Ok, so we are cheating a wee bit as Raasay Distillery is still in the planning stages but we were more than a little excited to get the chance to talk to Alasdair Day, the man behind the tweedale blend and one of the creators behind R and B Distillers.

Hoping to open Raasay distillery in 2017, Alasdair and business partner Bill Dobbie, are looking to create hand-crafted whisky from unusual provenance, and we caught up with him to grab our chance for an interview before he headed off to Italy to speak to their still manufacturers.

How did you get into whisky in the first place?

Well it all started for me with my great-grandfather’s cellar book. He (Richard Day) blended whisky in the Scottish borders town of Coldstream and the cellar book has the accounts for 1881 and at the back of the book it has all the whiskies he blended from 1899 to 1916, obviously looking at that and having that information, I decided it might be worthwhile trying to recreate one of those whiskies and that led to me creating the Tweeddale blend in 2009 and that’s how I got started in whisky.

Tweedale book

The cellar book is a beautiful thing to behold. Picture: R & B

Was starting out harder or easier than you assumed it would be?

To be honest it was probably harder than I thought, I spent a lot of time getting the relevant licences and certificates from HMRC and then I had to find the nine whiskies that went into making the blend. Eight malts and one grain and then I had to find someone to bottle it for me too, it took a while but we got there.

I take it when you eventually succeeded and were rewarded with what turned out to be a cracking little blend, this inspired a little bit of an ongoing passion for whisky and the drive to create your own distillery?

Yeah it did all definitely come out of that. It took a while to recreate the tweeddale and it was a slow process but through doing tastings and festivals, and slowly starting to make contacts in the industry, the idea came about through discussions with people. Actually, I think it was at Newcastle whisky festival when this chap appeared in the stands and asked if I had ever thought about building a whisky distillery.
And my answer was of course that I hadn’t, at the time it seemed like a strange question but it transpired this person was actually Dr Alan Rutherford (Former Head of Research and Development at Distillers Company Ltd). Alan had previously looked at building a distillery in the Borders, so we spoke more and he sent me some information and that just set me off on this wonderful journey.

What challenges have you faced with trying to create the distillery?

I think initially it was two key things. The first was trying to find a suitable site, which gave us a lot of problems, you know finding the right buildings, the right water supply and then ideally someone who’ll sell you site and the second was raising the funding to pay for the site.

Why did you choose Raasay?

It came out of the process really, I started off looking at the Scottish Borders because that is where my heritage is from, where my great-grandfather began his whisky blending. It was however my other side of the family that provided the inspiration for Raasay, my other great-grandfather was from the Hebrides and the Isle of Lewis and this alerted me to the fact that there might be somewhere in the Hebrides that might be suitable and at the same time I was talking to Bill, and one of Bill’s friends was from Raasay and he had looked at a site there. So it just made sense.

Picture: Lux

Alasdair looks over the plans for the disitllery. Picture: Lux

What kind of whisky are you going to produce at Raasay?

Raasay itself is very rugged volcanic island, and so there’s some really quite complex geology and of course that affects the water and we just felt that would lend itself to a peaty whisky. The whisky will only be lightly peated though and the reason for this, rather than it being heavily peated, is that the water on Raasay has got quite a high mineral content and we think that will come through in the distillation and fermentation processes and therefore it’s important for us to try to balance the quality of the water with the peat from the malt.

You mentioned in previous discussions that it will be about 15 PPM is that right?

I think that’s what we are aiming for and what we’ve specified in terms of the equipment and in terms of discussion with the people who we will be doing the malting.

You mention the barley, will some of it be sourced on the island?

It would be lovely to have some barley from Raasay and hopefully that’s something we can do but Raasay is such a small island, there is arable land there but it isn’t a huge amount. As it stands we will be trying to source barley from the area rather than Raasay itself.

What about maturation? In earlier discussions with you, you mentioned wine casks?

It was something we discussed, when we looked at ways to style our whisky and one of the things we were looking at was using red wine casks to try and introduce some fruit flavours into our lightly peated malt, in a bid to get more complex and balanced flavours.

What are your plans for the future? Especially regarding the Borders distillery?

I think that the Borders distillery is probably still a long way off, the main focus for the time being is obviously getting Raasay up and running.

With regards to what we will do eventually, the Borders distillery will obviously be a much lighter style of whisky, certainly sweeter. We’ll perhaps look at using sherry casks for maturation, possibly Olorosso because it is slightly nutty which might enhance the flavour profile we are aiming for and the balance sweetness of the actual spirit.

What about distillation? Obviously it was traditional for some Lowlands distilleries to use triple distillation is that something you’d consider at your Borders distillery?

I think that there is some interesting ways now that you can build in some extra rectification without necessarily putting a third still in and I think the interesting thing of doing that is – though I suppose it’s true of having a third still as well – to be able to produce different styles of whisky and gives you option of doing different epxressions, and I suppose the opportunity to marry those different expressions. It will be great to make different batches and have every one a little different. You obviously keep a backbone running through but maintaining the ability to alter it slightly, will definitely open things up for us. So yeah, I think it will be double distillation rather than triple.

Finally, what’s your chosen dram? Do you have a particular style?

It’s really hard to pick a favourite whisky. (He laughs)
It really is all about mood. Where you are and who you are with, the environment, it all plays a part. I do like the heavily peated ones if I’m in that frame of mind for them but I also like a Speyside or a Lowland.

The true difficulty is actually choosing what mood you’re in and what whisky to pick. (He laughs again)

Follow the Raasay distillery on facebook and look out for the upcoming release of Raasay While We Wait in September. Blended from two highland whiskies from a single -as yet unnamed – distillery, it is hoped the whisky will be representative of the Raasay Single Malt due for release in 2020.

About The Author

Sean Murphy

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.

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