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The story behind the Isle of Tiree's first legal distillery in over 200 years

How a rock ceilidh folk band, an island music festival, a London distillery and Speyside casks came together to create the island’s first distillery in two centuries.

Published: August 15, 2019
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“Our distillery is the first legal distillery since 1801. In 1802 the Duke (of Argyll) actually banned distilling on the island because - if you read some of the statistical accounts - it says: ‘some of the islanders were lacking morals and were idle because of their fondness and intemperance,’” laughs Ian Smith, one half of the Tiree Whisky Company.

It was this link to distilling and a desire to give back to the community and raise the profile of Tiree that led Ian and his business partner Alain Campbell to launch the company, starting with a whisky.

Usually seen playing the accordion in popular folk band Trail West, Ian moved back to Tiree last year, having spent about eight years in Glasgow, and it was this move that got him thinking of the future. “The main reason for the company was not only to provide employment for ourselves (outside of Trail West), but to also raise the profile of the island,” he explains.

“Myself and my business partner are very into the local history - we love reading about the island’s written historical accounts and one of the things I discovered was that between 1790 and 1791 there were 157 people caught distilling illegally, and one in every ten was evicted from their croft or holding. We thought this history was fascinating - there were hundreds of years of history of whisky production on the island - and we thought, why has nobody tried to revive that?”

So in a bid to do just that, The Tiree Whisky Company launched a whisky titled The Cairnsmuir - a 19 year old Speyside malt.

“The whisky was named after a ship that ran aground off the shores of the island and it has cases of whisky - a story similar to Whisky Galore,” says Ian. We launched that at the Tiree Homecoming and only bottled 230 which all sold out. That was the first step - to publicise the whisky company and to let people know what we were doing.”

Starting with gin

Isle of Tiree distillery

Picture: Tyree Gin Facebook

The next step was to launch a gin, which at first was contract distilled in London using botanicals from the island. While many people argue about provenance of Scottish gin in relation to where it is created, Ian used the money raised from the London distilled gin to open a distillery on the island, on the site of his dad’s former builder’s yard.

“Thames Distillers in London distilled our Tyree Gin for about 18 months and, although it wasn’t made on the island, we used local botanicals from the island, dried the way that kelpers who were collecting seaweed used to dry them - just on rocks, dried naturally by the sun,” explains Ian. It’s this mix of botanicals that give Tyree Gin its unique, seaside flavour.”

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Known as Tyree and not Tiree is another nod to the island’s history, as Ian explains: “Tyree was a historical form of spelling for the island while the modern spelling of Tiree first appeared on a map of Scotland by John & Frederic Tallis in 1851.”

Creating a whisky for Tiree Music Festival

“We launched the gin in the 2017 Tiree Music Festival and sold out about 1,000 bottles I think. It was brilliant.”

This link with the music festival continued this year with the bars serving Tyree Gin and launching an exclusive bottling of TMF10 whisky - created to mark the festival’s tenth year.

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“In the build up to TMF 10, Stuart and Daniel - the festival organisers - got in touch with myself and Alain with an idea to mark the anniversary. We decided to source a cask from Speyside, and the whisky went into cask around the same time as plans for the first ever Tiree Music Festival were taking shape. Now, ten years on, about 380 bottles are available to celebrate the milestone,” Ian says.

“We got a tasting panel together and there was no shortage of applications”, Ian laughs. “We’ve got a good team of friends who tried it - Daniel and Stuart and even some famous musicians, such as Ian Bayne from Runrig.”

“Having been at every single TMF it really is an honour for us to be asked to do something to commemorate the tenth anniversary. As big supporters of the festival, it’s such a great thing for the island,” says Ian.

Why the whisky won’t be peaty

As the first legal distillery on the island for over 200 years, and with so many links to the history of Tiree, what does the future hold?

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With gin sales going well (it is the only gin available during the Tiree Music Festival, where one bar is named affectionately after Ian’s father), Ian and The Tiree Whisky Company hope to produce their own whisky soon, and will base it on Speyside malts thanks to their lack of peat.

Although the island once had peat, it quickly ran out due to the sheer amount of illicit distilling taking place at one point. “Because of this, we reckon a Tiree whisky would be light and not too smokey. If we could get it tasting like the TMF10 one then we would be very happy,” says Ian.

“We are proud islanders and think that Tiree is a great place. We are very proud of the history and we want to give back to the community and hopefully in future provide employment opportunities, but also, through our gin and hopefully whisky, make the island known throughout the UK and the rest of the world.”

Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related as well as hosting Scran, The Scotsman's food and drink podcast.

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