Whisky - a river runs through it

whisky, lewis, drink, scotland, distillery

The clean, clear waters of west Lewis will give a new island single malt its own distinctive character, writes Ronald Kerr.

The waters that give life to Scotland's newest single malt have long been familiar to the whisky's creator, Marko Tayburn.

The cascading torrents of Abhainn Dearg - the Red River - which tumble from Lewis's highest peaks to the white sands and turquoise sea at Traigh Uige, have been known to him since childhood.

Marko was born in Edinburgh and moved back with his parents to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, when he was three years old. Today he runs a recycling business on the island, but it was his love of the amber nectar that brought about the idea of producing his very own whisky.

As a child it was the lure of salmon and brown trout that first drew Marko to this remote river in west Lewis, but today, rather than its bounty, it is the purity of its water that holds his attention. Soft and rich in minerals, clean and clear, the water is as pure as it is possible to find - fast flowing, it carries surprisingly little peat despite an abundance of it in the area.

The launch of the Abhainn Dearg (pronounced Aveen Jarrek) malt at this year's Royal National Mod in Marko's hometown of Stornoway is, for many whisky connoisseurs, long overdue. In an ancient landscape where the rocks of Lewisian Gneiss are more than half as old as the world itself, the history of distilling dates back to Medieval times. But, rather like those marvelous, mysterious chessmen that lay buried in the dunes at Uig for centuries, the tradition of whisky making in the Outer Hebrides has been all but invisible in recent times. Now, that distilling heritage is about to resurface with Abhainn Dearg.

The three-year-old Special Edition single malt - limited to 2011 bottles - is the first commercial whisky to be produced on the Long Isle of Harris and Lewis since 1840. There has already been considerable interest in the whisky from around the world and sales of a pre-taster - the Spirit of Lewis - have been brisk and the reviews favourable.

whisky, lewis, drink, scotland, distillery, abhainn

People expecting a peaty dram, reminiscent of the island malts of Islay to the south, are in for a surprise, according to Marko, who opened the distillery on the site of an old salmon hatchery in 2008. 'It's a really soft water here,' he says. 'And, because the waters are fast flowing, our dram isn't noticeably peaty. It's very clean and quite unlike the water on the east of the island.'

'You have to remember this is a remote area, even by Hebridean standards - no industry, no villages, not even a house along the banks of the river.'

'Our aim is to produce something that's unique to this part of Lewis so it's vital that we mature everything on site. We're right beside the ocean and this is a damp environment surrounded by mountains and heather. The cask is breathing all of that in, and that adds to the complexity of the dram.'

'We make sure that we use only Scottish barley - mainly from the Black Isle at present, but we'd love to grow more of our own here in Uig.'

'We want to be self sufficient, to keep our carbon footprint down and replace what we take from the land. Uig has never been home to commercial agriculture with fertilisers and pesticides - the area is wild, remote, stunningly beautiful and clean, and that's how we want to keep it.'

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