The Isle of Lewis is part of the Outer Hebrides, but despite its
remote location the island has an ancient tradition of distillation.
The old Stornoway distillery was closed in 1840, but almost
two centuries later Abhainn Dearg revived the local tradition.
In October 2011 a little over 2,000 bottles of the very first
single malt whisky from Abhainn Dearg were released, followed
by a cask strength bottling in 2012. Small quantities of a 3yo
bottling were available around 2015, but the owners seemed
to focus mostly on building sufficient stocks for the future.
If all goes according to plan, the first properly aged (sort of)
single malt whisky from the Abhainn Dearg distillery should
be released in 2018. Let’s keep our fingers crossed...
Although the surroundings are breathtaking,
Abhainn Dearg distillery itself isn’t very pretty.
To the casual observer, the distillery buildings
could just as well be a farm or small factory.
The inside of the buildings isn’t quite as
picturesque as that of other whisky distilleries
like Glen Keith or Strathisla on the mainland.
But the distillery doesn’t need to look fancy;
it’s not like visitors to the Isle of Lewis have
many alternatives if they don’t like the looks...
Driving force behind the Abhainn Dearg distillery
is owner Mark Tayburn who was born on the
island and worked in the whisky industry before.
The Abhainn Dearg distillery on the Isle of Lewis is one of the
youngest in Scotland, with the first spirit being distilled in 2008.
Part of the produced spirit is released without an age statement,
while small quantities of malt whisky are bottled since 2011.
The remote location of Abhainn Dearg makes it unique.
For one thing, very few visitors make it to the distillery;
getting to the Isle of Lewis isn’t easy to begin with.
You might think that the Isle of Lewis is an island, but
then you’d be wrong - ‘Half Isle of Lewis’ would be
a better name because it’s actually just the northern
half of the Hebrides island of ‘Lewis and Harris’.
And it’s relatively complicated for distillation equipment and ingredients to reach Abhainn Dearg as well.
From a business perspective, this adds costs that ultimately need to be translated into the price of the whisky.
With an (initial) production capacity of 20,000 litres of whisky a year, Mark Tayburn’s distillery doesn’t benefit from
the economies of scale that most other, larger distilleries have. On the other hand, as long as they don’t increase
the capacity it looks like Abhainn Dearg’s title as ‘Scotland’s Smallest Distillery’ will be safe for a while.
1) The name ‘Abhainn Dearg’ means ‘Red River’ in Gaelic.
6) The distillery uses two 5000 litre washbacks made out of Douglas fir wood.
2) For many years, the Edradour distillery in the Midlands could
boast about being Scotland’s smallest distillery with an annual
capacity of 125,000 litres of whisky. Abhainn Dearg produces
only 20,000 litres of whisky each year, so they lowered the
bar for that title by a factor of ten in one fell sweep...
3) Before Abhainn Dearg became a distillery, it was a fish farm.
Some of the old buildings were converted for whisky distillation
and a few new buildings were added to the operation.
7) The two stills of the distillery measure slightly over 2000 litres and have unusually long necks.
4) The Golden Promise barley variety is used for the whisky.
5) The Abhainn Dearg distillery uses two mash tuns made out
of stainless steel with a capacity of 500 litres each.
Abhainn Dearg is one of only a few Scotch whisky distilleries
without any history in the 19th or 20th century. Given the size
of the operation, they are distinct from the rest of the industry.
2008 - The first spirit was produced in September.
From the start, both ex-bourbon casks and ex-sherry casks
are used for the maturation of the Abhainn Dearg whisky.
2010 - Abhainn Dearg releases its first product, although the
young distillate Spirit of Lewis may not be caIled ‘whisky’ yet.
2015 - Abhainn Dearg announces that they are now using locally grown barley exclusively.
2011 - after maturation for the required minimum of three years,
the very first (legal) Scotch malt whisky from Abhainn Dearg
was released - in very small quantities.
2013 - Abhainn Dearg starts using ‘local barley’ grown on the
Isle of Lewis for part of their whisky - and the goal is to use 100%
locally grown barley (Golden Promise) within a few years.
At the moment I haven’t sampled any mature whisky from Abhainn Dearg yet.
A few spirit samples I got to try were quite flavourful.
I don’t have tasting notes for Abhainn Dearg whisky yet - and they would only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of whisky bottlings, including Abhainn Dearg.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.