"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Talisker Distillery, Isle of Skye

From Tobermory Barnard’s party returned to Oban for another night at the “well-appointed” Craigard Hotel, perhaps having stayed for just one night on Mull although he doesn’t say, and then left for Skye early the following morning on MacBrayne's steamship ‘Glencoe’.  This journey began with a trip straight back up the Sound of Mull to Tobermory and it is unclear why they didn’t join the ferry there rather than return to Oban first.

Barnard records that they had been anticipating this part of the journey for weeks “and consequently were anxious about the weather”, which turned out to be rather fine in the end, only occasional showers driving them below deck.  They began the day with a hearty breakfast and I am beginning to see that Barnard regularly enjoyed the simple pleasure of a good feed, a practice I have happily adopted for my own journey.  It is hard work visiting all these distilleries, honest it is; hearty sustenance is indeed required!

Their steamer was to take a two hour detour on route to Portree, the capital of Skye.  They stopped by Loch Coruisk on the south coast and were transferred to shore in a couple of large boats “manned by a sturdy set of Skyemen” who wore the uniform of MacBraynes.  I am somewhat envious of Barnard as he makes the short five minute walk inland to the edge of one of the most spectacular views in Britain, one that I have yet to see.  Loch Coruisk stretches for two miles into the very heart of the Cuillin Mountains, cliffs rising on all sides.

For once Barnard is almost lost for words, his normal ebullient descriptions of the landscape seemingly deserting him.  He records that the “awful grandeur would be impossible to describe” and leaves the romanticism to Sir Walter Scott, the lines here from his epic poem from 1815 The Lord of the Isles:

“A scene so wild, so rude as this,
Yet so sublime in barrenness,
Ne’er did my wandering footsteps press
Where’er they happ’d to roam.”

You will need to search online for images of the loch; for now I can leave you with the only slightly less grand view of the Cuillins from the other side, this picture taken near dusk in Glen Brittle.  Those of you lucky enough to visit Skye in the summer can take a short boat trip to witness the same unspoilt view that Barnard did.

Cuillin Mountains from Glen Brittle
After their detour the ferry progressed up the Sound of Sleat and through Kyle Akin towards the island of Raasay off the east coast of Skye.  Kyle Akin is where the Skye Bridge now crosses the sea in a sweeping arc of controversy.  Connecting Skye directly to the mainland for the first time when it was opened in 1995, the bridge was privately funded and excessive tolls were levied, once the highest of any bridge in Europe, until they were abolished at the end of 2004.  The bridge design split opinion as well, many thinking it spoiled the view of Skye from the mainland, but I find it somewhat elegant.

Portree Harbour
Arriving at the pier in Portree harbour Barnard’s party made their way to the Portree Hotel on Somerled Square which is named after the first Lord of the Isles.  The Portree Hotel stills stands today, the façade largely unchanged from when it first opened in 1865.  The hotel rooms were temporarily closed when I visited but I did enjoy a decent beer in their Camanachd Bar before spending a comfortable night in the Portree Independent Hostel just off the square.

Portree Hotel and Camanachd Bar
Barnard and I both visited Talisker Distillery the day after arriving although we took different routes to get there.  Barnard’s party travelled by horse and trap, first heading south to the Sligachan Hotel and “fortifying ourselves with a substantial meal” (told you!) while resting the horse for an hour.  The Sligachan was also closed for winter when I visited so I missed out on that treat.  The bar is well known amongst hill walkers who often start or finish their Cuillin Mountain adventures here.

He complains of the rain that washes the dust from clothes “and pierces your mackintosh like duck-shot through a boat’s sail” and despairing about how bleak and desolate the landscape was, not passing through any village on the 19 mile trip to the distillery.  They admire the mountains when the rain subsided, here calling them the Cuchullin Mountains after Cúchulainn, one of the heroes in the Ulster Cycle of Irish folklore, Cuillin being a short Scottish form of the name.  Legend has it that Cúchulainn travelled to Skye to be schooled in the art of war and fought in a great battle here.

My own journey began north of Portree as I wanted to see the stunning landscape in the Trotternish peninsula and to drive on two great scenic routes before reaching the distillery.  Iain Banks considers that all Skye roads are generally to be classed as “Great Wee Roads” and I almost agree with him.  The day began with duck-shot rain but soon eased into greyish but quiet skies that permitted some of these photographs of the scenery (click to enlarge).

Old Man of Storr and Trotternish landslip

Kilt Rock

Mealt Waterfall and Kilt Rock

I first stopped by the Old Man of Storr, a pinnacle formed from a land slip that is a landmark beyond Portree.  Next came the evocatively descriptive Kilt Rock with its 200 feet high ‘pleats’ of basalt and the stunning Mealt waterfall nearby.  The first driving test was the single track road that rises from the landslip feature known as the Quirang, hairpin bends escorting my car to a great view across the land.  A massive landslip runs for 19 miles up the centre of almost the whole length of Trotternish and this road climbs a pass across it and down to Uig on the west coast.

The Quirang and the road through the pass
From there I returned to Portree to take the equally wonderful B885 to Bracadale which must have been built for driving on rather than for getting anywhere in particular, although once I had stopped taking pictures I did eventually reach the west side of Skye to see sheep ‘grazing’ on the beach and the first views of the Cuillins to beckon me onward to the distillery.

Seafood loving sheep on Skye?
Barnard arrived to find a lively scene at the village of Carbost in contrast to the desolate road he had travelled, with crofter’s working the slopes of the hill behind a distillery full of life and motion.  The distillery actually takes it name from the land on the other side of the hills, the River Talisker falling west past Talisker Farm and into a bay of the same name.  The water running past the distillery is the Carbost Burn which supplied all the distillery water in Barnard’s time, a lade tapping the water around 100 yards above the works that still supplies the cooling water today.  The mashing water is now drawn from the Hawkhill Springs in the hill just behind the distillery.  The 14 springs run very deep and the water is consequently very pure and unpeated.

Founded in 1830 the distillery had changed owners a few times and was substantially improved and updated in the nine years before Barnard arrived, two-thirds of the then property being modern and containing the latest in distilling appliances and vessels including a new kiln and still house.  Despite all this modernisation the supplies were still brought in and out from offshore, steamers using smaller boats to transfer barley ashore which was then carted up to the granaries, full casks being floated out to sea for uplift.  Various owners battled with the laird to get permission to build a new pier which was eventually constructed in 1900 and included a tram way for horse drawn trolleys to ease the delivery of supplies.

Talisker pier and old tram way
The main buildings were built in a quadrangle and included the usual granaries and malt barns that Barnard visited first, with two peat fired kilns adjoining each other but which have now been demolished.  Peats were originally dug in a moor about a mile away and Barnard notes “a number of hardy women busy digging and bringing home this fuel.”  The maltings were last used in 1972, the barley now sourced and malted from north-east Scotland and peated to around 22ppm before arriving by road.

The mashing and fermenting processes were standard and Barnard has little to say about them.  The current mash tun was installed in 1998 and is a good size with a high copper dome and currently running 19 mashes per week as production has increase in the last couple of years.  Barnard recorded six washbacks but doesn’t give the sizes.  There are now eight, two more having been added in 2008, made from Oregon pine with a full capacity of 53,000 litres each.

Talisker was set up for triple distillation and Barnard observed the three Pot Stills but doesn’t give the sizes.  They were condensed in two worm tubs fed from the burn here.  Two more stills were later added and they were all coal fired and ran triple distillation until 1928.  Alas, in November 1960 some spirit boiled over onto the coals and the entire still house was destroyed by fire.  The distillery closed until a new still house was opened in 1962 with five brand new stills faithfully replicating the previous design.  Remarkably, despite that fire, they remained coal fired until converted to steam heating in 1972.  The two wash stills are 14,706 litres and the three spirit stills are 11,024, the spirit stills appearing much smaller as the necks are much shorter than on the wash.

Talisker worm tubs
Talisker still uses outside worm tubs fed from the burn, the current ones installed in 1998 with the unique shape of the lye pipes being maintained, the wash still vapour having to pass through a near horizontal lye pipe and no less than six right angle turns before reaching the worm tub, a reflux pipe feeding back into the still half way through this process.  The spirit stills have a more conventional approach with a long horizontal pipe but the design of the pipes apparently dates right back to 1830.

Old no. 4 Warehouse with old Managers House (now offices), Carbost Burn in foreground
There were five warehouses on the site, two new large ones built not long before Barnard visited, altogether holding 2,000 casks.  Some of the older warehouses have since been demolished as the brick had deteriorated but others were built and now hold around 5,000 casks on site but with most of the output maturing on the mainland.  The oldest whisky on site is from 1979 and special 30yo limited bottlings have been released in recent years.  The annual output averaged 40,000 gallons (182,000 litres) around Barnard’s time but has now increased to near 3m litres p.a., up from around 2m in 2009.

Cask display in No. 4 Warehouse
In 1898 Talisker merged business with Dailuaine Distillery in Speyside, a link that can be seen on the stencils on those 1979 casks in the warehouse.  In 1916 they joined a consortium including John Walker and John Dewar and from there a path through SMD/DCL in 1925 and into Diageo where Talisker became the Island whisky representative in the classic malt range.  Apart from a few short closures Talisker has enjoyed a long and successful life and the distillery continues to grow and the whisky continues to win awards.  60% of production now goes for blending in Johnnie Walker, Bells and others, including of course the Isle of Skye blend, Talisker currently being the only distillery on the island.  There is planning permission for another to be built in Sleat on the south of the island but that may be a few years away from production yet.

The distillery paraphrases a line from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem as part of their promotion, noting that Talisker was recorded by him as “The king o’ drinks”.  A little cheeky perhaps as I think that RLS actually has the hero of the poem indicating that Scotch Whisky in general (the blood of Scots) is the “king o’ drinks”, regardless of where in Scotland it came from, but Talisker is an exceptional whisky so perhaps we can let them off with a bit of poetic licence.  The line comes from the poem The Scotsman's Return From Abroad, and the extended verse is:

“At last, across the weary faem,
Frae far, outlandish pairts I came.
On ilka side o' me I fand
Fresh tokens o' my native land.
Wi' whatna joy I hailed them a' -
The hilltaps standin' raw by raw,
The public house, the Hielan' birks,
And a' the bonny U.P. kirks!
But maistly thee, the bluid o' Scots,
Frae Maidenkirk to John o' Grots,
The king o' drinks, as I conceive it,
Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!”

Maidenkirk, now Kirkmaiden, is a small village about as far south in Scotland as you can get and on the far opposite corner of the country from John O’ Groats, the line in the poem above being the old Scottish version of ‘from Land’s End to John O’ Groats’.  First published in 1880 just five years before Barnard’s visit, the poem is written in the Scots tongue and it is a satirical comic gem of character, nostalgia and the hypocrisy of dour sectarian prejudice which I think Barnard would have thoroughly enjoyed if he had understood it.  It also includes a comment on happily enjoying the nosing of whisky:

“Syne, weel contentit wi' it a',
Pour in the sperrits wi' a jaw!
I didnae drink, I didnae speak, -
I only snowkit up the reek.”

Talisker and Cuillin Mountains
Iain Banks in Raw Spirit compared Talisker to the Black Cuillins as “not for the faint hearted but widely rewarding for those prepared to tackle it.”  The Black Cuillin ridge is the mountainous scene behind the distillery in the photo here and 11 of the 12 Munros on Skye are in the 7 mile ridge.  An experienced climber can traverse the ridge in under 24 hours if the conditions are right, but it can catch out anyone unprepared, even on a bright summer’s day when the weather can change very quickly.  The sensational whisky that I was welcomed with at the distillery was certainly bold with peaks of pepper, smoke and spice and definitely something to experience.  If it’s wet and windy on the ridge then repair to a public house and explore the whisky with your senses instead.