“Welcome to the inner sanctum,” says Simon Erlanger, managing director of the Isle of Harris Distillery, leading the way up the stairs from the tourist-filled shop up to the company’s industrious offices. He opens a door into a meeting room, where a large square table is loaded with dozens of whisky glasses with only dregs remaining, the remnants of a staff tasting session, a bottle of the distillery’s new whisky The Hearach standing among them.
The distillery in Tarbert, the main town on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, launched back in September 2015. Billed as a ‘social distillery’, the opening was a big deal for Harris, where the number of residents had halved over the last 50 years, a trend of population decline seen across other islands in the Outer Hebrides archipelago. Founded by American-born entrepreneur and musicologist Anderson Bakewell, who owns the adjacent island of Scarp, the distillery was not only an investment in whisky but also an investment in Harris, with plans to provide jobs to help keep local families and young people on the island.
Starting with a team of 10 people, known as the ‘Tarbert 10’, the distillery now employs more than 50 permanent staff, which is remarkable considering Harris – which occupies the southern third of the island of Harris and Lewis – has fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. “The world didn’t need another whisky but Harris did,” says Shona Macleod, distillery blender and one of the original ‘Tarbert 10’. “The company invested in employing people locally, teaching them new skills and how to be distillers. It means people earning money, families staying here and buying or building houses, their children going to school here.”
Until now, the distillery has only been selling its popular, artfully bottled Isle of Harris Gin. In September this year, it produced its millionth bottle. With local sugar kelp among the botanicals, the gin, available in 25 countries worldwide, has won Scottish Gin Awards’ Distillery of the Year twice and the Gold award for London Dry Gin at the World Gin Awards. Also in September, the distillery was recognised by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) for making a positive contribution to the economy of the Highlands and Islands.
All of which means expectations are high, as is confidence, for its just-released single malt Scotch whisky. “What we’ve created is a dram of distinction,” Macleod says, describing The Hearach, whose name comes from the Scottish Gaelic for ‘a native of Harris’. “Each layer gives you something different. It’s very drinkable, smooth and round.”
The Hearach is the first legal whisky to be produced in Harris, made with the attitude that it would be ready when it’s ready. “We set out to create complexity and character, and that takes time,” says Erlanger, who was previously an executive director for Glenmorangie. “On first sip or smell, it’s a lovely, sweet, delicious whisky with a hint of smoke at the end. But each time you come back to the glass, you discover different things. People might expect an Island malt style, quite full bodied and peaty, but we’re not that. We’re not really Speyside style either. It’s an Isle of Harris whisky. We’re just are who we are.”
The barley for The Hearach comes from the Black Isle in north-west Scotland, as conditions for growing barley on Harris aren’t ideal. The water comes from Harris. The spirit has been matured (in first-fill bourbon and oloroso and fino sherry casks), married, and bottled (at 46% ABV) on Harris. As with the gin, it has an original bottle designed by Stranger & Stranger, which is stout but elegant. “We tightly control everything,” explains Norman Ian Mackay, lead distiller, who spends his days among the copper stills and Oregon pine washbacks in the fragrant ‘spirit hall’. “We’re very strict on our wood policy. The whisky’s all matured in warehouses on Harris. The whole process, including bottling, happens on the island. We’re not doing anything the easy way. If investors wanted to make money quickly from whisky, they wouldn’t do it in the middle of the Atlantic.”
Mackay joined the distillery in 2016, with zero experience in whisky production. He’d been working part-time at the ferry terminal and considered leaving Harris before the lead distiller job offered a lifeline. The average age of the four distillers in his team is 25.
The fact the whisky has been “handcrafted” by local people sets the whisky apart, suggests Erlanger. “The ‘Harris hand’ has been part of making the whisky,” he says. “There’s more of a manual process than automation. A lot is done by nose and sight, rather than by instruments, which makes an intangible difference. There is also the Harris climate, which brings something unique and special to the whisky, in terms of huge humidity and very little temperature variation from summer to winter, which means rapid maturation – a fine whisky, without having to wait a decade.”
“The whisky is full of character, like the people who make it,” adds Macleod, warming to the ‘Harris-in-a-bottle’ theme. “The flavour unfolds like people from Harris. We’re quite reserved and humble folk, but when you get to know people here, you discover new things.”
Eight years after it launched, the distillery’s team, investors, and local people gathered on 22 September for a ceremony to celebrate the inaugural dram, which was also live-streamed online, followed by a ceilidh, with the first eight batches of The Hearach, each with slight variations, going on sale next morning.
With around 25,000 eager customers queuing online, 27,716 bottles (6,063 in batch one and around 3,095 in each of the other seven batches) sold out in just four and a half hour, and 1000 people who’d travelled from as far away as Canada also lined up outside the distillery to buy ‘first release’ bottles. Specialist retailers, bars, and restaurants across the UK are now selling The Hearach (RRP £65), as well as international markets including the US, Italy, and Germany (it will be available in more than 20 countries globally). Visitors to the distillery in Tarbert can also buy The Hearach while limited stocks last.
Unlike the Inner Hebrides where there are 15 working whisky distilleries, including nine on Islay and two on Skye, the Outer Hebrides doesn’t have an established whisky reputation or a ‘whisky trail’. That could change. As well as the Isle of Harris Distillery, there’s Abhainn Dearg Distillery on the west coast of Lewis, Scotland’s westernmost distillery, which has been releasing single malts since 2011. They will soon be joined by the North Uist Distillery on Benbecula, currently producing Downpour Gin, which will install whisky equipment in early 2024 with plans to start production in summer 2024. Even further south, Isle of Barra Distillers, currently selling gin, Island Dark Rum, and two gin liqueurs, has unveiled plans for a purpose-built gin and whisky distillery on Barra.
Whisky is breathing life into the Outer Hebridean islands, now and for future generations. “The distillery is keeping local people, like me, in employment,” Mackay says. “But it’s also given a boost to the self-esteem of Harris. Harris has a global reputation for Harris Tweed, so we’re not the first Harris product to go around the world, but we’re adding to that. Every bottle of The Hearach that goes out is a ‘message in a bottle’ to draw people home, to keep people here, and to bring in visitors, which is fabulous.”