What if you could stay on an island right next to a distillery overlooking the magical Isle of Skye? Now you can literally do just that, but is the reality as good as the idea? I had to go and investigate. The wonderful Isle of Raasay lies off the west coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides, separated from the Isle of Skye by a short 25-minute ferry journey. You can literally walk to the distillery straight from the boat.
Isle of Raasay Distillery
I don’t even know where to start when it comes to Isle of Raasay Distillery as every little detail is well thought out, from the bottle design to the casks to the socio-economic impact on the community.
In 2013, co-founders Bill Dobbie and Alasdair Day formed R&B Distillers with the vision of building a locally run distillery. They heard about a 19th-century building that was on sale on the Isle of Raasay that needed some serious work, but the location was unique, and they thought it would make a great spot for a distillery. Planning permission was finally granted in 2016 to renovate the old Brodale House into a small hotel with additional buildings for the distillery and a visitor centre. They have some of the best views from any distillery in Scotland!
Part of the distillery’s vision was always to produce, mature, bottle and market everything directly from the island. This has helped in creating job opportunities and bringing more trade to other local businesses. The distillery has helped locals who may have had to leave the island for jobs to now return to work in their hometown. What I also noticed during my visit was that most of the staff are quite young, which must create a bit more of a dynamic atmosphere for the island’s everyday life.
Isle of Raasay Single Malt Whisky
When it comes to their whisky, it is as well planned as the rest of the project. The inspiration came from the older styles of Hebridean single malts, styles that had been lost over the centuries. The Isle of Raasay signature flavour profile is a lightly peated whisky with noticeable notes of rich dark fruits.
They distil both peated and non-peated whiskies, which are matured separately in three types of cask: 1st-fill rye whiskey, virgin Chinkapin oak and 1st-fill Bordeaux red wine. After maturation, spirits from these six casks are blended together to create the signature Isle of Raasay Single Malt Whisky, 46.4% ABV.
The water comes from their own well, Tobar na Ba Báine (the Well of the Pale Cow), which flows across the volcanic rock and filters through Jurassic sandstone before reaching the distillery. The same water is used for fermentation, distillation and bottling.
The Chinkapin oak is pretty amazing. I had a chance to sample the whisky straight from the cask and the spirit was already rich in black cherry and redcurrant flavours. The casks have high char and high toast levels, which brings sweetness and smokiness to the spirit and contributes to a darker colour.
The ex-Bordeaux casks are made using two different varieties of French oak. These styles will add savoury spice notes into the spirit. High-quality red wine will also bring more of those desired dark fruit flavours such as blackberries, plums and cherries.
And finally, the ex-rye casks (Woodford Reserve) contribute to spicier black pepper notes and sweet butterscotch.
The bottle design is beautiful and plenty of thought has gone into it. The idea was to capture the island’s natural beauty in the design. They used fossils and rocks from the island to mould the print on the glass. It is definitely a showstopper.
Overall, I’d say the outcome is impressive. The flavour profile is rather complex for a young whisky, with layers of flavours coming though. It is spicy and fruity (plenty of dark fruit as planned) and has a subtle peatiness. Some people may say they are trying to cut corners by using a six-cask blend to reach the complexity of an older, more refined dram, but hey, there is nothing wrong with thinking outside the box and trying something new. If their young whisky is this good, you can only imagine how their 10-year-old will turn out!
Obviously, due to Covid, the distillery tours are limited, and the tasting is hosted outdoors when possible. They have built a covered area in case of rain, but make sure you are dressed appropriately. The distillery is small, so once the full tours go ahead, make sure to book in advance to avoid disappointment as they won’t be able to have many people in the still room at one time. All their tours have been timed so that you can easily make it to the next ferry if you are only visiting for the tour.
There are plans to extend the tour to include a visit to the warehouse or perhaps to host tastings where you could sample the whisky straight from the cask. They definitely have some fun ideas for the distillery, so make sure to keep an eye out for any news in the future.
I recommend you do the chocolate-tasting option as the chocolates are carefully created to make a perfect pairing for both the whisky and their gin.
There is also a bar at the distillery, should you wish to stay for a drink and admire the stunning view.
Staying on the island
We stayed at the Isle of Raasay Distillery Hotel for two nights. They have six rooms, with plans to extend to a few more. Our room had a stunning view and I quite happily sat on the rocking chair sipping whisky and watching people go by. As there is only one restaurant on the island, which was closed on a Sunday due to lack of staff, the Isle of Raasay Distillery Hotel was kind enough to cater us a delicious three-course meal with cocktails. The food was very tasty so I hope they will keep serving dinners in the future.
The hotel had an honesty bar, where you could help yourself to whisky, gin, wine, beers and more. You just had to mark down everything you took, and this was then added to your final bill. You could enjoy these drinks in a small lounge area, in the garden or from the comfort of your room.
In the future, I would like the venue to consider offering packed lunches to their guests as the island only has one venue for lunch and, as I said, it is currently closed on Sundays. Also, there is only one shop near the distillery. So, when people come to the island, they come for two things: for the whisky and for the outdoors. Some of the hikes are fairly long so it is nice to be able to take a break and refuel while admiring the views from above. As it was my birthday, one of the hotel staff kindly gave us a bag full of fresh pastries, which we then took on the hike with us.
The staff at the hotel and the distillery were super-friendly and very chatty. Our tour guide Calum was a great host and was able to answer all our questions and offer us plenty of insight into the history of the island.
The Raasay House is also a great venue to enjoy a drink or a meal. Their library room had a fire on and nice views to the sea. You can also stay there as they have quite a few rooms.
It is possible to enter the island with a campervan, but they have no proper facilities for campers, and spaces to park overnight are very limited. Also, like on many islands, the roads are narrow and slow campervans tend to block the traffic. Make sure you give way when possible, to avoid disrupting the locals getting around.
There are only 161 people living on the island, hence the lack of offering. The island has one hotel, three bed and breakfasts, two shops, one primary school and the distillery.
Top tips for a better trip
- There are limited ferries on Sundays.
- Not much happens on the island on Sundays so plan ahead (for example, currently the Raasay House Hotel is closed on Sundays).
- You can’t prebook the ferry, so arrive at least 15 minutes before the scheduled departure.
- If you just want to visit the distillery, you can leave your car on Skye and walk off the ferry – it is only a few minutes’ walk to the distillery.
- There is only one shop on the island.
- If possible, bring a packed lunch if hiking during the day.
- Campervans are allowed on the island, but there are no official facilities and very few places to park overnight.
- We got extremely lucky with the weather, but normally it can change very quickly, so make sure you have clothes for all weathers.
Great pics & words! I opened my bottle of Raasay’s first, lightly peated permanent expression last week. I absolutely love it … especially the interplay of strong maritime notes and an underlying sweetness is totally my thing! 🙂
Thank you! It’s a great whisky, I bought a bottle to take home as well and will open when I get back to Italy.