In September we told you about a craft whisky distillery being launched on the tiny Scottish island of Raasay, just 14 miles long and three miles across. Click here to read about it. The distillery is on the former Victorian hotel, Borodale House site, and you can only get there by ferry from the Isle of Skye. Eatnorth caught up with distiller Iain Robertson. This is his first job crafting whisky.
Q. How did you get into whisky distilling?
I am the first distiller in my family. My interest in whisky stemmed from working behind a bar and being surrounded by great spirits. I was inspired to look into going back to university and soon discovered the fantastic brewing and distilling course at Herriot Watt which, really appealed to me.
Q. What led you to your passion for whisky?
I remember tasting a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old Single Malt from the same distillery and I was astounded by the differences between the two. I wanted to learn how to create such delicious and complex whiskies myself.
Q. What is it like working under the guidance of master distiller Chris Anderson?
It has been really great to learn from a veteran of the industry. Chris’ extensive knowledge and expertise has helped me significantly during these first few months. Chris is overseeing whisky making at Raasay Distillery for the first five months. He was master distiller at Dewars and has guided several new distilleries, including Kilchoman, Ardnamurchan, Lakes and most recently Torabhaig on Skye.
Q. What part of Scotland do you come from?
I’m from East Calder, West Lothian in the Central Belt. I’ve spent the last five years living in Edinburgh until I came to Raasay.
Q. How did you end up on Isle of Raasay?
I was studying for a Heriot-Watt University Brewing and Distilling qualification in Edinburgh and working at The Scotch Whisky Experience when I was introduced to R&B Distillers. R&B held tasting days at the Whisky Experience. At that point Raasay Distillery was still in pre-planning stage but I kept an eye on their progress and applied for the role as soon as it was advertised. I was so pleased to get the job!
Q. What is it like living there? Are the midges a problem?
Raasay is a remote island so it’s certainly a different experience from living in the city but you just need to become a bit savvy about having your cupboards stocked up. The Raasay Community Store in the village has almost anything you might run out of until your next trip across to Skye.
Nothing beats the views of living on a Hebridean island. The community is small – about 120 people – and it’s close knit so I’ve quickly been welcomed into the fold. The opportunity to produce whisky with a view is unbeatable. The midges…? Well, they are fierce, but I am used to them since I’ve camped around Scotland a lot.
Q. What is special about the Island?
The island is a really stunning place. It is an island off an island so is pretty peaceful. I love hiking and the island is criss-crossed with brilliant, wild walking trails. Plus, the views from the distillery across to Skye are second-to-none!
Q. What does it bring to the whisky?
At Raasay Distillery we’re using our local water supply, which is filtered down through volcanic and then sedimentary rock from Dun Caan (the distinct flat top that appears in our company logo) at every stage of distillation. We’re also maturing our casks on site. Many people might be surprised to know that not a lot of whisky from the big distilleries is matured on site – most is vatted and taken by tanker to the Central Belt for maturation. Cask maturation can be affected by the environment so the sea air and altitude will have an effect on our final whisky.
Q. What makes the water so special and how does it enhance the whisky?
Our water has a very high mineral content since it is filtered through the volcanic rock of Dun Caan before it reaches our site. This is what helps us achieve the level of peat we want. And, as I mentioned it’s because we use this water at every stage of the process that it’s going to impart much, much more than the usual 2% of flavour to the final whisky.
Q. How are you being experimental with the whisky?
Through making small batches we look to use different yeast types, fermentation temperatures, reflux rates and casks to create different styles of whisky.
Q. Q. In 2020, the first Isle of Raasay Single Malt Scotch Whisky in history will be released. How do you feel about that?
“Impatient and really excited! Not only will it be amazing to see the first single malt produced legally on this island (years ago there would have been only illicit pot stills hidden from the taxman) but to see something I personally helped craft on bottles in shelves – I can’t quite imagine how great that’s going to be.”
Q. What can we expect from the whisky?
Our core expression will be a lightly peated single malt whisky. In order to create this we produce both unpeated and peated spirit which we combine for maturation and finishing. We’re using Raasay While We Wait (currently produced with another highland distillery) to introduce people to a profile of Raasay whisky. Like Raasay While We Wait we’re using red wine casks on the island, this adds balanced fruit notes with the light peat.
Q. The whisky will be made in small batches. How small?
There are 4 casks per batch
Q. What do you mean when you say you are creating a modern style single malt whisky?
We are looking at controlling fermentation temperatures to increase the length of time for fermentation. That heightens the fruity flavour compounds created by the yeast. Most distilleries leave whisky alone to ferment, but we also have extra cooling jackets which allow us to increase the reflux in some batches.
Q. Why is there a need to go more modern with the whisky?
Scotch whisky is a very old industry and by now there are plenty of players plus new distilleries booming. Raasay Distillery is a brand new distillery, rather than one that has been revived. We are proud to be creating a young new whisky. We are proud to be creating a young modern-style single malt whisky. Therefore, we want to showcase our young whisky and to do that we want to utilise innovative practices while being respectful of the boundaries of Scotch whisky as a protected spirit.
Q. What is different about Raasay While We Wait single malt whisky?
It is finished in Tuscan red wine casks that previously held a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The finishing process lends colour and fruity notes to balance the lightly peated whisky. The whisky is also produced the same way we’re producing Isle of Raasay single malt – by combining peated and un-peated spirit to get the perfect level.
Q. And what about Borodale House distillery?
We have turned it into our visitor centre. Borodale is a Victorian building that used to be the Estate Manager’s house and later became a hotel until it fell into disuse. As a hotel it had a 1980s extension that we demolished to build what is now the Isle of Raasay Distillery adjacent to Borodale. In the house we also have accommodation rooms for members of our Na Tùsairean Club and a members’ lounge, the views from these as well as our stills hall and visitor centre is arguably the best from any Scottish distillery and it’s that view that was the brief for the architect to showcase.
Q. Who are the target customers?
Our target customers are anyone who wants to discover new, premium craft whisky. This includes avid whisky lovers who already have shelves full of the stuff and the whisky-curious looking to try new things or starting to get into drinking whisky. People who love our whisky will be those with an appreciation for craft and innovation and already come from around the globe.
Q. Are you looking to sell into restaurants or shops or both?
Raasay While We Wait has been on the market since late 2015. This has helped us introduce our style to consumers but has also been opening channels to market for us to make way for our first Isle of Raasay single malt in 2020. As a premium product we do and will sell to restaurants and supply specialist whisky shops.
Q. Will it be expensive?
We expect the Isle of Raasay single malt to retail at around £60 for a bottle. This whisky will be of premium quality and we think the price reflects the care and craft that goes into developing quite a deliberate style, representative of the island.
Q. Is there a food that it best matches with?
The best way to pair whisky with food is to taste the whisky, although this opportunity is a few years off. Our Raasay While We Wait which, is of similar profile, pairs great with any game dish, Sconser Scallops (which you pass on the ferry over to Raasay), smoked salmon, blue cheese, bacon and of course haggis.
Are there any key traditions we should know about with drinking whisky the Raasay way?
I don’t like to dictate any whisky-drinking stereotypes, what’s most important is that people enjoy whisky whichever way makes sense to them; such as adding water or a mixer or having a straight dram. On Raasay, and anywhere I think the key tradition is whisky is meant to be shared so drink it with friends!
When off duty…what do you like to do?
As I mentioned before, I like to hike so I’ve struck gold on Raasay when it comes to more than just whisky. I enjoy watching the rugby as well!
What is your go-to comfort food?
Sausage and black pudding roll
What is your go-to comfort drink?
I may be biased, but I always go for a whisky.
Name your favourite place to dine in Scotland or on the Island?
That’s a very tricky question. There are many good restaurants in Scotland. Being so close by, I really want to try The Three Chimneys on Skye (read about the chef here) I hear that it is incredible!
Best street food or bar?
When I’m back down in Edinburgh I always stop by the Jolly Judge which, is my old local. They serve great beer and whisky and the staff are fantastic.
Isle of Raasay Single Malt Tasting note:
Nose: Grassy at first, nice peaty notes, then a full hit of honey, hints of the aromas of the washbacks during fermentation, lots of berries. On 2nd smell, a sort of smoky popcorn.
Palate: Lots of berries, and a touch of rye bread and charred barley. Smoky caramel notes, and a high quality milk chocolate note.
With water: More orange, lemon and a sharper smoky note come through.
Overall: A wonderfully complex new make spirit. I think the peat and fruit, with caramel and chocolate notes will age very well.
Visit the distillery:
Isle of Raasay Distillery
Isle of Raasay, Kyle
Scotland, IV40 8PB
t: +44 (0) 1478 470178