Isle of Harris Distillery
Inspired by decades of life spent among the landscapes of Harris and people of the community, Anderson ‘Burr’ Bakewell believed that the rare and elusive spirit found on the isle could be captured in a bottle and shared with the world.
Over the decades Burr, like many others, noted with sadness the long-term decline in the island’s population. As young people left their shores to seek their fortune, few were able to return to find work and the community’s numbers have halved over the last fifty years.
He believed that a distillery, built not just for years but also for generations, could be a way to help stem this tide. So he gathered a group of like-minded individuals around him and set out on a seven-year journey to bring his ambitions to reality.
September 2015 saw Burr’s simple idea finally come to fruition as the doors to the Isle of Harris Distillery opened for the first time. Gathering to light an inaugural fire in the distillery hearth, he threw the largest ceilidh (a traditional Scottish social gathering) the island had ever seen with hundreds of fellow islanders joining in for a night of music, dancing and song.
The distillery started life with just ten people and an ambition to double this number over the next five years. Today, they are proud to employ almost forty permanent staff, a highly significant number on an island of fewer than two-thousand inhabitants.
In these early days of their history, it is clear that Burr’s vision is already making a real difference on the Isle of Harris. As ‘The Social Distillery’, they pride themselves in their community spirit. Their staff have an allocation of paid time off work to take part in community volunteering and they regularly organise beach cleans, fundraise for the local school choirs, donate prizes for community raffles and host community events including the annual village Santa Run and Christmas tree lighting.
Alongside a number of ongoing green initiatives, including plastic elimination across their range, energy use mitigation, an aluminium Refill Bottle project and ground source and circulatory heating, they also donate the ‘draff’ barley, a by-product from their whiskymaking, to local crofters to feed their livestock. In addition, their Sugar Kelp botanical is harvested sustainably and by hand and they are involved in an experimental kelp farm to further reduce the impact of their work on the local environment.
As a catalyst for positive change within the community, they continue to work with purpose, bringing new life to their island and supporting its aspirations to survive and thrive as they move forward together to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Every drop of the award-winning Isle of Harris Gin is made in the small village of Tarbert. The first offering from the distillery, the gin is made in a small copper gin still nicknamed ‘The Dotach’ (in honour of a similarly small and feisty local woman who is fondly remembered in Harris from days gone by) which sits alongside her larger whisky-making sisters in the distillery’s bright Spirit Hall.
Sugar Kelp seaweed, gathered sustainably by hand from local sea-lochs, is used as the key botanical to express the island’s unique maritime nature. The spirit is softened by the fresh, low-mineral rainwaters which flow from the nearby source stream of Abhainn Cnoc a ’Charrain.
No effort or expense is spared in making Isle of Harris Gin the best it can be. During the distillation process they do something quite unusual to create a gin which is exceptionally smooth and luxurious to taste. Each distillation can be divided into three parts: the heads, the heart, and the tails. Or, put more simply, the beginning, middle and end. The heads are the first part of the crystal clear liquid which will flow from the still, high in strength but poorer in flavour. Then comes the heart, the very best of the distilling run and the part they strive to capture. Finally, the weaker tails emerge, also less desirable in terms of taste, as the distilling process comes to a close.
Most gin-makers will ‘recycle’ these heads and tails, returning them to the still to be used again, but Isle of Harris Distillery remove them from the process entirely. It is an expensive decision to make but means they only ever bottle the purest heart, ensuring every drop of Isle of Harris Gin shared with the world holds only the very best of their distilling craft. The result is a luxuriously smooth and complex spirit of superior quality, perfect to sip on its own, enjoy over ice or in a classic Martini.
Every step of the Isle of Harris Gin journey is placed in the care of skilled local hands. Their friend and diver Lewis Mackenzie, is responsible for managing the underwater seaweed forests where Sugar Kelp grows during the warmer months. A former scallop diver, he now handpicks the best gold-green fronds of Sugar Kelp to help make Isle of Harris Gin.
This defining ingredient in their spirit making is then dried for them by the expert team at Hebridean Seaweed Company in the nearby town of Stornoway and sent directly to the distillery in Tarbert. Here, five local distillers and two trainees perfect their craft, setting to work each day creating the Isle of Harris Gin we know and love in small batches and with traditional technique.
In this way, the success of the distillery’s first release is directly connected to the creation of sustainable island employment as more jobs are made to help meet demand and, in turn, support the islands’ often fragile economy.
By keeping every aspect of business local, Isle of Harris Gin is generating work and vital full-time jobs within their community, allowing them to realise the distillery’s ambitions to help the island survive and thrive.