The Isle of Harris Distillery opened its doors today (Thursday September 24) the culmination of a seven-year drive to establish the Hebridean island’s first commercial whisky distillery.
The Social Distillery, as it has become known, will bring a hugely important economic boost to the island ultimately providing 20 vital jobs in an area where long-term employment is difficult to find.
And reflecting the Social Distillery’s place at the heart of the island, the whole population of Harris was invited to take part in the opening celebrations.
“Our story is absolutely connected to island life,” said managing director Simon Erlanger, “it’s about the people of Harris and we want to show that in the celebrations for our opening.”
Chairman and founder of Isle IHD, Anderson Bakewell said: “It is on this special island that conditions prevail for the production and maturation of a unique and exceedingly fine malt whisky. As if that was not enough, we have every expectation that it should inspire creative initiatives-entrepreneurial, cultural and social for the benefit of the island’s future, helping to retain those here and attract back those who left.”
The official opening began at 2pm on with a ceremony at the newly-built distillery in Tarbert, at which three generations of the island’s people took the leading role. Retired Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the Western Isles John Murdo Morrison, MBE, the distillery’s Guest Team Manager and mother of two Shona Macleod and children from Harris’s two primary schools, which have been working on a project on the new distillery, were chosen to perform the opening ceremony.
The Harris representatives each placed a peat on the fire in the distillery foyer, symbolising the warmth of Harris hospitality as well as playing an important part in the flavour of whisky. A speech was made to assembled guests by the Chairman and founder Mr Bakewell who had the vision some years ago to create the distillery.
He said: “I had often wondered if it would be possible to put the essence of Harris in a bottle, so a distillery was the natural answer.”
The distillery was later thrown open for guests to walk around and get a close-up view of the operation for themselves before gathering for refreshments in the distillery canteen – and a first taste of the distillery’s own production.
Isle of Harris Distillers will be producing the equivalent of 300,000 bottles a year of its single malt The Hearach, the Gaelic word for an inhabitant of Harris, but this will not be available for a number of years during its maturation.
However, the company will also be producing a highly distinctive gin which has been given a unique Harris character by the inclusion of Sugar Kelp harvested from the seas off the island and guests were able to sample this innovative product for the first time at the opening. The gin will only be on sale direct from the distillery as part of the company’s desire to build as close personal relationships with consumers as possible.
And how else could a day of island celebrations end but with a traditional ceilidh held in the company’s warehouse. The whole population of the island, all 1,916, were invited to the ceilidh, again emphasising the company’s position at the heart of the community to which it belongs.
The day was organised and supported by the distillery’s new employees, nicknamed locally The Tarbert Ten, who have been appointed in the first tranche of jobs created by the project.
Guests came from around the world for the opening, including its investors and other stakeholders who have been drawn to the project both by its uniqueness in producing the first Harris malt, thus helping to open up a new whisky region of Scotland, and by its social importance to the community.
The company has raised a total of £8.3m in equity and £3.1m from grants, attracting finance from 17 investors in Europe, the US and the Far East. In addition to an equity investment of £1.5m from the Scottish Investment Bank, the investment arm of Scottish Enterprise, the project has been backed by £1.9m in public funding from the Scottish Government’s Food Processing, Marketing and Co-operation scheme and £1.3m from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).
Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “Whisky is loved around the world and many island communities already reap the benefits of having a distillery through sustaining jobs, attracting visitors and supporting tourism businesses. I’m delighted to see the distillery open and am sure that the whisky will develop a great reputation for quality.”
Alex Paterson, Chief Executive of HIE, said: “This is a historic day for Harris, and I am delighted that joined up public-sector support from HIE, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Investment Bank, has enabled the backers of this new venture to bring their ambitious plans to fruition.
“The creation of 20 good quality jobs in Tarbert will have a hugely positive impact on the community, and it’s great that local people are at the heart of the opening ceremony for the new distillery.
“Isle of Harris Distillers is a business with strong ambitions for international success and a long term plan which should see it becoming a mainstay of the island economy.
“In addition, the distillery opens up a whole new area of Scotland’s whisky trail which will draw more visitors to Tarbert and further afield to experience the many other attractions that Harris has to offer.”
Leading whisky expert and distilling consultant Dr Jim Swan believes that the cool, humid and temperate weather of the island will have a unique effect on the whisky and the dampness of the sea air should help to bring out more of the complex flavours from the wood of the barrels used for the maturation process.
The distillery’s doors will now be open to welcome guests year-round, six days a week. Visitors will be greeted by local staff and can enjoy an intimate tour of the distillery or savour wholesome local food alongside the staff in the canteen.
While the malt will not be available in the shops for a number of years, it is already possible for followers of the project to buy The Hearach. A limited number of casks from the first year’s production have been made available for sale and have brought a great deal of interest, with the first year’s allocation already sold out.
It is also possible to pre-order one of the first bottles of The Hearach. It is intended that the first bottling, likely to be four years from now, will be limited to just 1,916 bottles (the number of Harris residents) and subscribers will not only receive one of the bottles but will have a lifetime of free distillery tours and their name inscribed on a ‘wall of wooden staves’ in the distillery warehouse.
The distillery was built by R&R Construction of Glasgow. The Design Team consisted of John Coleman architects, Harley Haddow and Fairhurst engineers and McGowan Husband Quantity Surveyors. Interior Design was by Bright 3D. The main maturation warehouse was built by 3B Construction of Port William, Wigtownshire.