Torabhaig: the new spirit of Skye
It’s been almost 200 years since the Isle of Skye’s one and only legal distillery started operations, so a new operation in the south of the island was long overdue. Richard Goslan paid a return visit to Torabhaig to find out how this newcomer is developing and to get a taste of its inaugural release
PHOTOS: HORST FRIEDRICHS, COURTESY OF TORABHAIG DISTILLERY
Torabhaig’s commanding views towards Knoydart
The last time I met up with Hamish Fraser was on a gloomy winter’s day in early 2016, when Torabhaig’s distillery manager led us through the quagmire of a building site to his chilly office for a cup of tea.
A power cut meant there was no electricity and not much in the way of heat. Thankfully, there was gas to put a pan of water onto the stove for a warming cuppa and a chat about the great things to come.
Five years on, the entire environment is unrecognisable. Torabhaig and its grounds are pristine in the spring sunshine and Hamish looks like a happy man to have the years of muck well and truly behind him.
Hamish Fraser noses some new make
Torabhaig’s distinctive wash and spirit stills
“It was a mud-bath out there!” he remembers. “The old farm steading was a midden, with a swamp in the centre of the courtyard. It was a huge undertaking to restore the steading, get everything installed and complete the landscaping, but we got there in the end.”
The steading Hamish is referring to is an early 19th century farm building which was in ruins, but as a listed building had to be restored in sympathy with its original character. That meant configuring and designing stills which would actually fit inside the original stone structure, and working out how to get them in and out. A removable roof was part of the design, although it’s still a few years before it will have to be put to use.
Visitor centre manager Anne O’Lone takes me on a tour, and explains how the steading itself has dictated the character of Torabhaig’s spirit.
“Our milling, mashing and fermentation all takes place in the newly added building, which joins onto the original steading,” she says, leading me through the structure that’s been added to the original building, although with its pagoda roof it looks as though it’s been there just as long. “Here in the steading is where we have one pair of stills, and as you can see they are short and round so that they could fit inside the original building. Even the downward angle of the lyne arms is influenced by the need to fit them in under the roof.” A wider-than-typical neck on the stills also allows for more reflux and a slow distillation promotes more copper contact.
Hamish Fraser in the stillroom with John MacKinnon, one of nine distillers working at Torabhaig
The stills themselves are named after Sir Iain and Lady Noble, in respect of the local landowner Sir Iain Noble who had the original vision for a new distillery on Skye and who owned the steading. He had already gained planning permission for a distillery at Torabhaig, but following his death in 2010, his estate and Lady Lucilla Noble provided the location for Mossburn Distillers to fulfil Sir Iain’s dream. “Together in spirit,” as Anne says.
And what about that spirit? At the time of my visit, Torabhaig had recently released its first single malt, the 2017 Legacy Series. It was made with Concerto malted barley, peated to a phenol level of 55-60 parts per million (ppm) and matured in first fill bourbon barrels.
That phenolic punch has been tempered in the cask to be bottled at 16 ppm, but it’s still very much a robustly peated dram that speaks of its place on the coast of Skye’s Sleat peninsula.
Torabhaig’s distillers are developing experimental batches for future release under the label of ‘The Journeyman Project’
Knock Castle (Caisteal Camus) next to the distillery
Distiller Iona MacPhie checks on the progress of the wort
And what a place it is. Now that the grounds have been landscaped and welly boots aren’t essential for a visit, the distillery’s position overlooking the ruins of Knock Castle (Caisteal Camus) across to Knoydart and Mallaig on the mainland are up there with the best in Scotland.
The distillery is also playing a key role in the local community. With a manual form of production, the decision was taken early on to nurture nine distillers recruited locally and from a range of backgrounds. They have all undergone training and are being supported to qualify as accredited distillers, while also being encouraged to create their own experimental batches for future release under the label of ‘The Journeyman Project’.
Torabhaig has also taken its place on the Hebridean Whisky Trail, which includes Talisker, Raasay and the Isle of Harris distilleries, as well as the recent addition of Jura. Whatever route you take, Torabhaig is a welcome addition to Skye, and to the world of Scotch whisky.