Whisky is booming. New distilleries are sprouting like mushrooms, and even old favourites are set to reopen. With the amount of distilleries numbering in the hundreds, you can’t blame whisky makers for trying to stand out from the pack. Therefore, distillers need to sell a story as much as they sell whisky. A remote location, a pure water source or traditional production methods all help to tell this story, so it features prominently on websites and packaging, whether justified or not. But if there is one company that could truly lay claim to the mantle of Scotland’s most artisanal distillery, it would be Abhainn Dearg on the Isle of Lewis.
You’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Abhainn Dearg before. In fact, that’s sort of the point. Because Abhainn Dearg owner Mark (Marko) Tayburn has no intention of reaching a global audience. Instead, the aim is to craft a quality single malt for those who truly appreciate the uniqueness of Abhainn Dearg and its philosophy.
So let’s take a closer look at this small but delightful distillery. With the first spirit running off the still in 2008, Abhainn Dearg preceded the recent wave of new distilleries. In this sense, Abhainn Dearg was a bit of a trendsetter, setting up shop in a remote area of Scotland that had not seen any legal distilling since the 1830s. The name of the distillery is Gaelic for ‘red river’, a reference to the stream that flows next to the distillery and serves as its water source. But no need to worry, Abhainn Dearg’s water isn’t actually red (although perhaps a bit brown and peaty). In fact the distillery uses some of the purest water you could find anywhere in Scotland, with not even a single house or farm littering the banks of the river between its source and the distillery. The river’s colour instead refers to a battle that raged at the site between local warriors and Viking invaders, which made the water run red with blood. The locals won the battle, but with staggering losses. Today, it remains a struggle to craft whisky in such an inhospitable environment, but fortunately at not quite the human cost. Indeed, distillery owner Mark Tayburn probably quite likes his job.
I was able to see this first-hand during a visit to the distillery in 2011. Although we had a detailed map, we ended up driving right past the distillery, mistaking it for just another farm dotting the rugged Lewis landscape. And in fact, that’s part of the beauty of Abhainn Dearg: it’s the perfect throwback to a time when whisky making was a cottage industry, merely a side activity for farmers who had a bit of barley to spare. Traditionally of course, there was a point to being hard to find: it might just mean that nosy excisemen would not come snooping around (although I’m sure Abhainn Dearg pays Her Majesty what she’s owed in taxes). Either way, arriving to the premises, there was very little to indicate that this was an active distillery, with only a pair of dogs warning of our arrival. It turned out that we dropped by just as owner Marko and his wife were having lunch. With there being no official guided tours yet in 2011, we of course we waited patiently, giving us a chance to look around the farm.
Lunch finished, Marko showed us around the distillery. Whereas most distilleries have a designated room for each activity, from grinding to fermentation to distillation, for Abhainn Dearg everything takes place in a single room. Given that Abhainn Dearg is the smallest distillery in Scotland, this is perhaps not surprising. Only 10.000 litres run off its still each year, which is equivalent to about one hogshead barrel per week. The barley is grown locally and malted on site. It is extremely rare for a distillery to malt all of its own barley, but due to its small production, Abhainn Dearg manages just that. In this way, the distillery remains proudly self-sufficient.
The stills are something very special, with the design based on an illicit still found on Lewis in the 1950s. They have long, sharply angled lynne arms that drop into wooden worm tubs next to the still for condensation. Being able to see the entire process in one glance is quite refreshing, and certainly makes it easier to grasp the intricacies of distillation. Compared to distilleries like Glenfiddich or Coal Ila, Abhainn Dearg appears more like a hobby gone out of hand. None of the production process is computerised, and Abhainn Dearg’s whisky is quite literally hand-made. This craftsmanship is what makes the distillery so intriguing, and the passion that goes into each drop of whisky is phenomenal.
Maturation also takes place on-site, with one outbuilding set aside to house the Water of Life for several years. When I visited in 2011, this all still fit, but I can imagine that 8 years down the road, some extra storage facilities are required! Abhainn Dearg uses mostly ex-bourbon casks for maturation, although some whisky has now also been laid to rest in European oak. Initially, the main bottling was the Spirit of Lewis, essentially new make spirit that was aged in sherry casks for a few months. A 3 year old Single Malt has since also been released, but exciting things are about to happen at the distillery… Like I said earlier, Abhainn Dearg is much ahead of the game: whereas many new distilleries are still awaiting their first single malt (think Torabhaig, Ardnahoe or Clydeside), Abhainn Dearg is about to release its signature 10 year old whisky. The Tayburn’s patience has been exemplary, and it’s admirable to see that stocks aren’t used up with limited editions, particularly for a distillery with such a small capacity. It’s exciting to not have any indication of how the whisky has aged between 3 and 10 years old, and I’m eagerly awaiting this bottling!
As Scotland’s westernmost and smallest distillery, Abhainn Dearg does not lack for record breaking feats. But there is much more that sets it apart. The Tayburns like to do things a little differently, all based on Marko’s philosophy of Field to Bottle. In other words, the distillery is entirely self-sufficient, and all of the whisky making process takes place on Lewis. On an island as windswept and infertile as Lewis, this is no mean feat. The main challenge lies in growing enough local barley to meet the distillery’s needs. Most distilleries import their barley from fertile parts of Scotland such as the Black Isle, or even as far afield as mainland Europe. Bottlings such as Kilchoman’s 100% Islay or Bruichladdich’s Islay Barley are very much the exception rather than the norm. Initially Abhainn Dearg planted over ten acres of crop, but soon found that this wasn’t quite enough. Due to the rocky terrain and poor nutritional value of the soil, it wasn’t easy to find areas suitable for planting, but Abhainn Dearg now manages a sustainable supply of locally grown barley. In doing so, the distillery has reintroduced an arable crop that had been lost to the island for centuries, thereby stimulating local farming jobs. Quite the agricultural success story!
Moreover, Abhainn Dearg manages to achieve all this with as low a carbon footprint as possible. Conservation is one of the cornerstones of the distillery’s philosophy, as they try to replace what they take. One example of this is planting two trees for every barrel used in maturation. The distillery also maintains a herd of Highland cows, which feeds on the draff left over from the distillation process. While this is a nice piece of natural recycling, the cows also make for absolutely stunning pictures – just check the distillery’s website if you need proof.
Putting it all together, Abhainn Dearg is a magical place that takes you back to the very roots of whisky distilling. No large machines or computerised processes, no phony marketing and no tour groups. Just a family farm with a passion for quality whisky, living in harmony with its surroundings. So if you ever find yourself on the beautiful Isle of Lewis (and I really recommend you do), be sure to visit this most artisanal of Scottish whisky makers. I promise it will be unlike any distillery you’ve seen before, and you’ll come away from the experience with a profound appreciation for this very special Island malt!