From Tarbert Harbour, it looks like a church: the tall, peaked roof; uniform white walls; and a large glass window reaching into the eaves, reaching to a point where I almost expect to see a spire.
It’s not a church, though; it’s a distillery.
Since it opened less than a year ago, the Isle of Harris Distillery – the first distillery on the island – has already become a fixture in the community, and on the Hebridean tourist trail.
Naturally, then, the Harris Distillery (officially The Isle of Harris Distillers Ltd), was one of my first stops during my visit home to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland this spring. Visiting the Harris Distillery is an immersive experience from the moment you step inside the door and see (not to mention smell) the open fire.
It’s partly because every last detail has been lovingly thought of (the legs of every table in the building outline the letter ‘H’, for example), and partly because the distillery has been created from the ground up to be an integrated member of the local Harris community.
There’s no mistaking this place for anywhere else.
The distillery is firmly rooted in Harris, not just aesthetically, but economically and socially too. This is after all, the ‘Social Distillery,’ one that comes from the community, and gives back to the community, creating local jobs, and sending the spirit of the island out into the wider world – literally and figuratively.
You simply cannot separate the Harris Distillery from the destination: Harris runs through its foundations, its people, and of course, its whisky-in-progress (not to mention its award-winning Harris Gin, which has an eager global fan base). The first bottling of the whisky will be limited to just 1916 bottles, the same as the number of Harris residents.
Our experience at the Harris Distillery began in the lobby, where candid photos of employees enjoying Harris life line the walls. They hang around the corner from a Harris Tweed-clad wall, reminiscent of the ripples in the harbor at the doorstep, and across from a larger-than-life sized Gaelic language Ordinance Survey map of the island.
We could hear the tinkling of teacups in the small canteen down the corridor, but instead worked our way towards the back of the lobby to peruse the shop offerings while we waited for the tour – which runs three days a week in the summer months – to start.
While the whisky, appropriately named The Hearach, is still a work in progress, the Isle of Harris Gin, infused with local sugar kelp, is already available to buy – but only directly from the distillery, keeping the business local. The beautiful bottles have gained a cult-like following around the world, and seeing them lined up on the shelves in the shop, their rippled glass reflecting the light, it was easy to see why.
Alongside the gin was a variety of merchandise, from the tonic water the distillery recommends you add to your G&T, and the glasses to drink it in, to a special blend of peat-smoked tea that is proving especially popular in the aforementioned canteen.
There are only a few spaces on the tours, and ours began in the tasting room next to the shop.
It’s a beautiful space, with an oak counter inlaid with anorthosite from the nearby Lingerbay Quarry; the stone is found not only on Harris, but on the moon too.
The group of us made ourselves comfortable around the table, where two glasses sat waiting in front of each seat. One held the pure spirit after distillation, and the other a blend of whiskies that offered an idea of what The Hearach may taste like once it’s matured.
While I’m not much of a whisky drinker – Mr. Stories My Suitcase Could Tell drank my dram as well as his own! – I love the stories behind the spirits, and the Harris Distillery has stories in spades.
The walls of the tasting room are lined in wood, to give the aura of the inside of the casks where the whisky will age; a copper skylight offers a glimpse of the state of island weather that day.
Facing the table, a stunning Harris Tweed abacus indicates the levels of different flavours in the malt, from floral and citrus notes (the green, yellow, and pink Tweeds) to tobacco and leather (brown). As Sandy, our tour guide for the morning, explained, the distillery is hoping to convey the “different landscapes of Harris in the whisky” through its varied flavour notes.
A local nosing panel was set up to help the creation of The Hearach, which will be stored in sherry casks, both at the distillery and in nearby Ardhasaig, for four years. “If it’s not ready, we won’t bottle it,” Sandy told us. “Our motto is that life takes time when you live on an island, so we don’t want to put our name on it until it’s ready.”
From the tasting room, we were led upstairs.
Here, we encountered the actual components that we’d seen represented on the abacus: the local stone that the water source passes over; the peat that gives a smoky edge to the vanilla tones; the grain that starts off the whole process.
There were even jelly beans there – yes, jelly beans. Not just for kids, these high-end jelly beans have been carefully selected to give visitors a taste of the flavours that infuse the spirits. I have to admit, I loved them, and not just because of my sweet tooth: it’s a laid-back, fun way to teach people about the process, and it works brilliantly.
Sweet tooth satisfied, it was time for the heart of it all: the distillery itself.
The copper stills, shipped from the hills of Italy, stand tall and imposing in the bright, white space. (This is where that church-style window is located, allowing those in charge of the crucial distillation process to admire the lovely view of East Loch Tarbert as they go about their business.)
While the gleaming whisky stills were impressive, I felt a fondess for the gin still – if it’s possible to feel fond of a piece of machinery. Perhaps it’s the story of the still that inspires familiarity; dinky in appearance next to its imposing siblings, The Dotach is named after a local Hearach, a “feisty local lady of rather diminutive stature,” who lived in the village of Beadersaig before she passed away. It’s just one more example of how the Harris Distillery really is a part of the place itself.
Our final stop was the bottling area, which involved a brief but hurried walk outside in the cold to another building, where a small number of whisky casks are being stored, and where we were able to watch the gin bottles being filled and then labelled by hand.
At the end of a tour, the distillery canteen is waiting to offer sustenance.
The canteen was deliberately kept small, so as not to detract from other local cafes and restaurants in the town. This means that instead of full meals, local snacks are on offer, including soups, teas, and a wide range of baking.
And then there are the scones, which I have been dreaming of ever since: homemade using a recipe from the former cook at Amhuinnsuidhe Castle (which you can see on the way to Huisinis), warm to the touch, and perfect with lashings of homemade cream and jam.
It was strangely sad to leave the distillery, so welcoming is its atmosphere; I returned again during my time at home for another scone (and yes, another bottle of that delicious Harris gin). Maybe it was because I knew I couldn’t return for many months, or maybe it was the love shown for the island in every corner of the building.
Even if you have no interest in whisky, or gin – or alcohol at all – the Harris Distillery is still an essential experience for anyone travelling through the Outer Hebrides.
Because this distillery is about more than the spirits in the stills. The Harris Distillery is also about the spirit of its staff, the spirit of a community, and the spirit of Harris itself.
(And it’s also about the scones, but don’t say I said so.)
NEED TO KNOW
Where is the distillery? The distillery is located in Tarbert, the main town on the Isle of Harris. Whether you’re coming by road from Lewis or Harris, or by boat from Skye, you can’t miss it! Opening hours are Monday – Saturday, 10am – 5pm, and you are guaranteed a very warm welcome. Tours cost £10 per person.
How can I buy gin/whisky/glasses etc? To keep business in Harris, products can only be bought directly from the distillery. You can do that either in person (which I highly recommend), or through their website. (However, due to custom laws, alcohol can’t be shipped to certain countries. Here’s looking at you, USA.)
Have you ever been to the Isle of Harris Distillery, or would you like to visit?
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