A Journey To Raasay

What happens when a new whisky distillery opens on a tiny, remote Scottish island?

Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood
There’s a board nailed across the window
I looked through to see the west
And my love is a birch forever
By Hallaig Stream, at her tryst

At Hallaig, a hamlet deserted since 1854 on the south-east coast of the Scottish island Raasay, the slopes down to the sea are so steep that the inhabitants would tether their children to pegs to stop them dropping off the edge while playing. Peering down from the windows of our Land Rover Defender, I imagine the ghosts of these villagers once eulogised in Sorley MacLean’s famous poem ‘Hallaig’, as we bump along the twisting roads of Raasay, a remote inner Hebridean island to the east of Skye.

We’re quickly learning that Iain Hector Ross, our merry guide, is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to the historical quirks of Raasay, which according to the last census in 2011 has a population of 161 people. He points to the clear blue coves where the dolphins lark, and the secluded, sandy beach of Inbhir; where the Queen used to have private picnics with the HMY Britannia moored up just offshore.

Left: Ruins of Brochel, a 15th century castle on the north-east of the island. Right: Views of Raasay’s twisting roads from the Land Rover.

Strictly speaking though, we’re here for the whisky. And while moonshine was (quietly) made on Raasay for generations, the Isle of Raasay Distillery is the island’s first legal distillery, opened in September 2017 by co-founders Alasdair Day and Bill Dobbie. We’re here to drink up the progress they’ve made, and revel in a peaceful weekend at what feels like the end of the world. It’s not often that Scottish distilleries are this good-looking, or that they have luxury accommodation overlooking the sea.

Between Inver and Milk Hollow,
somewhere around Baile-chuirn,
A flickering birch, a hazel,
A trim, straight sapling rowan.

Last year, an advert for a dream job did the rounds amongst whisky aficionados and city-dwellers with romantic aspirations of escape – a distiller was needed to produce the distillery’s first single malt whisky. “Must be enthusiastic about remote island life,” it read.

True, Raasay’s not exactly a doddle to get to. But obviously the journey’s part of the fun. From London, we fly to Inverness, taking a beautiful, meandering drive to the west through the Highlands with it’s open straths, snow-capped crags and shaggy cattle. Then it’s onto Skye and the car ferry from Sconser across the blustery Sound of Raasay. It’s all ridiculously picturesque, but when one of the guys at the distillery gives me a tip-off about taking the train up to Mallaig instead (a route that climbs over the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct) and a ferry onwards from there, I resolve to take the sleeper next time. 

Left: Norman Gillies. Right: The Isle of Raasay Distillery has two beautiful copper pot stills, made by FRILLI, the 106 year-old distillery equipment specialists from Monteriggioni in Tuscany, Italy.

The next day we’re taken up the slope to the whisky warehouse, though that makes it sound more industrial than it is. Right now, it’s more an orderly collection of casks containing the distillery’s first single malt, which will be ready in 2020. Day plunges a whisky thief (a large bronze pipette-like tool) into one of the barrels for us to try, and because it’s still two years off maturing, it’s a light rosy red, transferred from casks which once stored Tuscan wine. Though young, the whisky already has a balanced fruity taste, with a lightly-peated minerality that belies Raasay’s volcanic rock. This doesn’t have the smokey punch of say, a traditional Islay whisky, but that’s exactly what Day and distiller Iain Robertson want; a single malt that’s modern and unafraid to push the boundaries.

The first batch of Isle of Raasay Distillery’s Scotch whisky will be ready in 2020.

Clearly, the abundance of silence is one of the island’s draws for its residents, as well as those who visit. Norman Gillies, the young manager of the distillery, was born on the island; he left Raasay to study engineering on the mainland, and spent time living in Australia too, but he’s back in spite of the fact the island’s population has fallen by over 16% since 2001. As well as having worked on the construction of the distillery, he’s now building his own house in the woods behind it.

As with many remote islands, he tells me, most people on Raasay have at least a couple of jobs. There’s Iain Hector Ross, who is a great writer and has penned an indispensable whisky dictionary, and as well as being distillery manager, Gillies is a fireman too. He describes his own dad as “a hobby bobby” – and in fact, when we’re running low on fuel after our drive in the Defender, we stop at his dad’s house, where he pours petrol into the car from a can. There isn’t a petrol station on Raasay.

Lyn Rowe, a formidable stalwart of the island and a founder of the neighbouring Raasay House, a hotel, hostel and adventure centre rescued from decades of disrepair in the 1980s.

Gillies tells us about growing up here and how seriously the sabbath has always been observed. As a kid he certainly wouldn’t play out on a Sunday, and you’d rarely see anyone outside of their house. No television, household chores. “We wouldn’t even open a book,” he says. While attitudes are relaxing, you still wouldn’t drive through the main village of Inverarish on a Sunday, and Day tells of the diplomacy required to meet the demand of the distillery’s weekend visitors while respecting Raasay’s traditional Sabbath observance.

In Screapadal, where my people
Hail from, the seed and breed
Of Hector Mor and Norman
By the banks of the stream are a wood.

Later in the weekend, most of Raasay crams into the distillery’s dining room to watch Scotland and England play in the Six Nations – even the ‘Batman and Batwoman’ (the two conservationists who keep tabs on the rare resident brown long-eared bats that live in the distillery’s roof) are here. Explaining community politics to us, one local jokes that the Gillies family are like the Kennedys of the island, a long-running family dynasty of sorts, and that having Gillies involved in the distillery was crucial to ensure a harmonious relationship between the new business and the community.

Casks made of French and virgin American oak, as well as Tuscan wine and high rye bourbon casks, are being used at the Isle of Raasay distillery, where 150,000 bottles of Scotch whisky will be produced each year.

Whether that’s a fair comparison or not, the distillery and Raasay’s residents need each other, even if the relationship can be tense at times (like the divided opinions over the golden-clad visitor centre, that sends the sun’s blinding rays out over the water on bright days.) The distillery has created new jobs for those on the island, and in turn those working there – like Barbara Camilli, who was Raasay’s postwoman for 17 years – know everything there is to know about the island. It also means those who’ve lived there longer can keep the newbies in check – and that’s no bad thing. On an island with a dwindling population, new business that’s not only ambitious, but also community-minded, is crucial. As such, Day is also working with local farmers to grow barley, and hopes to one day source all ingredients from the island. That way, there’ll be no mistaking where it comes from.

Left: Architect Olli Blair’s extension for the distillery builds on Borodale House, a disused Victorian hotel. Right: Across the Sound of Raasay is Glamaig – the highest hill of Skye’s Cuillin mountain range. It’s presence can be felt on the west of the Raasay, where the view is imposing and enchanting.

After a weekend in Raasay, I’ve developed rather a soft spot for the place. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is a sleepy island. Sure, there’s single malt scotch and silence in abundance, but there are also lessons in how a community of new and generations-old locals can learn and work together, and most importantly to keep each other in check, to create something that builds on the area’s greatest traditions. 

Photography Sophie Davidson

‘Hallaig’ by Sorley MacLean, translated by Seamus Heaney

Find out what to wear for an off-grid weekend in Scotland 

Japan’s Master Distillers: Suntory whisky

PORT charts the history of Japan’s biggest whisky producer and meets the master distiller at the helm

Yamazaki Suntory Distillery, Japan
Yamazaki Suntory Distillery, Japan

WHISKY WEEK: Whisky is believed to have first appeared in Scottish tax records as early as 1494. In the 521 years since, Scotch has endured an illustrious and complex history to become the standard bearer of international whisky. However, over the last decade another nation has become a recognised contender for the crown: Japan.

In just a fraction of the time that Scotland’s been making single malts and blends, two Japanese brands have shown that high quality Scotch-style whisky doesn’t need to be produced in the West. By intertwining traditional Scottish practices and Eastern beliefs, Suntory and Nikka Whisky Co. have both brought a new, and very welcome, approach to the art of whisky distilling.

yamazaki distillery archives edited
Yamazaki Distillery, from Suntory archives

Although Japanese whisky production began in 1870, Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii set up the country’s first commercial distillery in 1923. Combining his knowledge of Japanese culture with innovative ideas about whisky making, Torii decided on the Vale of Yamazaki as the site for his groundbreaking distillery. His approach was to select whisky distilling climates based on their diversity and, rather than trying to maintain a consistency of cask temperature, he believed in ‘cask breathing’, insisting that the shifting humidity and temperature in the Yamazaki valley could help the whisky age rather than hinder it.

The valley is also where the Katsura, Uji, and Kizi rivers converge, creating a unique climate and an ideal place to collect the ‘soft water’ that Torii and Suntory’s current master blender, Shinji Fukuyo, believe is the key to Japanese whisky.

Shinji Fukuyo, master blender at Suntory
Shinji Fukuyo, master blender at Suntory

According to Fukuyo, whisky made in Japan is “characterised by complex and delicate tastes” and “differences in environment”, which, he suggests, offers different notes to traditional Scotch. “There is soft water in Japan, which is good for making whisky. The climate is warm and wet, making it suitable for aging it too,” Fukuyo adds. “In addition, we have created our blended whiskies in accordance with original Japanese culture – drinking whisky with water.”

A member of the Suntory team at work
A member of the Suntory team at work

Today, Suntory’s two single malts, Yamazaki and Hakushu, and blended Hibiki whisky, continue Torii’s philosophy and follow a respect for the natural ingredients and processes that created them. “We aim high in terms of achievements and work hard developing the refined, balanced whisky range,” Fukuyo adds.

Hakushu distillery, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan
Hakushu distillery, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

The purity of the water is of particular importance to Suntory – the water at Hakushu, for example, offers a ‘rare softness and purity’, as the rain and snow is filtered through thousand-year-old granite rocks. According to Fukuyo, sustainability and Suntory’s distilleries’ consumption of resources form an integral part of the business. “To maintain the sustainability of the groundwater, we signed long-term contracts with forest owners that last decades,” Fukuyo tells me. “And in 2003, we began developing forests in Japan to create that water. We also preserve the forests surrounding the distilleries too.”

Suntory engineers create Mizunara oak cask
Suntory engineers create Mizunara oak cask

As well as water, wood selected for casks is another vital consideration for Fukuyo’s team; Suntory was the first company to create casks using Japanese oak (also known as Mizunara), which results in whiskies with distinct vanilla, floral and honey notes.

Perhaps it’s this willingness to break from Scotch tradition that saw Japanese brands sweep up some of the industry’s top honours in 2015. Nikka earned best blended whisky at World Whiskies Awards, while Suntory secured the top trophy at the International Spirits Challenge for the third year running with its Hibiki 21. In a world where Scotch has dominated but is bound by strict tradition, Japan’s whisky houses are quickly catching up, bringing an art to whisky making that marks a new era in the spirit’s history.

More information on the award-winning Suntory whisky house and its history can be found here

East London Liquor Company: Reviving Whisky In The City

PORT visits the East End startup set to revive whisky production in London, 112 years after the last barrel was produced in the capital

WHISKY WEEK: I’m in the cool, barrel-lined ageing room of the East London Liquor Company and I’ve been handed a heavy cut glass tumbler containing a clear liquid. It’s syrupy and smells of grain. When I take a sip, it blisters into my tongue and burns, but tastes faintly floral. It’s a concoction called White Dog: an un-aged whisky like nothing I’ve tasted before.

“Between 70 and 90 per cent of the flavour of the whisky comes from the barrel,” explains Tom Hills, head distiller at East London Liquor Company. This flavour, he says, is largely dictated by the type of barrel that’s used. For the next three years – the legal minimum ageing period for it to be sold as ‘whisky’ – the colourless, potent liquid in my glass will slowly turn ochre, infused with the flavour of the red wine, white wine, chestnut, new French oak or ex-Bourbon casks it’ll be stored in. And the distillery’s founder, Alex Wolpert, hopes that the resulting whisky will form the next part of an already successful startup business.

Founder Alex Wolpert, left, and head distiller, Tom Hills, right
Founder Alex Wolpert, left, and head distiller, Tom Hills, right

Since it began distilling in July 2014, the East London Liquor Company has released gins and vodkas that have been met with much critical acclaim, but there is an important historical significance in Wolpert’s decision to produce whisky in London that really catches my attention. When the Lee Valley Distillery in nearby Stratford closed in 1903, a tradition of London whisky making in the city disappeared. The White Dog I sampled earlier represents some of the first whisky to be distilled in the capital in over a century.

“People don’t know London had whisky… we’re actually bringing whisky back,” Wolpert tells me, as we stand next to the two gleaming copper stills at the heart of the distillery. “But we’re lucky. There’s no surviving culture of making London whisky, so we have carte blanche to do what we want and to redefine it.”

The distillery's bar, with two German-made copper stills in the background
The distillery’s bar, with two German-made copper stills in the background

As a distiller, Hills relishes this freedom. Unlike distilleries in Scotland, whose whiskies are so well defined and regulated by law, there is scope for him to be truly innovative when creating whisky in London. Despite Scotland being the home of great whisky in the UK, Hills has managed to find inspiration from further afield. “We love what is happening in America, where they’re pushing the boundaries of what we know whisky can be,” he says, enthusiastically. “Then you’ve got the Japanese, who are making absolutely incredible whisky at the moment.”

This break with Scotch tradition also extends to the equipment used at the East London Liquor Company distillery. At the centre of its almost completely self-contained operation (apart from the initial brewing, everything is done on site) are the two antique looking, German-made copper stills. Both stills are handmade in Lake Constance, Germany, by Holstein – a fourth generation still-making family. “The Americans and the Scots have these industrial stills,” Wolpert explains, “but the Europeans have a history of schnapps and their kit is really well refined – they have been playing about for years on a small scale.”

In addition to the whisky, the distillery produces vodka, rum and many different types of gin
In addition to the whisky, the distillery makes vodka, rum and many different types of gin

‘Playing about’ may sound juvenile, but for Wolpert, at least, playing, innovating and enjoying the process is an essential part of his approach in developing spirits. As a young business in an ancient industry, East London Liquor Company is liberated from the restrictions many large-scale spirit producers face. This has pushed Wolpert and his team to use innovative techniques to create gin and vodka, such as the barrel-aged gin to be released this December, and has also had an impact on their whisky distillation.


With commercial rents so high in London, I asked Wolpert why he chose to set up shop in the capital. “We have this playground of bartenders and a very inquisitive public here. What better place to seed a brand, trial it and test it?,” he says. “There is no separation between us and the customer – you can cycle to Shoreditch in five minutes and think about the number of bars there. It’s immediately engaging to say you are local.”

Only time will tell if the East London Liquor Company’s whisky will be a success, but Wolpert and Hills are in it for the long run. “We’re aware of the fact that we’re unlikely to get it right the first time, but we’re experimenting a lot,” Hills tells me back in the distillery cellar. “A lot of what we produce initially will be interesting, but maybe not quite right. Over the course of seven or eight years, we’ll start noticing what’s right and what’s not.”

“It’s very much a leap of faith,” Hills adds, as I take one last sip of the White Dog. “There’s no way of knowing how it will turn out…we’ve just got to put it in a lot of different barrels and, unfortunately, I guess we’ll have to keep drinking it to find out how it’s going.”

Milroy’s of Soho: four essential whiskies

The staff of London’s oldest whisky shop, Milroy’s of Soho, recommend four of their favourite drams from around the world

WHISKY WEEK: Walking down Greek Street in Soho it’s easy to pass by an integral part of London’s drinking history without even looking twice. Milroy’s of Soho, widely considered to be the city’s oldest whisky shop, was founded in 1964 by John ‘Jack’ Milroy as The Soho Wine Market. Its owner at the time, John ‘Jack’ Milroy, soon decided to start stocking premium spirits and, at one point, even counted a former Prime Minister as a regular customer. But far from becoming a dusty relic or a tourist trap, Milroy’s has aged gracefully in the 51 years since it opened its door, establishing itself as a regular haunt for serious whisky drinkers and collectors alike.

In 2014, Milroy’s’ current owner, Martyn ‘Simo’ Simpson, converted the building’s basement into The Vault – a cosy speakeasy bar that lays claim to the largest selection of whisky in the capital, and boasts a secret entrance hidden discretely behind a bookcase.

Sourced from all over the globe by its team of connoisseurs, Milroy’s whisky cabinet appears to have all ends of the spectrum covered – from Scotch single malts to rare ryes and lesser known Japanese whiskies.

To celebrate Whisky Week on PORT, we head down to The Vault and ask the Milroy’s team to select four of their favourite whiskies from around the globe.

Balblair 2003, Highland Single Malt (Scotland)
Balblair 2003, Highland Single Malt (Scotland)


“The Balblair 03 is not your standard bottle, nor is it the niche whisky geek kind… it’s very much in the middle. Matured in ex-bourbon casks, Balblair has a bit more of a vanilla flavour, which comes from a compound in American oak called vanillin that is in the actual makeup of the oak itself. It would go well with something like Victoria Sponge or light tropical fruit…

“Balblair as a brand likes release whiskies in vintages and there is a difference in the whisky each year. They’re blending for single malt and will make maybe 50 to 100 carts as a batch, so they’re blending for quality rather than quantity. So, a Balblair 2004 vintage release will be similar to this 2003 next year, but they do allow a little bit of variation.”

Glendronach 1995 Single Cask 19 Year Old, Speyside Single Malt (Scotland
Glendronach 1995 Single Cask 19 Year Old, Speyside Single Malt (Scotland)


“The vast majority of Glendronach’s whisky is usually matured in ex-sherry barrels, which is also what Macallan and Glenfarclas do. Most distilleries these days use ex-bourbon casks, but 5 to 10 per cent use sherry casks, which gives you a much richer aroma. The Balblair is 46 per cent ABV and the Glendronach is 55.4 per cent ABV, so this is a much punchier whisky.

“Glendronach is renowned for top, top sherry cask whiskies. Sherry seeps into the cask’s oak during the day when it’s warmer, then at night it contracts and leaves particles in the oak, which affects the flavour of the whisky.

“Sherry casks are a great thing to go to if you are wanting to move up a stage, mostly because they’re a bit sweeter. You don’t get big peaty notes or big burnt notes, so they’re a lot easier to drink.”

Whistle Pig 10 Year Old, Straight Rye
Whistle Pig 10 Year Old, Straight Rye (Vermont)


“Rye whiskey is one of our favourite whiskies right now. If you like Scotch go for a rye, you get more of a kick, like an Islay whisky. It’s a good gateway whiskey. Those who like Scotch and are trying to get into bourbon should go through rye first. The spices take away the dryness associated with Scotch whiskey.

“Bourbon is made up of at least 51 per cent corn – the rest can be more corn, malted barley, wheat, rye or whatever else. However, rye is the other way round and has to be at least 51 per cent rye… the rest can be more rye, malted barley, wheat, etc. Overall, rye tends to have a much spicier, orangey flavour.

“People assume that bourbon has to be made in Bourbon County in Kentucky, but it doesn’t. Bourbon has to be made in the USA, that’s the only rule. We have seen the interest for American whiskey really grow, with lots of Scotch drinkers starting to move across. There’s been a serious change in market and some people say that it’s because of TV series such as Mad Men.

“Jim Murray, the whisky reviewer, claimed in his annual essay that he thinks American whiskey is now better than Scottish whisky, which is quite a controversial thing to say. But, he may be onto something in the sense that in, terms of value, bourbon is probably better than Scotch. Also cocktails are very popular now and bourbon is much more versatile than Scotch in that respect.”

Nikka whisky Single Malt Miyagikyo (Japan)
Nikka whisky Single Malt Miyagikyo (Japan)


“Japanese whisky is basically Scotch that isn’t made in Scotland. It’s produced using exactly same process, especially in single malts with malted barley and copper pot stills. Japanese distillers tend to use American oak barrels or sherry casks. The key difference is that Japanese distillers can choose to use Japanese oak for casks, which creates a coconut-like flavour. The problem with this is that it leaks a lot… it’s quite porous. Japanese oak produces lovely flavours, but it’s impractical, so it’s only brewed in small quantities.

Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. was founded by a Japanese man called Masataka Taketsuru, who studied chemistry in Glasgow and worked at a number of distilleries including Ben Nevis. He married a Scottish girl, moved back to Japan, took his craft with him and started Nikka.”

“Miyagikyo is a lighter, more floral whisky than Yoichi, for example, which is another Nikka whisky that’s made in a more peaty style.”

Milroy’s of Soho, 3 Greek Street, London, W1D 4NX.

Illustration Jennicka Sapigao
Additional words Ben Browne and Ray Murphy

The Experimental Whisky Blender: John Glaser

Meet John Glaser – the US-born experimental whisky blender whose unorthodox techniques are redefining Scotch as we know it

WHISKY WEEK: John Glaser has an unorthodox approach to blending whisky. Since setting up London-based Compass Box Whisky Co. in 2000, his blending methods, commitment to cask quality, and experimental recipes, have seen him called alternately ‘an artist’ and ‘a rule-breaker’ by drink industry journalists. His experimental work has also begun to earn him a number of prestigious awards; in 2014 Compass Box won the Drammie award for ‘Most Exciting and Innovative Whisky Producer’, and it has won Whisky Magazine’s ‘Innovator of the Year’ prize five times.

Despite the praise he’s received in the fifteen years since founding Compass Box, John Glaser has stepped on a few traditionalists’ toes with his ideas for treating casks, often borrowing techniques from the world of wine in order to create whisky with greater depths of flavour.

Rather than operating within the stringent boundaries laid down by tradition, Glaser uses the rules of Scotch whisky as a starting point and hopes to see how far he can stretch them, all the while asking the Scotch whisky association to kindly keep any comments to itself.

We caught up with Glaser to discuss the Compass Box philosophy, finding inspiration in everything from literature to liquor labels, and how Johnnie Walker made him fall in love with Scotland.


How did you start in the whisky industry?

I began by studying wine. I left university, I studied literature, but then decided I wanted to make wine. I went to France for a year and then California. Eventually, I got offered a job with a company in New York… a Scotch brand that you might have heard of, Johnnie Walker. I was offered a job in marketing there and I took it thinking I’d do the Scotch thing for a while before moving on to the wine side. But I started being sent to Scotland on various trips and I fell in love.

When did you first try whisky?

I don’t remember the first time I tried whisky, but I do remember the moment that I really began to love the stuff. I was in the Talisker distillery on one of my early trips. I was in the warehouse one crappy, grey, cold, windy, January morning and we were given Talisker out of the cask. The maker made us drink it out of a tall glass measuring cylinder. When it hit my lips – that was the moment I fell in love. It changed my life, literally. It was like an epiphany.

Where is your Scotch produced?

We’re blenders at the end of the day; we buy whisky from a dozen different distilleries across Scotland. Compass Box is carrying on the tradition of whisky blending houses that goes back to the middle part of the 19th century in Scotland. Many of the houses then were not distillers, they were just blenders, and that’s what we are.

We buy whiskies aged and we buy them off the still. We put them into our casks and age them for the future. Then we use those raw materials to create our recipes, before blending and aging further. So a lot of what we do to create a distinctive style is through the maturation process.

Myself and my assistant Greg Glass are in charge of the blending – Greg is there on the day-to-day basis, tastings, developing recipes, while I often work on the ‘bigger picture’ stuff.


What difficulties have you faced in creating your own brand of Scotch using non-traditional methods?

We have been challenged by various powers for things we have done… Years ago, we introduced a whisky where we bought aged whiskies from a couple of different distilleries and then put them through a second aging. We put them in casks with inner staves – an idea technically borrowed from the world of wine, lots of wineries around the world have used this technique for decades. We were buying the very highest specification of oak for these inner staves so it was all about quality, all about making more interestingly flavoured Scotch whiskies.

We also created the Spice Tree blend because the French oak inner staves we were using gave this clove character, a clove, gingery character. The Scotch Whisky Association took us to task for that because it was not what they deemed to be ‘traditional practice’ and in their interpretation one must be traditional to make Scotch whisky.

We lost the battle but we didn’t lose the war. We continued to use this high-quality French oak, and in the end we were allowed to bring back the blends as Scotch whisky.

As a business, we’re not about trying to fit in. We do things that sometimes people think is unusual for Scotch whisky, because Scotch whisky has been so stayed and so tradition-bound for so many years, decades. We do a lot of things that people don’t expect a Scotch whisky producer to do.


Where do the names and concepts for your blends come from?

I came up with a lot of them, over the years. Not all of them thought, ideas can come from anywhere. Things outside our industry i.e. songs, beers. As with any creative business we’re always looking around and making notes, remembering things that appeal to us.

I’ve always got this long list of name ideas. There’s about a hundred of them right now. For example, ‘This is Not a Luxury Whisky’ was inspired by the famous René Magritte painting The Treachery of Images, which contains the phrase ‘this is not a pipe’. Names can come from all over the place.

Can you tell us about your approach to creating beautiful labels for your whisky?

We’ve worked with company Stranger & Stranger for many years and it’s been so fruitful. Sometimes we go to them with a very specific idea, or other times we just given them a name and a story. We’re working on something right now called ‘The Circus’. The name idea was originally inspired by the old Charlie Chaplin film and we thought the theme of the film worked nicely with the idea of the whisky.

One of my favourite briefs was for ‘The Spice Tree’, when I just said: ‘imagine you’ve just taken LSD and you’re lying on your back under a spice tree’. It was a one-sentence brief.

What’s the story behind ‘The Lost Blend’?

That was inspired by an O. Henry story that I read years ago. It’s a beautiful short story. It’s about two guys who try to create this spirit blend with seemingly magical properties. That’s what on the surface it’s about. Beneath that it’s about a boy that meets a girl and falls in love.


Can you talk about the types of casks you use?

We are fanatical about oak and oak casks, because you have to be to make great whisky. Around 60–70 per cent of the flavour from well-aged whisky comes from the oak. I have a real problem with the way the Scotch whisky industry approaches oak, actually. They re-use the cask far too many times and you end up with a whisky, aged for many years, that is sometimes kind of boring without a lot of flavour.

We’re inspired by the wine industry which loves to talk about the ‘provenance of the oak’ that they use for their barrels. If you use higher quality oak with more interesting flavours and flavour compounds, you’re going to have more flavourful, interesting whisky. Simple as that. We do experiment with lots of different types of oak maturation – you have to use oak by law in Scotch whisky, but who cares? So we are also looking at other types of wood, other than oak, such as acacia. They’re just experiments, just ideas.

Photography by Asia Werbel

Compass Box Whisky Co. is celebrating its 15th anniversary with a limited edition range ‘This is Not a Luxury Whisky’

Norlan: A glass to change the whisky industry

PORT meets the New York-based team behind the Norlan Whisky Glass, a tumbler-glass hybrid concept that has raised $800,000 on Kickstarter and is already gaining support from drink industry experts

Marinó Thorlacius for Norlan
Marinó Thorlacius for Norlan

WHISKY WEEK: The Norlan Whisky Glass has a lot to live up to. The brand’s Kickstarter page, which has raised a total of $807,452 through crowdfunding in the 50 days since it was launched, contains a bold opening statement: ‘Meet the glass that will change whisky’.

By fusing ‘design, science, and sociology’, the Norlan team (comprised of Brian Fichtner, Sruli Recht and Shane Bahng) hopes to create ‘the perfect whisky drinking experience’. Between them, the trio can rely on three decades of experience in the design and retail industries, and have a substantial amount of whisky enthusiasm to match. And although it seems as though they’ve set themselves a high bar, the concept has gained a lot more attention than expected, raising ten times the original goal of $75,000 before even going into production.

Fichtner, Recht and Shane Bahng’s creation – an amalgamation of a whisky tumbler and a traditional nosing glass – is primarily scientific. Based on a principle of ‘ultimate aeration’, the glass channels prime aromatics directly to the drinker’s nose when swirled, while the unwanted ethanol is quickly dispersed.

The project has been 18 months the making and has included the use of 3D printing, as well as discussions with some of the oldest and most established distillers around the world. On the eve of the Kickstarter campaign’s conclusion, we caught up with the trio to ask about the glass that, from the support and praise it continues to receive, looks like it may well live up to that big claim.

The Norlan Whisky Glass – Image by Marinó Thorlacius
The Norlan Whisky Glass – Image by Marinó Thorlacius

Where did the concept for the Norlan Whisky Glass come from?

Norlan was founded on the idea of addressing deficiencies in the whisky drinking experience. This was mainly that the world of whisky is dominated by two distinct types of glassware: nosing glasses and classic tumblers. Hence, ‘the glass that will change whisky’.

Changing whisky is obviously a big statement. We mean this both specifically (how whisky tastes, smells, and looks in a glass) and broadly (how whisky is marketed and presented to the consumer). Regarding the broad change, there are so many things about the industry that we feel are not only stagnant, but regressive.

Whisky is not simply about the latest rarity and it certainly shouldn’t be consumed out of just one glass; it is primarily about experience. Of course, we think one’s experience of the spirit is improved by drinking from the Norlan glass, but homogeneity is not what we’re after.

Why the focus on whisky in particular?

We are complex men, with irrational passions, stirred volatile by the potent aged spirit presented in well packaged bottles, for slow consumption, and demonstrable pondering. It picked us. We didn’t pick it… And on one moonless eve, we were united by ‘The Glass from The North’.

Can you talk us through the science behind the glass?

Our intrepid designer found himself face to face with a glass of aromatic force, and visual farce. How could it be the only option for a drinker of stature? It pretty much started from there.

At first, the designer didn’t realise he was approaching the glass from scientific standpoint at all, but an inherent design problem: how do I improve this experience? The science came in when the intuitive approach had taken it to a certain point.

While considering the aroma focus, our designer was watching the waves and thinking about how to get more of that air down into the whisky.

Whisky is made up of over 400 flavour-bearing compounds, and it is suspected that an equal number have yet to be identified. With aeration, the undesirable compounds will evaporate faster than the desirable, aromatic and flavourful ones, which increases the concentration of the aromatics. And thus, a solution was required to agitate the fluid as it swirled in the glass.

 The Kist Edition, a special limited edition case of eight Norlan Whisky Glasses, designed exclusively for Norlan's Kickstarter campaign – image by Marinó Thorlacius
The Kist Edition, a special limited edition case of eight Norlan Whisky Glasses, designed exclusively for Norlan’s Kickstarter campaign – image by Marinó Thorlacius

You have successfully crowdfunded your Kickstarter nine times over. Was this reaction something you expected?

It’s hard to say. One can only hope a project like this gets traction and takes off. We really are trying to improve whisky and not just add a gimmick to the endless product roster — this is a project with scope, research, and heart. We worked super hard to cover all the angles before launching. A lot of the success is to do with timing, and very likely it helps that whisky is having its moment now.

How much innovation have you seen in the today’s whisky glass market?

In terms of design innovation, what you see in today’s market is generally iterations and evolutions of existing products and ideas. Our glass innovates in key areas, yet it is at the end of the day a glass. A glass with some inventions in and around it, but a glass nonetheless. So it’s an interesting thing to think about; is it innovation that is being rewarded, is it hard work, is it persistence, or is it just a popularity contest?

Why did you feel crowdfunding the glass was right for you?

There has been a rapid change for the creative, the consumer, and the producer since the e-commerce explosion. The bar for quality, narrative, and design has definitely continued to rise, pushing people to competitively innovate. What’s most interesting today is how these things have converged in crowdfunding, which has in turn created a new forum for design, innovation, and the power of consumer demand. The latter has the potential to take over the decision making process from manufacturers, distributors, and wholesale buyers.

Crowdfunding can empower consumers to decide what is made, instead of designers and manufacturers forcing a product into existence when there may be no market. Right now, anyone can produce anything, anywhere, anytime. And as consumerism speeds up, aided by the power of e-commerce, this does not make a sustainable situation.

We spent 18 months developing this glass at first because we were simply compelled to. The market potential wasn’t something we thought too much about until we were ready with the prototypes. Yet, without the innovative platform of crowdfunding we would have had a very different route to market. Of course we are super happy that people have gotten behind our project and rewarded its innovation.

What’s next for Norlan?

As we’ve become more involved in the world of whisky, we’ve discovered a myriad opportunities for modernising and evolving the whisky drinking experience. We now have dozens of products in development that will delight the whisky drinker.

In the future, as we release each new product that we have been working on, we plan to address the different issues that we have come across in this lifestyle. Whisky has been around for hundreds of years, and will likely be around for hundreds more, and so, it is ripe for innovation, change, and a breath of fresh air.

The Kickstarter campaign for the Norlan whisky glass ends on December 15

Mark Greenaway’s Burns Night Supper

Edinburgh-based chef Mark Greenaway shares his culinary ode to Scottish poet Robert BurnsMark Greenaway Burns Supper

Every year on January 25th, Scots around the world celebrate Burns Night – an evening dedicated to 18th century poet Robert Burns, who is remembered as Scotland’s most important cultural icon.

Burns’ frank and conversational verse is thought to have directly influenced some of England’s greatest Romantic poets, including Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, and led to his countrymen affectionately calling him ‘Scotland’s favourite son’.

While the chalkboards of British pubs would have you believe Burns Night is largely about raising a few drams of Scotch, there’s a culinary side to the event that shouldn’t be overlooked. With this in mind, we travelled north to meet Edinburgh-based chef Mark Greenaway in his newly-opened private dining room, which was created in collaboration with Scotch whisky distillery The Balvenie. There, Greenaway told us more about the traditions behind Burns Night and shared his modern interpretation of a Burns Night supper.

“Burns Night would normally involve a lot of dancing, a lot of whisky, and haggis as a main course,” Greenaway explained. “Traditionally, the haggis would be piped into the dining room by a bagpiper and carried by the chef. The piper would then say the famous Robert Burns poem Selkirk Grace, which is an address to the haggis. The chef then stabs the haggis – as that’s how the poem ends – before sharing the meat around the room. That’s the Burns Night I know.”

Greenaway’s fondness for creating eight-course degustations from Scottish-sourced ingredients has earned his restaurant three AA Rosettes for Outstanding Cuisine, as well as a number of other industry awards. “All our ingredients are locally sourced. It’s something that we’re really passionate about,” Greenaway enthused. “The general public now demands more of restaurants. They say ‘we want local and we want sustainable… we want to know where the food has come from’. It’s no longer good enough to serve food that could be from anywhere.”

For his own version of Burns Night supper, Greenaway has reimagined Cullen Skink – a thick traditional Scottish soup, which originates from a village on Scotland’s north-east coast. “When it comes to Scottish cooking, it doesn’t get more traditional than Cullen Skink,” he explained. “This soup is stuffed full of comforting ingredients like smoked fish, milk and potatoes. It’s the perfect Burns Night dish as it can warm you up even on the darkest of January days.”

In order to update this Burns Night staple, Greenaway rethought the main elements of the recipe and added a caviar garnish. “The simple ingredients mean that all elements can be rearranged and cooked in different ways to put a modern twist on this classic,” he said. “In my modern version, I cook all of the ingredients separately. I also make a wee traditional soup that guests can pour over the dish. It brings together the best of old and new.”

Some hae meat an
canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit”

– The Selkirk Grace by Robert Burns

Mark Greenaway Burns Supper
Mark Greenaway’s Cullen Skink
Modern Cullen Skink Recipe

Ingredients (serves four)
2 litres of full-fat milk
4 fillets of smoked haddock (de-boned)
2 leeks
20 pearl onions, peeled
2 large Maris piper potatoes (peeled)
Dill to garnish
Chives to garnish
2 dessert spoons of caviar (optional)[/one_half]Method
1. Cut four large diamond shapes from the haddock fillets and set aside, chop remaining haddock into small pieces
2. Cut four large rectangle shapes from the potatoes (big enough to sit the diamond of haddock on)
3. Cut the rest of the potatoes into a small dice
4. Slice the white of the leek into 20 rounds and set aside, dice the remainder of the leek and set aside
5. Blanch the peeled pearl onions in a little salted water until just cooked, keep warm
6. Blanch the large rectangles of potato in boiling salted water until just cooked, keep warm
7. Put the milk, diced leeks, chopped haddock and small diced potatoes in a heavy based pan and simmer for about 10 minutes. Once tender and cooked, blend until smooth and keep warm
8. Meanwhile place a teaspoon of olive oil in a non-stick pan and cook haddock diamonds on nicest looking side first until cooked halfway through. Add leek rounds to pan and cook until the fish is completely cooked and leeks have nicely coloured
9. Check the milk mixture for seasoning and season to taste
10. Assemble and garnish on deep plates, as per photo. Serve the soup mixture separately and let your guests pour it themselves

Serve with a small quenelle of caviar on top of the haddock

Preparation time: 20 minutes / Cooking time: 40 minutes

Words Ray Murphy