Abhainn Dearg (pronounced Aveen Jarræk) Distillery, or Red River Distillery in English, is located in Uig, on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. It is the most westerly of the Scottish distilleries and is the first legal distillery on the islands in almost two hundred years.
The word whiskey/whisky is believed to have come from the Irish Gaelic. Soldiers of King Henry II struggled to pronounce the native Irish Gaelic uisce beatha, meaning ‘water of life’ and began using the term whishkeyba, which then became whiskey. The original whisky was drunk soon after production and it wasn’t until a barrel was left unnoticed when it was discovered that allowing the liquid to mature improved its flavour.
While the Irish still spell the word ‘whiskey’ (as do Americans), the Scots spell it whisky. There are a number of other differences between Scottish whisky and Irish whiskey. Scotch whisky is generally distilled twice, while Irish whiskey is usually distilled three times. Scots use only malted barley in most whiskies, while Irish whisky is usually made with other grains mixed in.
There was only one official distillery in the Outer Hebrides before Abhainn Dearg and it was located where Lews Castle now stands in Stornoway. The taxation placed on the production of whisky after the 1704 Act of Union between England and Scotland resulted in a decline of commercial distilleries and an increased number of illegal stills. At one time is was believed that 40,000 illicit stills were in operation across Scotland. Over time a more reasonable tax was applied and many of these stills became official.
Founder and owner of Abhainn Dearg, Mark Tayburn, aimed to create the island’s first completely local, legal dram of whisky. He planted ten tons of barley, which was the first barley planted in Uig within living memory, and then was able to obtain larger fields in order to produce enough barley to fulfil his ‘field to bottle’ dream. Any left over barley mash is fed to the distillery’s herd of Highland Cows, whose waste is collected as fertiliser for the barley fields.
The distillery takes its water from the small salmon river, named Red River, that runs from the Uig hills, past Abhainn Dearg and into the Atlantic Ocean. The water is said to be “as pure as it is naturally possible to get”, as there are no industries, villages or even houses along its banks and the land has never seen chemicals.
The whisky is distilled using traditional methods in copper stills, oak casked in reused bourbon and sherry barrels and is bonded, bottled and labelled by hand on site.
Tours of the distillery allow visitors to learn about the equipment, the whisky-making process and to taste the Spirit of Lewis and single malt whisky.
During our tour we learn that the barley is soaked for two days and two nights before being transferred to a room where the chimney is blocked and the room is filled with peat smoke. The barley is then blown dry, soaked in hot water collected from the river and cooled with cold water, which is also collected from the river. It then goes into two large barrels, where it sits to ferment for four to five days; at this point the liquid has an alcohol content of between 5% and 6% and is basically beer. It is then transferred into the copper stills and distilled twice as, after the first distillation the alcohol content is too high for the liquid to be drinkable. After the second distillation the liquid is transferred into the final vat and then into reused bourbon barrels, which have different coloured lids to determine the year. Only after three years and one day of maturing in the oak casks may the drink legally be called whisky.
- The Outer Hebrides Guide Book Third Edition
- Information provided during tour of Abhainn Dearg Distillery