Torabhaig (pron. Tora-vaig) is located on the road that runs from Broadford along the southern part of the Isle of Skye, about 7 km before the ferry port of Armadale. Tor means ‘hill’, or ‘heap’, abhaig is ‘bay’, so this is the hill overlooking the bay. It wasn’t here when I came along this road on the Whisky Burn trip; up until recently the only distillery producing whisky on Skye was Talisker. Now, along with the Isle of Harris Distillery, Abhain Deargh on Lewis and Rasaay Island Distillery, the North Western Isles distillery region is growing in size.
Owners Mossburn Distillers started distilling at Torabhaig beginning of 2018 after a lengthy restoration and building project and a multi-million- pound investment. After considering various sites around Scotland, Mossburn chose to renovate a derelict farmstead from the early 1800s. There is a crumbling old mill next door, and on the site of an Iron Age fort overlooking the shore stands a ruined MacCloud castle dating back to pre 1400 AD. Re-used stones from the castle have been found in the walls of the farmstead, and the resident castle ghost, the ‘green lady’, is said to have come across with the stones.
No sign of the Green Lady today, instead visitors’ centre manageress Anne meets me at the reception and takes me around. Like many traditional distilleries around Scotland, Torabhaig is arranged around a central courtyard, on the left is the visitor’s centre, on the right the café, and ahead are the production buildings.
Production water comes down from the pure springs that rise on the hill opposite the distillery, and goes untreated straight in to the mashtun. Cooling water, needing less purity, is sourced from the stream-fed distillery pond. This handsome soak & drain, copper-topped mashtun feeds the 8 Douglas fir washbacks in what used to be the stables. A 72-hour fermentation brings the alcohol content of the ‘beer’ up to 8% ABV, before being pumped into the wash still in 6,000 litres batches.
Tun room, mash house and still house are all under the same roof here, so it is easy to appreciate the entire progression of the distilling process. Two wide-necked, Forsyths stills sit either side of a central spirit safe. The wash still of 8,000 litres is named Sir Iain, after the late Sir Iain Noble, the man who had the original idea for the distillery and got the first permissions for the site. The smaller spirit still is named after his wife, Lady Noble. Lady Noble was here to see the stills in place not long ago and remarked that it seemed as if the two stills sat facing each other in conversation, as her husband and she spent many hours doing, and the conversation is carrying on.
Once distilled, the spirit is sent to receivers in the next room before transportation to warehouses on the Scottish mainland in a variety of ex-bourbon and oloroso sherry casks. 13 full-timers work here with Anne's team of seasonal employees on the visitors’ side of things. Torabhaig opened for tours in March, and are already doing 12 tours per day.
As with all good tours, my visit ends in the tasting room where Anne treats me to a dram of Mossburn’s already released 46% peated blend, an outsourced sign of things to come. It is a very pleasant, spicy, smoky dram, and from this it is clear that Torabhaig is aiming very much for the traditional, full-bodied, peated island style of whisky.
Because of its position, Torabhaig will no doubt prove popular with people stuck for something to do while waiting for the ferry to the mainland, and let’s hope their whisky proves popular too. This is a rare example of a pristine, brand-new distillery with more than just a nod to tradition – it looks as if it has been around for hundreds of years with its renovated stone buildings, copper mash tun, wooden washbacks, and Forsyth’s pot stills, not to mention the ruined castle and ghost stories. It is a welcome addition to the Hebridean distilleries, and though it may not be challenging the market share of the other distillery on the isle for a while yet, it is a little jewel of a distillery.