After a full breakfast from the Calmac ferry canteen, we went up on deck to witness a double rainbow straight out of a Lucky Charms advert. The clouds parted and the sun burst through. It felt as though Harris was welcoming us in. As the ferry came into the head of the harbour in Tarbert, we could see the black and white church-like building that we would be visiting… the newly-opened Harris Distillery. We were meeting Kenny MacLean, Harris born and bred, currently working as the Project Manager for the distillery.
Kenny grew up in Strond, a little village on the south coast of Harris, in a crofting community. He spent a number of years working in England but always knew he would come home to work. He is now in charge of spirit production and getting the distillery producing and selling the finest grade whisky and was keen to show us the process involved. All of the equipment (bar the charred whisky barrels) is brand new. The copper stills distilling the whisky burst through the second floor, rising up from a bowl-shaped bottom to a tight neck reaching high up to the roof. To the right of them, wooden washbacks where the fermentation took place. The entire room feels like a giant science experiment.
Downstairs is the nuts and bolts of the operation. The bottom of the huge stills dominate the space and stainless steel pipes shoot off left and right. Everything is meticulously clean. In an adjacent building we pull apart two huge wooden doors and peer into a room that has the whisky barrels in, hundreds of wooden barrels lay on their side with the “H” branding stamped on. Unfortunately we can’t take any photos because Kenny says that “alcohol vapours seep out and the whole room is highly explosive, so you can’t operate any electrical equipment here.”
The chairman of the company Anderson Bakewell had been talking about setting up the distillery for seven years. He wanted to create something that would last for a long time and is determined to leave a legacy to Harris of employment, opportunity and confidence. To do that he has brought in top professionals within the industry, to make sure everything from taste right to distribution is the best it can be. Kenny says, “the people of Harris were very excited about the build. It was a bit like a soap opera, watching day by day the distillery come to life.” They are now fully operational but, as Kenny says, “great things take time, we can’t sell the first batch of whisky until 2020.” What they are producing and selling right now is a top grade gin, infused with local, hand-harvested sugar kelp for a subtle sweetness. We were invited to have a taste and if the gin is anything to go by, then the whisky will definitely be worth the wait.
There aren’t many businesses that can wait four or five years for a return, but then there aren’t many businesses whose ethos revolves around the local community. “We call ourselves the Social Distillery,” Kenny says. The opportunity for local people to get involved in a project so close to home, supporting and helping the Harris economy, has been irresistible to islanders. It’s a fantastic story and hopefully in four years time it’ll be a fantastic product. This business is built on solid foundations and supported by the community. The whisky may be a slow burner, but, as they say, good things come to those who wait. Slainte.