All of this is undercut by subtle smoke and peaty sweetness, and perhaps a touch of salt.
Finish: A medium finish: as the other flavours fade, the peaty sweetness and smoke linger, with just a hint of plum and sultana.
Opinion: This is a tasty dram, showcasing the subtlety that a very lightly peated whisky can achieve. Although it is a No Age Statement, the R-02 is extremely young: no more than four years old. However, there isn’t really any harshness as a result, just a peppery warmth. If tasted blind, I would have assumed it had spent far longer in casks. It competes well in the £45-50 price range: this is definitely a whisky that can be enjoyed rather than merely casually sipped.
The Isle of Raasay Distillery seems keen to establish its artisanal credentials from the start. I was hugely impressed by the level of detail about the whisky that has been released. They announce the peat level (barley 48-52ppm; estimated as 12ppm at bottling), the barley and yeast varieties (concerto and distillers’ yeast), their fermentation time (3 and 5 days) and far more besides. Their (modern and extremely attractive) packaging even goes into detail on the local geology. This puts them among the most transparent of single malt producers. If this is the Raasay vision for the future of artisanal whisky, I’m absolutely on board.
If I were to be critical, the R-02 does lack a little complexity. This does not mean it is a simple, unbalanced dram: it certainly hints at some of the complexity that Raasay whiskies will begin to exhibit as they spend longer in casks. This will also produce the additional refinement that could make this a truly great dram. I am also conscious that this is a very early release, and future Raasay whiskies will likely better match what I would expect from a genuinely artisanal whisky.
The choice to combine separately matured unpeated and peated whisky, each having been matured in three different casks, just before bottling was certainly bold. I would say it has worked in this case. However, I don’t know if this is the best way to establish a true Raasay character. There is a certain degree of jumping straight into a complicated production process before having established credentials for doing the basics well. There is, however, a Raasay single cask range, which I hope to try soon to assuage these concerns.
The Isle of Raasay Distillery is off to a hugely encouraging start. I will keep a keen eye out for future releases and am excited to see their style develop as their stock ages. I will be going out of my way to buy their future releases.