Distillery chief is driven by job of taking the spirit of Harris global
SIMON Erlanger’s commute to work must surely be among the best in the world.
Weather permitting, the Isle of Harris Distillers managing director picks up his motorbike at Stornoway Airport and heads down the often largely deserted road to his workplace at Tarbert.
And the new distillery, which is approaching its second anniversary, is at least as inspiring as that journey through a landscape that becomes increasingly dramatic and remote as you head south, from Lewis to Harris.
The multi-million-pound distillery project, the vision of US-born musicologist Anderson Bakewell, has been many years in the making.
However, as he stands in the often hot and noisy room housing gleaming copper stills from Siena in Italy and wooden washbacks for fermentation in what he describes as the distillery’s “beating heart”, Mr Erlanger observes that it is difficult to imagine the site was a “car park” used by camper vans only a few years ago.
Now, each weekday morning, 1.2 tonnes of Scottish malted barley, lightly to mid-peated, go into the mash tun.
The distillery has adopted the Gaelic word for a native of Harris for its single malt Scotch whisky. And Mr Erlanger’s excitement about The Hearach is evident as he noses the new-make spirit that will be bottled in years to come. Also plain is his delight about the fillip the distillery is providing to the fragile economy of Harris.
The distillery has become a central part of the community on Harris. Isle of Harris Distillers will, by the time its latest recruit joins next week, employ 30 people who live locally, already exceeding its initial target of 19 by more than 50 per cent. In 2016, the distillery had 69,000 visitors. Current figures indicate visitor numbers this year could total 85,000.
All of this, as Mr Erlanger notes, means the vision of Mr Bakewell is being realised.
Mr Erlanger says: “It was his vision to do something to stem that population decline [on Harris].
“He didn’t come from the [Scotch whisky] industry. It took someone from outside the industry to come up with the idea. He just had this feeling that distilleries tend to last for generations, rather than [being] short-term ventures.”
Mr Erlanger adds: “He also had this idea, if you could somehow bottle the essence of Harris and send it out to the world, you could encourage people to come on holiday here. Here we are, 10 years later and two years into the journey.”
By the spring of 2015, a total of
£8.3 million in equity and £3.1m of grant funding had been raised for the distillery project. The venture has 17 private investors, one based in Switzerland, another in Germany, and one in Taiwan. Scottish Enterprise put up £1.5m of the equity, through its Scottish Investment Bank arm.
Isle of Harris Distillers has been enjoying success with its premium gin, the distillation and sale of which are helping fund the production and maturation of the spirit that will in coming years be bottled as The Hearach.
Mr Erlanger emphasises the single malt is the key focus of the distillery.
He highlights his view that Isle of Harris gin could be the ideal ingredient for gin martinis, the so-called “king of cocktails” in which “the spirit is the hero”, and the distillery is working with its bar and restaurant partners on this.
However, he adds: “Notwithstanding the gin, we are a whisky distillery first and foremost. This is the lifeblood of the
Production manager Kenny Maclean says distillery is a source of local pride.
company. Everything is focused on making that as good as it can be.”
Nosing the new-make spirit, Mr Erlanger declares that Isle of Harris Distillers believes this has “lots of complexity and character” and that it has “the potential to turn into a great single malt”.
He talks about smoke and sherry notes, and a full-bodied and smooth spirit, citing the importance of “balance” as well as character and complexity.
Mr Erlanger adds: “Hopefully, we create something distinctive.”
The indications are that the spirit that is lying in cask at Isle of Harris Distillers’ warehouse by the shores of Loch an Siar near Ardhasaig, about three miles north of Tarbert and exposed to the Atlantic weather, will be ready for bottling from late 2020.
However, Mr Erlanger emphasises the single malt Scotch will not be bottled until it is ready, noting the board is clear on this.
He says: “Whatever constraints or pressures there might be, the last thing we would do is release The Hearach before it is ready. I think we have set the benchmark pretty high with the gin. It [The Hearach] will be ready when it is ready.”
Mr Erlanger, a former sales and marketing director of Scotch whisky distiller Glenmorangie, adds: “From a commercial point of view, the more successful the gin is, the less pressure we have to bring the whisky to the market…because of the cash that is generated from the gin.”
He declares it is “highly unlikely” Isle of Harris Distillers would bottle its whisky before it is four years old.
Mr Erlanger notes Isle of Harris Distillers “symbolically” filled three barrels with spirit on December 17, 2015.
The first quarter of 2016 was spent “optimising” the spirit, with the filling of casks getting under way in earnest in the second quarter of last year.
Mr Erlanger, standing in the filling store at the distillery in which barrels containing the future single malt are stacked, declares he and his team are “incredibly particular” when it comes to the casks in which the new-make spirit is matured.
He says: “Legend has it that maybe more than 50 per cent of the flavour will come from the casks it is matured in, and where it is matured will also have an influence.”
Mr Erlanger adds: “One hundred per cent of our Bourbon barrels are what you call first-fill – that means they have never held Scotch before.”
He and Kenny Maclean, production manager at Isle of Harris Distillers, spent a whole week in Kentucky visiting different distilleries and cooperages, and building relationships, as part of a drive to ensure they are as knowledgeable as possible about their casks.
Mr Erlanger notes that Isle of Harris Distillers, which last year welcomed Prince Charles, sources Bourbon barrels from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky.
He says: “We know they have a phenomenal reputation for how they look
Simon Erlanger, managing director of Isle of Harris Distillers, observes that it is difficult to imagine the site at Tarbert was a car park used by camper vans only a few years ago, as he sets out the vision for The Hearach single malt. NUFFIELD Scholar Richard Hinchliffe’s newlypublished report on tackling the problem of global herbicide resistance says that relying on herbicides alone has contributed to the widespread herbicide resistance problems that we are seeing today. Herbicides in the past were highly effective, cheap and easy to use.
Mr Hinchliffe said: “If you look at the problem simply, herbicide resistance is nature’s way of telling us herbicides alone are not sustainable and introducing more diverse weed-control methods is required to disrupt the weed’s life cycle.”
His study tour took him to the US, Australia and Argentina as well as the UK. The US was chosen because it is seen by many to be the home of glyphosate, genetic modification technology, and vast acres of just corn and soybeans.
Australia has world-class herbicide resistance problems, while export quotas and tariffs on certain crops in Argentina has led to over 60 per cent of cropping land being placed in soybean production and the rapid development of herbicide resistance in a number of weeds.
Mr Hinchliffe found that farmers and agronomists were actively looking for better ways of dealing with herbicide resistance, with the momentum moving to more cultural control of weeds rather than relying on synthetic chemistry.
This is particularly important since no new herbicidal mode of action has been discovered for more than 20 years, and even if a new mode of action was discovered today it would take many years to work its way through the regulatory process before reaching the market.
Messrs Craig Wilson Ltd had 4,158 store and breeding sheep forward at Ayr on Thursday that included their annual Blackface ewe sale that sold to £84 per head twice for two pens off both of Messrs Andrew Paton & Co’s, Largs and Craig units at Straiton. The 1,316 BF ewes sold averaged £60.61 (-£10.67 on the year), while 631 BF gimmers sold to £147 and averaged £100.07 (+£4.70).
C&D Auction Marts Ltd sold 3,164 prime lambs in Longtown on Thursday to a top of £103 per head and 228p per kg to average 170p (-3.4p on the week). A larger show of 5,897 cast sheep saw heavy ewes average £72.84 (+£3.62). Light ewes levelled at £41.40 (+£3.09).