I waited two days for the distillery to open, but boy was it worth it. In fact, I was lucky they were open at all. Abhainn Dearg hadn’t seen a visitor or made spirit since the ‘situation’/’pandemic’/’non-zombie apocalypse’ struck in March, but fortunately for me, they decided to re-open a week before my arrival.
After a beastly storm in the night [WLP#13], waking up to a moderately fair day and seeing smoke rising from Abhainn Dearg’s maltings shed was a pleasing site indeed. I’m the only person present for the first tour of the week, which is perfect.
How to pronounce Abhainn Dearg is the first question I ask my guide, Laura, who has been at the distillery for five years since she was 17/18. Not only has she lived in the area all her life, she also speaks Gaelic. Here are some of the pronunciation variations I’ve come across, including hers. Take your pick:
- Malt Madness: Aven juH-ruk
- Malt Year Book: Aveen jar rek
- Roy/Aqvavitae: Aven Jarek
- S.W.A.G.’s Wayne: Aven Draig
- Laura – Avean JeRag
Undisputed is the meaning of Abhainn Dearg which means ‘red river’. Interestingly, Balblair’s water source is called ‘Allt Dearg’ which means ‘red water’, and was pronounced ‘jeraag’ by my knowledgeable guide when I visited that particularly wonderful Northern Highlands distillery in 2016 [WLP].
FACTS AND STUFF [research sources included: official website, Malt Year Book. SW, MM,… and the horse’s mouth]
Some sources say the last distillery on the island, Stornoway, was closed in 1840, though SW says it was already closed by 1837. According to Abhainn Dearg’s website, ‘the last legal distillery on the Isle of Lewis was the Shoehorn Distillery, built at Shoehorn Gorge by Stewart Mackenzie’. ‘,….. starting production around 1829 or 1930,……. in full production around 1833,… and closed down around 1840’.
- The Abhainn Dearg Distillery was founded in 2008 at a cost of £500000 [deadlinescotland].
- The owner is Mark Tayburn, who was born & bred on the island.
- The older buildings were originally part of a fish farm, perfectly situated by the estuary.
- MM: ‘It was announced in 2015 that 100% of their barley is locally grown‘. True that. It’s all grown in Stornoway. Golden Promise is favoured.
- Abhainn Dearg intend for all of their barley to be peated, but it’s more of a mix of peated and unpeated barley due to the distillery’s unique hands-on wood-fired maltings system. The fire is provided by a wood-burning stove which heats a specially-made metal trough [see pic above]. Once ‘smoked’, the maltings shed is then cleared of smoke [they open the door] and the barley dried with a hot air-blower. The maltings vent [pegoda] is a fabricated combo consisting of a standard burner flu and an extension that looks like an exhaust off a juggernaut.
- There are two mash tuns, both 500kg in capacity. The distillery receives enough grain to fill two ‘tubs worth’ of grain every four weeks, enough for one run which fills the two 500 litre mash tuns] and realises one filled cask at the other end.
- Nearby is the make-shift mobile underback [see pic], basically a trough on castors. Indeed, DIY problem-solutions are a feature at Abhainn Dearg. Everything here is wonderfully make-shift, cobbled together or bespoke-made, often locally.
- Fermentation is 72 hours+ – typically around four-five days, in two 7500 litre Douglas Fir washbacks. The yeast from the mainland – the only non-island ingredient – is a live brewers yeast which is good for around 2 weeks.
- There’s a pair of stills [>2000 ltrs each] with long necks and steeply declining lyne arms that lead into two wooden worm tubs. The stills were built by Mark who modelled them on an old Illicit still he had previously discovered [see pic].
- The worm tubs are currently situated inside, but Mark intends for them to be outside in the future, in order to maintain lower temperatures in the warmer months.
- For maturation, ex-bourbon and sherry casks are used in the main as well as a small assortment of others – typically red wine, sauternes and madeira casks. Size-wise, the majority are ASBs < hoggies and > sherry butts, with just a few little’uns. The warehouse is no bigger than at Daftmill.
- Abhainn Dearg’s full capacity is 20000 lpa [See pic from an Aqvavitae quiz: ‘Scotland’s smallest distillery by capacity’], but their actual output is around 10000 lpa or less, due to a few extremely wet years. “Filling how many casks a year”, I ask? Perhaps fifty. “It’s as and when”, says Laura.
- Abhainn Dearg’s first 10yo single malt was released in December 2018. The distillery doesn’t have the capacity/space or cask supply for elaborate re-racking, finishing, or blending, so each subsequent 10yo release comes from another fresh single cask – as Wayne had rightly told us a few weeks before [WLP#3].
Mark – who I think might have just walked past me with a fishing rod – was in the process of overhauling all the distillery equipment before the response to the non-zombie apocalypse began. With all the economic [and emotional] doubts/fears/confusion,….. everything stopped – all orders, all upgrades, all production. By then, removed already were the tops of the still necks, the lyne arms, one of the worm tubs,… Whilst mashing, fermentation, and distillation is therefore off the cards, malting continues for the foreseeable as it’s the slow runner in Abhainn Dearg’s process. Laura tells me that they [her and Mark] have to tend to the maltings regularly, so now is a perfect time to build up stocks of malted barley.
It is hoped a full hydro-system will replace Mark’s electric car, which at the moment, is aiding part of the distillery’s power.
Now in the ‘visitors centre’, I sit at a table whilst a couple who have just arrived from London – one who did her dissertation on whisky – prop up the bar. Two chessmen guard the liquid I’m eager to try. Already enamoured by the distillery and its ethos, I’m in a good place to receive the juice positively whilst half-expecting/bracing myself for something rather wacky/freaky [after experiencing an early-released 10yo expression just weeks before [WLP#3].
Abhainn Dearg Madeira Cask Ob. CS 63% WB0
- N: Nicely peated, vegetal-sweet, vegetal-dirty-oily slick, vegetal caramel, and a good oily/dirty dollop of peat smoke. Arguably Ardmore/Ardbeg & Mortlach-like, in part.
- T: Works a treat, neat. With an Ardbeggian-esque arrival, it’s certainly madeira-driven and with a healthy lick of varnish. The peatiness talks of coal, ash, and wood fires whilst remaining nicely vegetal – brought about by keeping the peat a little moist during the maltings process. The more it goes on, the more the spirit comes through – just about. Strength-wise, I’d ideally have it down to 46-50% max.
- F: Quite short but clean, everything rings true.
- C: Surprisingly, very accomplished. Any overall comparisons? Benriach-y,.. perhaps?
Scores 86 points
Abhainn Dearg 10yo (2019/2020) Ob. 46% [WB]73
100% bourbon barrel maturation.
- N: Quirky start [but not too crazy] on wood glue, wood workshops, flat-packed furniture wood, plastic shrink-wrap,….. before heading towards milky cocoa.
- T: Less funky than expected with a sawn wood into cocoa profile and a hint of green tea Mini Milk [what a good flavour that would be].
- F: Milky barley cup, and more Mini Milk vibes.
- C: Whilst preserving plenty of Abhainn Dearg’s inimitable style, this is certainly less bonkers [less interesting?] than Wayne’s single cask bottling [WLP#3], and should appeal to a wider audience.
Scores 83 points
Many of us hold dear the idea/image of a bygone age where aqvavitae from local farm distilleries using cranky methods was the norm. We marvel at the new wave of single estate-style distilleries making fabulous young whisky from the off – Daftmill [WLP], Ballandalloch [WLP], Bimber [WLP], Cotswolds [WLP], The Lakes [WLP], Lindores [WLP], even Arran [WLP] for example – as modern exemplars of small independent distilleries making whisky as it should be made [used to be made].
At the same time, it’s all too easy to dismiss odd-ball Abhainn Dearg and its idiosyncratic output in comparison to these highly-polished distilleries and their hi-tech equipment set up by experts such as Jim Swan et al, and forget that these are toys for rich boys – multi-million pound investments funded by suited investors and money-men [typically]. They are a far cry from working people’s illicit farm distillation operations dug into the hills, hidden from site, whisky maturing in secret cellars, pots kegs & kettles buried in the garden when the excisemen came knocking.
Is not Abhainn Dearg far closer to the old ways of farm distilling, using what they have with the resources around them and making the best of what they have? Making what they want, how they want, consider that Abhainn Dearg peat & malt their own barley as well as bottle & label their juice that has been matured on-site, selling it themselves to locals and visitors at the distillery. Of the established distilleries, perhaps only Springbank comes closest to matching and maintaining this hands-on, ‘organic’/homemade approach. Of the new distilleries [with Loch Ewe gone],…. Dornoch?
As a small, independent, local-centric, DIY distillery, Abhainn Dearg is the real deal. Not just multi-millionaires and investment bankers need apply to start a new distillery or follow their dreams.
As I leave, I wave to the man fly-fishing the red river that runs by the distillery. It’s Mark. I’m told he loves his fishing. Many thanks to Laura, Mark, and the Abhainn Dearg Distillery for its very existence. In many ways, being here is the pinnacle of my whisky journey.