Unheard-of Scotch whisky region

Lewis, the largest of the Outer Hebrides islands clustered off Scotland's west coast, is a wild, wind-whipped place. Surfers come for its golden sand beaches relentlessly battered by the Atlantic Ocean. I came for the Scotch.

Perched in that idyllic location is an unexpected, rather ramshackle sight: a whisky distillery - the first licensed malt shop to operate since local mores shut down stills two centuries ago. Mr Mark Tayburn is the man behind the Abhainn Dearg distillery.

His new namesake water of life is the final bottle needed in a comprehensive whisky collection, its unassuming cluster of huts the final stop on a tasting map tour. This is about as far afield as a besotted whisky aficionado could get.

Nearby, the waterway after which the distillery is named sloshes noisily, easily audible above the tinkly pop music piped into the work area.

"It doesn't pick up peat," Mr Tayburn says of the fresh supply. "It's very, very soft and always runs clean."

Abhainn Dearg is Gaelic for Red River, referring to a brutal battle between locals and marauding Vikings.

Inspired by this fresh source of water, the Hebrides-born former construction worker took over a one-time salmon hatchery and turned it into a distillery, for which he was granted legal permits in 2008. Three years later, his fledgling operation released its first batch in tiny quantities.

The liquid itself is surprisingly light and sweet, less peaty and smoky than malts from Islay in the Inner Hebrides, the region's less windswept sister islands. The nine thriving distilleries there produce such renowned, peaty malts as Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin, which bodes well for the success of the Outer Hebrides.

For now, much of that early batch has been reserved for a 10-year single malt, which will stay in barrel until 2018. Whisky completists should mark their calendars for that issue and ask Mr Tayburn to notify them as soon as it is available. This is a rare chance to pick up a distiller's first-ever expression for just a few hundred dollars.

Meanwhile, Mr Tayburn is workshopping his methods, developing what he calls "field to bottle" whisky, where every ingredient is grown locally. The barley struggles somewhat in the peaty soil blanketing the island, giving it its own terroir of sorts. The malt is then kilned using the same burning peat. It, too, will eventually be released as a 10-year expression.

Mr Tayburn limits production to just 10,000 or so litres each year, though his distillery has capacity for up to five times as much.

"Life's too short. I like to be home at night, playing with the wee one," he says with a shrug.

With a full-time staff of four, plus two part-timers, he is affably casual with anyone who stops by for a distillery tour. He sells his spirits online as well as in person. By the time his tipples appear, though, they would not be alone.

In Harris, the island to the south of Lewis, another new liquor firm has just opened. The Harris Distillery is housed inside the former police station in the town of Tarbert and run by the charming Glenmorangie vet Simon Erlanger. He is hopeful of bottling the house dram, known as Hearach, in about four years' time; the first batch will consist of 1,916 bottles, one for every person living on Harris.

Abhainn Dearg and Harris Distillery see each other as allies rather than rivals in their nascent niche. "I would love to have more distilleries so the Outer Hebrides is recognised as a new whisky region," Mr Erlanger says.

Adds Mr Tayburn: "Maybe we could set up a whisky trail through these islands."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 01, 2016, with the headline 'Unheard-of Scotch whisky region'. Subscribe