It’s a beautiful day on the Isle of Harris. The type of early summer weather - where there’s not a cloud in the piercing blue sky - which proves that the beaches on this island can indeed look like they belong in the Caribbean.
It’s these vibrant blues and turquoise, seen best at the beaches, that inspired the now iconic Harris Gin bottle, and it’s this spirit that’s the reason that visitors are flocking to the modern, white washed distillery that sits proudly next to the ferry terminal.
But today the gin is taking a back seat, as the team are focusing on The Hearach, the distillery's first whisky, as a release date has been revealed.
The release of this long-awaited whisky coincides with the distillery’s eighth birthday, and marks the first legal whisky produced on the island.
The distillery, which was set up in 2015 by founder Anderson ‘“Burr” Bakewell, was designed to not only produce excellent spirits but to provide jobs on the island to ensure fewer young people leave. The target was to employ 25 islanders, but started off with ten (known as the Tarbert ten).
The team is now at 51 people, all of whom are born and bred on Harris (known as Hearachs, hence the name of the whisky) or live on the island. From distillers to the brand team, all are from the island and many started in roles as teenagers, such as working in the canteen.
One of these is Harry Wood, who along with Shona Macleod (one of the Tarbert ten) are the distillery’s blender and assistant blender.
Over the last few years, they’ve been working with consultants to hone their craft. During my visit to the distillery, Shona and Harry took me to the warehouse to taste whisky straight from the casks to really get a feel for the foundations of The Hearach.
Shona was on the original gin nosing panel, who checked the quality of the spirit, but she explained that whisky was very new to her. Harry however is more of a self confessed ‘geek’ when it comes to whisky.
The casks being used to mature the Hearach are three bourbons - Woodford Reserve, Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace - and two sherries - Oloroso and Fino.
These casks were chosen early on by the consultants and are then blended together to create The Hearach.
Although it’s Shona and Harry that are involved now, the original four distillers (including Shona’s husband) have moved on to other roles in the company, but it’s their whisky that’s being released, making it an emotional time for some.
Shona said: “The original four did distilling, bottling and warehousing for this whisky, which is quite special.”
It’s fair to say that the Harris Gin bottle design was the one that kick started the current trend for beautiful, eye-catching bottles for spirits.
Designed by Stranger and Stranger, the textured, tall, light turquoise bottle proved so popular that in 2016 the distillery had to ration sales of their gin as demand was so high, meaning glass manufacturer Stölzle - who at the time had closed their Yorkshire factory for a major furnace renewal, - couldn’t keep up with demand.
So while there’s excitement over how the whisky tastes, there’s also real pressure on how the bottle is going to look.
I met with Mike Donald, chief storyteller at the Isle of Harris Distillery, who talked me through the painstaking design process, and discussed the much anticipated Hearach bottle.
He said: “It was a blessing and a curse, this beautiful bottle. The bottle hit the market just at the right time as there was no one out there really focusing on this kind of bottle design and people fell in love with it and have an emotional connection to it.
"After all this time, the expectations are so high for the whisky bottle. From my point of view, what’s more important is the spirit inside the bottle and I'm aware that, with whisky, there is an aversion to over marketing so for me, the pressure is really on the distillers and the blenders to create a beautiful dram.
"But that said, The Hearach is incredibly special to us so we wanted to design a bottle that was part of the design family that was equally as beautiful, but something that stood on its own, that had its own character and had its own identity.”
While the gin bottle is tall and elegant, the team wanted a shorter, more squat bottle for The Hearach and, as Mike said, “we've put our designers, glass manufacturers, technical staff and even label printers through the wringer -we’ve really pushed them to the limits. It's been a journey.”
Despite a design being drawn up, and a prototype made, the team decided that this wasn’t right so took the expensive decision to go back to the drawing board. After a lengthy process they settled on a design which came from an original drawing from way back in 2013, at the start of the project.
Mike explained the look of the final article, saying: “when we were thinking about the brand story and the marketing around it, we were thinking a lot about yin and yang and had really good conversations with Burr about that.”
Where the gin bottle is tall and slim, the whisky bottle is short and stockier “like an art deco decanter that fits in your hand like a glass hand grenade" and instead of ripples on the glass, the Hearach has regimented vertical and horizontal lines - the obvious parallel here is with Harris Tweed.
And while the gin’s look and taste is of the sea, the whisky is of the land. Colours here are heavier - greys and copper - and everything down to the presentation box has been carefully considered to tell the story of this anticipated whisky.
Along with Shona, Harry, managing director Simon Erlanger and executive chairman and CFO Ron MacEachran, we sipped on drams poured straight from sample bottles.
While Simon and Ron discussed the help they’d had from whisky legends Charles Maclean and the late Jim Swan, Simon commented that every drop of the whisky has been ‘distilled by Harris hands’, fulfilling Burr’s aim to generate employment and keep people on the island. The whisky, a ‘spirit of distinction’ was to be a reflection of Harris, or Harris in a bottle.
Ultimately it’s delicious, moreish and sweet, with grassy and herbal notes and a thread of smoke. It ends with a mineral character from the Fino casks.
Shona Macleod commented on the taste, saying: “I get a gentle peat smoke on the first sip which reminds me of island home fires burning when I was growing up.
"It comes along with a toasted maltiness. I can also taste homemade apple sauce and smell machair flowers, particularly white clover which springs up on our west coast every summer.
"Mixed spices appear, and an old-fashioned sweetness from things like candied ginger, vanilla, and honeycomb. Finally, there’s a long, clotted-cream note, mixed with a lasting sense of new leather.”
There's no doubt this team has taken quite a journey to get to this point, and, as the sun starts to set over the bay, it's hard to disagree with Dave Broom as he said: "This whisky is a wonderful new addition to a new generation of distillers in Scotland."
The Hearach Single Malt will go on sale from 10am on Saturday 23 September 2023 at the distillery shop and from the online store before being made available in specialist stores across the UK and globally in October.