Stretching from Shetland in the north to the Mull of Kintyre in the south, the Highland whisky region comprises a full third of Scotland’s land area and the majority of its mountain ranges. The local geography has an immense influence on the climate: prevailing westerly airflows from the Atlantic jet stream are forced upwards, clouds form, and rain ensues – in abundance. Consequently, the West Highlands (including the Hebrides) receive some of the wettest weather in the British Isles.
But, in the words of Mark Twain, “While climate is what we expect, weather is what we get” – and, as I arrive on Skye, there is hardly a cloud to be seen. The prevailing wind has presumably changed, and yet there is precious little of that too. Even the midges are conspicuously absent, taking shelter from the sun. All in all, it is, as a local would later tell us, quite definitely the nicest day of the year on the island so far. It’s nearly August.
Torabhaig Distillery sits on Skye’s Sleat peninsula, about as far south as four wheels will comfortably take a traveller on the island. Beyond, a narrowing road leads to the village of Armadale a few miles down the coast, where the Mallaig ferry lands, and finally – the road narrower still here – to the crofting township Aird of Sleat, Skye’s southernmost settlement.
What Sleat lacks in the awesome mountain geography for which the north of Skye is rightly famed it more than makes up for in an oasis-like verdancy that’s notably unique to the south. It also boasts what is surely one of the country’s most breathtaking coastal views. Looking east across the Sound of Sleat, towards the mainland, the effect is a bit like how I imagine viewing Earth from space would be – and Torabhaig enjoys a front-row seat.
Spirit started flowing from Torabhaig’s pair of stills in 2017, and, to date, the distillery has launched two expressions as part of its Legacy Series, charting its journey towards the eventual launch of a flagship 10-year-old single malt. In earnest, though, its story started much earlier.
The distillery occupies a 19th-century farm steading which underwent an extensive restoration courtesy of owner Mossburn Distillers, beginning in 2014. In what the company regards as typically ‘Hebridean pragmatism’, bricks included in the building of the original farm steading are supposed to have come from the nearby Caisteal Chamuis, an Iron Age fort last owned by Clan MacDonald in 1632.
Incidentally, the original plans for Torabhaig were obtained in 2002 by Sir Ian Noble, founder of the Noble Grossart merchant bank, who had previously purchased 20,000 acres of land which had been part of Lord Macdonald’s estate. Sir Ian passed away before his vision for the distillery could be realised, though his name adorns the spirit still and his wife’s, Lady Noble, the wash.
Torabhaig has lost little, if any, of the charm one might associate with the original purpose of its premises. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that the distillery itself is only five years old, so necessarily respectful was the renovation. That said, standing in the courtyard – formerly the farmstead’s midden – I’m told one would have been hard pressed to have envisaged a distillery being installed here before 2014. After decades of abandonment, the farm steading was effectively ruined. Given its status as a Category B listed building, little proved easy – not least making a large section of its roof removable to install the two stills and eight 10,000-litre Douglas fir washbacks, or hiring a stonemason to painstakingly repoint every single brick, using traditional methods, over a period of three years.
The importance of the construction of Torabhaig on the ultimate character of its spirit cannot be understated. “The initial design for the distillery flowed from the flavour profile we were looking to obtain, and it had to work with the parameters available to us inside our listed building,” says Mossburn Distillers’ chief executive Neil Mathieson. Unable to adjust the height or pitch of the original roof, for example, the team had to consider the shape and size of the stills, lyne arms and condensers so that the chemistry, which would create the identified flavour profile, and the physics, the physical constraints of the space and place in which it would be made, aligned.
Torabhaig produces a heavily peated whisky, showcasing what the distillery team describes as ‘well-tempered peat’. While heavily peated, Torabhaig carries a definite finesse, even at a young age. It also shies away from some of the more typically phenolic medicinal flavours associated with other whiskies marketed as ‘heavily peated’, tending more towards subtler woodsmoke and forest floor – the result of an unusually high cut point for a peated whisky.
The term ‘well-tempered’ won’t be lost on classical music enthusiasts, adopted as it was by J.S. Bach in his seminal book of preludes and fugues, The Well-Tempered Clavier. Writing in all 24 major and minor keys, Bach demonstrated the seemingly infinite possibility of freedom within form – in this case, within individual musical forms, specific keys, and a single system of tuning (well-tempered).
I mention this because, to me, Torabhaig represents a distillery engaged in a similar exercise of creating under constraint – in its case, within its physicality and its decision to produce heavily peated malts. What it has done under both of these is nothing short of brilliant. That its first expression, Legacy 2017, was a sell-out success should be testament enough.
The distillery took the unusual step of hiring two teams when it was established. One was an experienced group of industry veterans, brewers, maltsters and distillers comprising between them some two centuries of industry experience. The other was a team of apprentices who now, five years on, constitute the distillery’s passionate team of brewer-distillers. With each coming from a different background, there is only one common thread connecting them: not one of them had worked in brewing or distilling before joining Torabhaig.
What might appear to be a self-imposed constraint on the surface is anything but. “We wanted to choose how we could bring local people of all ages and gender into our industry and train them to work at the very top of our expectations,” says Neil. “An aspect that would help foster our relationships within the local community and bring a sense of belonging to what we had to admit was a brand-new distillery with no history behind it.”
Following a set of production ideals as closely as possible and recording the results through the first year of operations, Torabhaig’s brewer-distillers have been responsible for pioneering how its standard runs will be carried out for years to come. They’ve also been given an opportunity to specialise in different aspects of production, from gaining a deeper understanding of the fermentation process to wood policy and casking, specifically as part of the distillery’s Journeyman’s Drams series, which allows each apprentice to produce spirits of their very own design each year and mature them as they wish.
Talk of terroir abounds in the world of whisky these days, and, as we discussed in the previous issue, we’re only going to find out the truth by looking for it. Credit, then, where credit is due. Torabhaig may not be the biggest or the most experienced distillery, but its is a philosophy absolutely rooted in a commitment to a style and an eagerness to examine and preserve what makes its whisky its own. “Simply put,” says Bruce Perry, Mossburn Distillers’ global brand manager, “you cannot make whisky without distilling the place in which it is made and the people who make it.”
For Torabhaig, its place is very definitely Skye – not necessarily the unrelentingly savage and elemental Skye of the north, but a rather more tempered Skye, much like how, on an evening like this, the craggy mountaintops are softened in the reflection of Sleat’s millpond shores. On more predictable days, when horizontal rain might make its way in through the pagoda roof and ping off the hot stills, Skye has a say in the spirit. The island’s dwellers who constructed the original farm steading are surely also responsible in part (albeit inadvertently) for determining the character of Torabhaig. Even Talisker – and I know the folks at Torabhaig won’t mind me saying so – has played a part, having done so much for putting Skye on the whisky map in the first place.
Most notable to me, though, is the people of Torabhaig and their involvement with the distillery at large. “The intention has always been to involve everyone in our journey as we look towards the first age-statement whiskies and the development of the core profile,” says Neil. “That’s a journey where we are an active passenger in the development process.”
Never before have I experienced a distillery tour that ended with sampling new-make spirits in the still room, alongside the very people who designed and made them, and talking not just about whisky but about local life. Nor have I before witnessed distillers cutting the grass and tending to flowerbeds between spirit runs, or seen a distiller have to rush off to play the fiddle at a local ceilidh.
Perhaps it’s that old Hebridean pragmatism again. Perhaps this is just Skye. Whatever the case, I’ll always remember it when I taste Torabhaig.