The Whisky Virgin wonders what the gold, silver and bronze awards adorning some bottles really mean.
It was a first, I’ll give you that. The ferry docked, some cars bumped up the slipway, followed by some bemused looking tourists, constantly looking over their shoulders. Then the sound of the pipes started.
‘Does this happen every Saturday?’ an American asked me. I was tempted to say, ‘yes, it’s a Raasay tradition that the Skye pipe band marches in step off the ferry to be greeted by the entire population of the island’, but I thought it might be taken as being sarcastic. Honesty is often the best policy. ‘No, it’s a special day,’ I told him. ‘The island’s distillery is being opened. Come along.’
Hebridean welcome: Isle of Raasay distillery opened to the sound of the Skye pipe band (Photo: Scott Mooney)
Any new distillery deserves a celebration. This was different, though, because other than some moonshining taking place in the distant past, Raasay has never had a legal still. The tide of fate which has swept past its shores has carried off its people and brought in the malign influence of absentee landlords and get-rich-quick firms. Finally, it seemed the wind had changed and the current was now pulling this small, friendly, fascinating island into the renaissance of Hebridean whisky making.
Even the weather was behaving. The clouds had gathered late the night, drenching the land. On Skye, the Cuillin ridge was shrouded. As the pipe band arrived, the last spots fell and the skies began to clear. By the time the ribbon had been cut and the islanders, guests, (and still bemused tourists) had walked through the shiny new plant, sipped their Champagne and whisky, the sun was blazing off the gold-cladded entrance.
It was hard not to see it as some sort of blessing, as an affirmation of the people who had stayed on through Raasay’s tribulations and believed in a better life. For, despite all of the setbacks, there is a thread of resilience about the folk living here. They believe in the place and what it could be. Not just making do, but making better.
This distillery, for all its beauty, isn’t there for cosmetic reasons. It is a business, but one which is rooted at the centre of island life. As the afternoon melted into night and then the wee hours, the chat was of how whisky making gave a new focal point for the island.
Sense of place: Raasay’s stillhouse looks out onto the Isle of Skye
Those of us who live outwith a distilling community only see the end result of the work. As a result, we obsess and delight in the finished product and don’t give a second thought to how a distillery interacts with its locality.
Look at it from that perspective and the distillery ceases to be a place where spirit is made, or a note on a balance sheet, and becomes the site which distils the spirit of the place. That’s an important, and significant, difference. Any distillery can have this, but Raasay brought home how the links between whisky and community run deep, of how its existence will ripple out across the island.
The distillery will bring in tourists; in turn they will need to be fed and (well) watered. Some will want to stay and holiday there. That will necessitate a new hospitality infrastructure, and business opportunities. The distillery will, if all goes to plan, also help farmers. Trials are underway with different barley varieties and Bere.
It won’t be plain sailing (if I can extend these watery metaphors further). Isle of Raasay is only one of any other new plants starting up across Scotland and there are robust challenges to be faced. It needs to work out its character, what is its point of difference, how it can cut through in what is a cluttered market, but they are going in with eyes open.
The conversations slow, the ceilidh band packs up, the last Gaelic song is sung in tight harmony, the tears of happiness dry on the cheeks as the sun rises again, lighting up the building, igniting a little flame in the hearts of all who were there. Now the real work starts.
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