For most of its history the people of Raasay have been sustained by produce obtained from the land and the sea. But the Hebridean landscape is challenging. The geography of the island offers a few small pockets of sheltered land where grain can be grown such as the production of barley, vegetable crops nurtured and woodland harvested. The majority of the island is rough, open hills which are at the mercy of battering winds all year round. Therefore the primary agricultural activity on Raasay for centuries has been the annual cycle of lambing and calving, nurturing and fattening before delivering to market.
But islanders have always found a way and oats and barley have traditionally been grown in this part of the world despite the great risk and harsh conditions. The climate on Raasay has been measured as 100% wetter than Scotland’s most productive barley growing areas on the Black Isle and along the east coast. Nonetheless there is plenty of evidence of old mills and quern stones around the island to show that grain was ground to provide flour to every household for its bread and bannocks.
There is also plenty of evidence of old illicit stills to show the production of barley that was distilled into enough ‘uisge beatha’ to supply homes over the long winter and stock the cellars of Raasay House in lieu of rent. It was only natural then that we wondered ‘Can we grow our own Raasay barley?’
A two-acre croft field was borrowed from local farmer Andrew Gillies and the first Raasay Barley Trial was set up in partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands Institute of Agronomy.
The issue with growing commercial barley varieties on Raasay is that the growing season is so short, they don’t ripen. The barley growing season is from May to August due to the amount of rainfall during these months. Our barley trials on Raasay were carried out to find varieties that would grow and ripe ready to be harvested in this short period of time.
In 2017 we grew the following 5 varieties:
• Concerto – a commercial variety that grew but didn’t ripen.
• Tartan – a variety successfully grown on Orkney by Highland Park.
• IsKria – a variety from Iceland successfully grown inside the arctic circle.
• Kannas – a variety from Norway successfully grown inside the arctic circle.
• Bere – an ancient land race grown in the Hebrides and Orkney for over 2500 years.
The IsKria, Kannas and Bere all grew and ripened on Raasay. The barley was harvested in late August using a borrowed mini harvester from the Institute of Agronomy on Orkney. It had to be small enough to fit on a six wheel trailer and the ferry. We also borrowed Billy the operator! Here he is in the image below enjoying his first ever view of Glamaig as we waited for the 5pm Sunday ferry from Sconser across to Raasay. Once harvested, these barley varieties were dried and malted with Raasay peat and distilled on the Isle of Raasay in 2018. We repeated the trial in 2018 and 2019 with two varieties IsKria and Brage, which we distilled in 2019 and 2021. Right, now strap in because things are about to get technical…
Our Co-founder and Master Distiller Alasdair Day led the development of our innovative whisky distilling process, which is based on a flexible approach. Various parts of the process can be either ‘on’ or ‘off’, creating different styles of new make spirit from one distillery (explained in more detail below). These are then matured separately in three different types of oak casks. We also produce six months of peated and six months of unpeated barley which again are matured separately.
The parts of our whisky production process that can be off or on are:
We also have used a champagne yeast to help create the dark fruit flavours we are looking for in our new make spirit.
Still with us? Great, let’s keep going…Our Single Malt
Now onto Fermentation. We do 4 short, standard 70-hour fermentations and 6 long, 120 hour per week. Again this helps to create the dark fruit flavours that we are looking for.
The three types of oak casks we use for our wood policy are:
It’s inherently important to us that the Isle of Raasay is reflected in our whisky in every way possible and we believe the best way to achieve this is by growing barley, distilling whisky and bottling it all on site. We also have our own well on site that we use for the process, cooling, cask reduction and bottling reduction water.
So there you have it. A crash course in our unique whisky production. It may not feel like it but we have only brushed the surface so if that has whet your appetite to know more, then please do get in touch and we’ll happily take you through the finer details. Alternatively, why not come to the distillery for a visit and meet the team who’ll talk you through everything that goes on behind the scenes.
In our next post, we’ll be focusing on ‘Our People’ which includes a segment on an exciting new project taking place on the island and interviews with members of the Isle of Raasay Distillery team. Stay tuned!
Rooted in centuries of illicit distilling, the Hebridean Isle of Raasay provides the ingredients for the perfect scotch whisky.
Our signature Isle of Raasay Single Malt expression is lightly peated balanced with rich dark fruit flavours. A flavour profile inspired by some older style smoky Hebridean single malt whiskies.
The Isle of Raasay, an island rooted in centuries of illicit distilling, provides the ingredients for the perfect dram. Our lightly peated Isle of Raasay Single Malt is an expression of this magical place.
Our zesty, smooth and refreshing Isle of Raasay Gin combines an exciting selection of ten Raasay and traditional botanicals, including Raasay juniper, sweet orange peel, rhubarb root and our double distilled spirit.