Making Raasay Whisky With Raasay Barley

Something that has excited me since the very beginning of my work here at the distillery was that of our barley trials, where we’ve been attempting to grow barley here on Raasay that could one day become whisky. I’m just so captivated by this idea that Raasay (the smallest island in Scotland with a scotch whisky distillery) could potentially have a single malt made with entirely with Raasay barley and distilled, matured and then finally bottled all here on the island- only actually leaving Raasay in a bottle as Scotch whisky. The idea of this truly ‘Raasay Whisky’ has really captured my imagination and as part of my job at the distillery but also as a personal project I’ve been really interested to document it all as much as possible.

Our 2019 field, just before it was harvested on the 26th of August.

We harvested last years crop of barley on the 4th of September 2018- the only day of that month, it would later turn out, that it did not rain. It was a stroke of good luck for us, as to attempt to harvest it while the barely was wet or the field washed out with rain would have been very difficult. The team was working until well into the early hours of the morning harvesting, weighing and transporting sacks of fresh barley from the croft on The Avenue to the distillery warehouse. The warehouse was also a lot emptier back then, and a couple of weeks ago the retuning barley, now malted, struggled to fit back into our bursting-at-the-seams bond, filled floor to ceiling with casks.

Distilling the 2018 Barley

Short teaser I made for the barley arriving last week.

In August the barley, now malted, returned to Raasay, where it was then a case of picking a time to process it. The biggest difference in the production of this compared to our normal malt supply is that it had to be milled separately from the normal supplies of Scottish barley we use, as we didn’t want to ‘contaminate’ the Raasay batches. As a result, I arrived on the scene at 6AM Friday morning to find Iain and Ross huffing dozens of sacks of barley up the stairs to the mash tun, all to be poured into the mash by hand.

With the barley collected upstairs, Ross and Iain set about filling the mash tun with the preheated water, then adding and stirring in the bags of grist. How this form of mashing would behave was a bit of an unknown- the grist behaves differently when added like this compared to mixing it with the water in the mixing machine, but from where I was standing it certainly looked like whisky making.

The following Wednesday and after a good 5 days of fermentation in the washbacks, the fermented wash was transferred into the stills to begin the distillation.

The distillation didn’t seem to behave that unusually compared to any other batch, the yield was slightly different which was to be expected but it fermented and distilled much more ‘normally’ than I expected it to. Like the mashing, however, it would have to be casked independently, as we didn’t want to mix it with any of our other batches of distillate in the tank of the filling room. Once sent up to the warehouse, it was to be filled into the casks straight away. I ran home for a quick bite to eat and, at 7PM, Mary and I went to the warehouse to see Ross and Iain complete the final stage of the process. Sampling the spirit, we found it to be ever so slightly sweeter than the normal new make, with perhaps a slightly ‘sharper’ finish. A master blender I am not, so my pallete could probably not pick up the numerous subtle differences in the new make. That said there was, at least to my nose and tongue, something detectably ‘different about our first Raasay barley spirit.

And now for the hardest part, the wait. We’ve already harvested the 2019 barley field and although I’ve enjoyed documenting that, this was my real baby- something I’ve seen from start to finish and a project I’m so excited to ‘compete’ when the casks invariably come out of the distillery and onto the bottling line.

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