Interview with Alasdair Day and Bill Dobbie, founders of Isle of Raasay Distillery
Today, we are inviting you to meet the Isle of Raasay Distillery on the island of Raasay in Scotland. Enjoy with us the story of the distillery, shared by its founders: Alasdair Day and Bill Dobbie.
1. How did you two – Alasdair Day and Bill Dobbie – meet and how did the idea of building a distillery come up?
Alasdair: In 2009, my father gave me my great grandfather Richard Day’s treasured cellar book of recipes for blended whiskies. Richard Day took over the Brewery, Licenced Grocers and Whisky Blending business J&A Davidson in Coldstream, the Scottish Borders in 1923.
I went through the book and realised that I could probably get all the different whiskies I needed to recreate my great-grandfather’s Tweeddale blend, nine whiskies in total, and in May 2010 I sold my first bottle of Tweeddale.
By about 2012, it was getting harder and harder to buy mature whisky to blend, and I thought if I was going to do this full time it would need serious investment. But when I worked out what it would cost to buy and mature new fillings for a long-term blending business, it was about the same amount of money I needed to build a small distillery.
Bill : Myself and Alasdair first met in 2013, when I was looking at potential investments. Serendipity is a word you hear talked about a lot in the whisky industry. I had been on holiday with an old school friend, whose wife has connections to the Isle of Raasay, where the nineteenth century Borodale House, originally the factor’s house and the old Isle of Raasay Hotel, was up for sale. I didn’t take long to be convinced that I needed to visit Raasay asap.
When I visited Raasay with my wife in 2014 and stood where the distillery sits now, drinking up the views of the Cuillin mountains on the Isle of Skye, we knew it would provide the ingredients for the perfect dram.
Alasdair : By 2016, we had planning permission to begin work revitalising Borodale House into a state of the art distillery, visitor centre, and luxury accommodation.
The island’s first legal distillation took place on 14th September 2017, and the Isle of Raasay Single Malt Inaugural Release 2020 sold out before it was even launched! After we opened our doors to the public in 2018, demand for an Isle of Raasay Gin began to grow and the following summer, we launched Isle of Raasay Gin. A smooth and zesty dry island gin.
This year we launched our Isle of Raasay Single Malt and our organization was recognized as the Newcomer of the Year at the Scottish Whisky Awards on November 30th.
2. Why Raasay? What makes it so unique?
Alasdair : The Isle of Raasay, an island rooted in centuries of illicit distilling, is situated perfectly between the Isle of Skye and Scotland’s stunning west coast with views in every direction of the volcanic mountains of Skye and the ancient peaks of Wester Ross.
With a regular ferry service to and from the neighbouring Isle of Skye, Raasay is one of the most accessible islands in Scotland.
Bill : The island’s landscape is incredible. Much of the geological history of Scotland is here in one form or another. The island’s many lochs are remnants of the glaciers that took chunks out of the island as they melted, leaving pools of water. The water flows across volcanic rock and filters through Jurassic sandstone, adding minerals that help develop sweet flavours in our spirit before it even touches the oak of the cask.
We mature all our spirit on the island, maximising the influence of our maritime, Hebridean climate on the spirit.
Alasdair : In the next few years, we will be releasing the first ever 100% Isle of Raasay Single Malt made with local Raasay barley that has been malted with local peat.
Rich in history, culture, and geological variety, with such a fragrant landscape and a wealth of flavour possibilities, we couldn’t ask for a better place to create an elegant single malt Scotch whisky with real depth and complexity. All that tradition combined with contemporary thinking is not only unique, but awe-inspiring.
3. How does your logo represent Raasay?
Bill : The greatest influence on our identity is the Isle of Raasay. Our logo represents the landscape and the geological strata of Raasay, and acts as a gold stamp of approval guaranteeing the provenance and quality of our spirits.
4. Apparently, the secret ingredient is not that much of a secret: it’s the water you use. Can you tell us about it?
I think that Alasdair is really proud about this, explains Bill as Alasdair chuckles. Raasay water has a huge influence on our spirit, confirms Alasdair, the man behind the spirits.
Alasdair : Falling as rain on the island’s flat-topped peak, Dun Caan, it then flows across volcanic rock and down through sedimentary Jurassic sandstone to our well on site, known as the Tobar na Ba Bàine, ‘Well of the Pale Cow’.
As a result, our water has a high mineral content and the presence of minerals like manganese enhance yeast development during the fermentation process, creating sweet flavours in our spirit early on.
Unlike many distilleries, we use our own Raasay water at every stage of production from mashing to cask reduction, and bottling. If your single malt is 46% ABV, and 54% of that spirit is water, then you need to make sure the water is of the highest quality.
5. One of your goals is to use a mode modern approach towards traditional spirit-making. How do you plan to achieve that?
Alasdair : When building our distillery, Bill and I wanted to do things differently. But how can you innovate in such a traditional industry?
Due to the illustrious heritage of blending Scotch Whisky, the conventional wisdom says you make one style of single malt in a distillery as efficiently as possible, then mature it in an oak cask, typically an ex-bourbon cask, and wait until it is ready (10, 12, 15, 18 or more years).
But what if you were to design a distillery with the flexibility to make different styles of single malt? This is an approach more typical in other countries like Japan, Taiwan, USA and Tasmania in Australia, and it is the approach that we have taken on the Isle of Raasay.
Bill : It is incredibly rare, if not a first, in the Scotch whisky industry not to use ex-Bourbon casks for the bulk of maturation. At the Isle of Raasay Distillery, we mature both peated and unpeated Isle of Raasay spirit in separately in three different cask types: ex-Rye Whiskey casks, Chinkapin oak and ex-Bordeaux red wine casks.
By running peated and unpeated spirit at different times of the year, we have built flexibility into the process so we can achieve the perfect level of peatiness and balance of flavours depending on the release.
Our three to five day fermentations develop sweet blackberry characteristics in our spirit, and this combined with our unique six-cask maturation process creates real elegance, depth and complexity in our whisky.
Alasdair : We also want to prioritise sustainability and when designing our distillery, we installed two Heat Recovery Systems that recycle heat from the mashing and distillation processes, helping us to save energy where possible. Sustainability is at the forefront of our minds whenever we are innovating.
6. Can you explain how your distillery shapes the economy of Raasay?
Alasdair : The Isle of Raasay is about 24 square miles. To give you an idea of scale, it is slightly larger than Manhattan Island and very similar in shape, although with a population of 161 instead of 1.6 million.
Bill : We are very proud to say that we employ around 10% of the island, with some folk returning to live on the island especially to work at the distillery.
We also work with local crofters, providing the draff (spent barley) as feed for the animals, and we have successfully grown and harvested barley on Raasay for the first time in over 40 years.
We intend to expand such collaborations across the island, while using local peat to dry the barley, enabling us to craft an annual release of 100% Isle of Raasay single malt.
Alasdair : We are also the only distillery in Scotland with luxury accommodation in the same building as the still house. Our five-star visitor centre and luxury accommodation welcome a growing number of visitors to the island each year, helping contribute to the local island economy.
7. Why do you think Quebecers will fall in love with your spirits?
Bill : The people of Québec will fall in love with our terroir-driven spirits because they are a product of passion and provenance.
Alasdair : Every drop of Isle of Raasay spirit is distilled, matured, and bottled on the island using water from our well, thus maximising the influence of the Hebrides on the final flavour of our spirit.
At the Isle of Raasay, we are not afraid to combine tradition with contemporary thinking, marrying the old with the new to create some of the best island single malt Scotch whisky around.
Bill : Let’s also not forget the strong historic links between Scotland and Québec, where many Scottish Gaelic speakers settled during the 19th century.
8. What do you recommend to the spirit lovers from Quebec who will discover your products and want to visit your distillery?
Bill : You might want to spend all your time on the Isle of Raasay relaxing with a dram or a G&T admiring the ever-changing views of Skye, an experience that lives with you long after you leave. However, if you can tear your eyes away from the view, this small but mighty island has so much more to offer.
Alasdair : We offer a variety of different tours at our award-winning five-star visitor centre, including tasting tours with cask samples in our warehouse, or cocktails, and chocolate pairings in the distillery.
Discover Raasay’s fascinating history, secret beaches and exciting wildlife, cycle around the island, or head to the outdoor centre for a kayak around the Inner Sound.
Bill : For an unforgettable experience, we highly recommend spending the night in Borodale House, our luxury distillery accommodation.
9. You are a young distillery and your main core of single malt has been released in 2021. How do you see Raasay distillery in the next five years?
Alasdair : We set out to emulate some older styles of Hebridean single malts, with subtle, fragrant smokiness balanced with dark fruit flavours.
Over the next five years we hope to bring our six cask story to as many whisky fans as possible. We look forward to continuing to work with partners like yourselves, and to continuing our award-winning Virtual Tasting experiences.
In time of pandemic, these online tastings have helped introduce more and more people to Isle of Raasay spirits and helped them understand how we achieve elegance, complexity, and depth of character. Now we can once again welcome people to our distillery and show them our product line in person.
Bill : We also plan to release some single cask whiskies as part of a ‘deconstruction of the dram’ series. These single casks will showcase the recipe casks from our signature Isle of Raasay Single Malt.
We will also be releasing the first ever 100% Isle of Raasay Single Malt with spirit made from local Raasay barley that was malted using local peat.
In future years, we will slowly expand our range of single malt, with peated and unpeated releases. We hope that the quality of our spirit will put us on the top of everyone’s wishlist. Our decanter-like glass bottle, with Raasay’s fossils and rocks moulded into the glass, captures Raasay’s rugged natural beauty, and makes our brand easily recognisable on any shelf. A fusion of tradition with contemporary thinking, process, and design. That’s the Raasay way.
So, yes, Isle of Raasay distillery is the one to look out for! 😊