A Long Time Coming
Put this appointment in your diaries. At 1300 hours on September 22nd 2023, the first dram of 'The Hearach', produced by the Isle of Harris Distillery will be poured with due ceremony.
Like everything else about this exceptional Hebridean venture, the launch has been promoted with style. In a crowded field of recent distilleries, Harris has managed to make itself stand out as a master of marketing. The roll on the drums leading to the Single Malt launch has been building towards a crescendo for years. Shona Macleod, who welcomes me to the distillery, says the great moment in September will come as a relief: "We have been asked, on the island and from all around the world, every day of our lives - "when is the whisky going to be ready?" We always answered that "it will be ready when it's ready." Now we are able to name the day."
The multi-award-winning Isle of Harris Gin, which the distillery has been producing since 2017, proved such a success that any pressure to push ahead with a whisky release evaporated. However, Shona who, like many of the 51-strong workforce, is a Harris native, is in no doubt: "Whisky is the product which will secure the business in the long term."
Shona is the distillery's Guest Services Manager and has been there since the start. In addition to welcoming around 60,000 visitors a year, she has added Distillery Blender to her job description. It is an example of how the Harris venture - which describes itself as a "social distillery" to reflect deep roots in the community - is opening up new career paths for young islanders.
Now The Hearach is finally ready to go, the first iteration will consist of just 1,916 bottles pre-purchased by individuals as part of a scheme that features their names on the distillery's wall of staves. Seven limited-volume batches are also being produced. The number 1,916 is significant in the distillery's raison d'etre. In the 2011 census, the population of Harris was 1,916 - and falling. In 1951, it had been 3,991; in 1981, when Anderson "Burr" Bakewell was first getting to know the island, 2,879.
An American musicologist and man of independent means, Burr had witnessed this decline and seen promises of jobs and investment come and go. His ambition was to create something appropriate to Harris that offered long-term sustainability. The answer he came up with was a distillery, rooted in the island's culture and using its natural resources.
The site in the main village of Tarbert is a great location, close to the ferry point of entry to the island. Fortuitously, it also has the pure water source vital to any distillery. Shona says: "We started making spirit for whisky at the end of 2015."
By then, there was already a lengthy back-story, much of it devoted to raising the necessary investment. The Executive Chairman of Isle of Harris Distillers Ltd., Ron MacEachran, had an industry background as Chief Financial Officer with Whyte and Mackay as well as a Harris family connection. He was taking a break when approached by a head-hunter in 2011 "about this strange project."
He explains: "By then, Burr had been at it for four years and this was him giving it one last try. I met him in London and was fascinated by the concept he described. Around the same time, he met Simon Erlanger (formerly Glenmorangie PLC Sales and Marketing Director), and we both decided to give it a go. My initial job was to oversee the fundraising and construction. Simon became Managing Director."
Finding investors who shared their vision and were not looking for rapid returns proved to be a three-year rollercoaster. A turning point came in December 2012 when the project secured a £1.9 million EU grant: the largest ever for a food and drink business in Scotland. This attracted attention from the Financial Times and a glowing article that was read by a wealthy widow sitting in the west of Ireland, Eva Tenback-Biesta.
Ron recalls: "Her financial adviser happened to be with her, and she asked him to make enquiries. This led to a meeting in London with Burr, Simon, and myself. She was an elegant lady, experienced in managing a substantial family business, who asked all sorts of incisive questions. The outcome was an investment of £1 million."
Eva visited Harris and "really bought into it" but then she died from cancer in early 2014. "After the initial shock over such sad and unexpected news, we wondered what this would do to the project but within a few days were assured she had arranged her affairs so that there would be a seamless transfer to her niece," explained Ron. This critical investment was secure - and explains why the spirit still in Harris Distillery is named "Eva" in her memory.
The long gestation period allowed stocks to build, and three large, bonded warehouses have been constructed in the nearby village of Ardhasaig. If the quality of both product and marketing that have characterised the Isle of Harris Distillery's progress to date is maintained, then few will doubt that the success story Burr Bakewell set out to compose will keep developing for generations to come.
Given their "whisky galore" image, the development of whisky distilleries in the modern age has come late to the Outer Hebrides. However, they are now making up for lost time with two new whisky distilleries in Uist due to start production in the coming months.
One of them, Benbecula Distillery, has already contributed a new landmark to the island - a replica lighthouse tower that commands views from Barra to Harris across Skye. The distillery is being developed by a father and son team, both named Angus Macmillan.
Angus Snr. explained: "It was inspired by our maritime history and seafaring experiences and replicates the Stevenson Lighthouse on Heisgear, west of Benbecula."
For the time being, Macmillan Spirits are marketing Wheelhouse Whisky, an eight-year-old single cask malt produced on Islay, as well as Machair Gin and Molucca Rum. Whisky distillation should be underway by the end of this year.
Twenty years ago, Angus was the driving force behind Storas Uibhist which achieved the community buy-out of South Uist - the largest in Scotland - and his intention was that a community-owned distillery would feature in the redevelopment of the Lochboisdale port area. When his successors at Storas Uibhist dropped the idea, Angus and his son decided to do it themselves, to create jobs for islanders.
Meanwhile, North Uist Distillery Company has built an impressive reputation since formed in 2019 by Kate Macdonald and Johnny Ingledew, two young islanders who found their way back home by creating their micro drinks business. Their Downpour Gin has scooped a few awards and the offer of casks which will contain their planned Nunton Whisky, using locally grown here barley, has had a great response.
The Outer Hebridean whisky trail may have been late in starting but over the next few years will undoubtedly become another good reason to take the road to these isles, just as surely to Islay and to Skye.