Talisker Distillery: A whisky jewel in Skye's crown

Talisker Distillery: A whisky jewel in Skye's crown

Sporting a picturesque location on the ever-popular Isle of Skye, Talisker is preparing to share its fruity, smoky malts with even more people following its visitor centre revamp

Distillery Focus | 11 Sep 2023 | Issue 193 | By Gavin Smith

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The Isle of Skye is the second-most-visited place in Scotland after the city of Edinburgh. It draws in some 650,000 visitors each year to delight in its glorious and dramatic scenery, including such instantly Instagrammable locations as the Fairy Pools, Kilt Rock, the Old Man of Storr, and Neist Point.


Among the most-visited attractions on Skye is the Talisker distillery, situated in the north-west of the island on the shore of Loch Harport and in the shadow of the mighty Cuillin Hills.


Talisker has welcomed up to 75,000 visitors per year of late, or 700 each day at the height of the tourist season, with pre-booking of tours being essential. Reacting to the pressures caused by such large numbers of people on a relatively small site, in the equally small village of Carbost, distillery owner Diageo has invested a substantial sum in reimagining its visitor experience and is now confident it can cope with double that 75,000 figure.


Talisker is Diageo’s most-visited distillery, partly due to its exceptionally scenic location on an island already extremely popular with tourists, and partly because the full-bodied single malt it produces – with its unique combination of fruit, salt, pepper, and peat – has long held cult status. Sales growth in recent years has led to the brand now turning over some 3.2 million bottles per year, making it the eighth-best-selling single malt Scotch.


Explaining recent changes to the site, which include relocating the visitor centre to a former warehouse, brand home lead guide Louise Ellis says, “Overall, we have a much nicer visitor experience now, with lots more room so it doesn’t feel crowded even when it’s busy.


“We now have two bars and two tasting rooms, plus visitor options that do not include a distillery tour, which help to make the site feel uncrowded, and we don’t take in coach parties. Most of our visitors are independent travellers, with lots from North America. Some people just come and have a dram or cocktail, and for them, that is their Talisker experience.”

The Talisker Distillery's waterside location on the Isle of Skye. Credit: Diageo

The visitor centre is decorated in blues and creams and fitted with boat-shaped wall display units in the retail area, creating a maritime feel in tune with the whisky’s strapline ‘Made by the Sea’, while a welcoming fire surrounded by comfortable seats greets the visitor on entry.


Another innovation is the newly constructed 60-cover Wild Spirits Café, overlooking Loch Harport, which offers snacks and a range of Diageo whiskies and Talisker-based cocktails. The marmalade-flavoured Merlion Martini is particularly recommended.


Talisker now boasts dedicated internet access, where previously reception was patchy at best, which is good news for those Skye Instagrammers, and in-keeping with Diageo’s revised policy at distilleries with public access, photography is actively encouraged.


In line with Diageo’s current visitor experience ethos, the distillery tour is light on complex facts and figures, instead focusing on flavours. Key aspects of Talisker’s history are featured, including its establishment in 1830 by brothers Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill. Natives of the island of Eigg, they had purchased Talisker House and a significant amount of land on Skye in 1825 and, in classic Highland Clearances fashion, went on to replace small tenant farmers and crofters with the much more profitable alternative of sheep.


The MacAskills’ distillery venture, however, failed to prosper. The North of Scotland Bank took over the lease in 1848 and control passed through several subsequent owners, including Anderson & Co. With echoes of some recent whisky-related investment scams, the company principal, John Anderson, was jailed in 1880 for selling non-existent whisky to customers who assumed it was safely maturing in the Talisker warehouses. In the same year, Talisker’s fortunes improved significantly when the distillery passed to business partners Alexander Grigor Allan and Roderick Kemp.


By this time, Talisker was enjoying a reputation far beyond its native Skye, and the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (of Kidnapped and Treasure Island fame) wrote in the same year that Anderson was imprisoned, “The King o’drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Isla or Glenlivet!”

Drawing a sample from a cask in the Talisker warehouses on a visitor tour. Credit: Diageo

The Talisker Distillery Co. was created in 1894, and four years later, Talisker merged with Dailuaine-Glenlivet Distillers and Imperial Distillers to create Dailuaine-Talisker Distilleries. In 1916 that company was taken over by a consortium of leading blenders, and Talisker was one of the assets passed into the hands of the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) during 1925, ultimately leading to its present position as a jewel in Diageo’s malt distillery crown.


Talisker may well not have survived to the present day at all. It suffered a major fire in 1960, which necessitated complete rebuilding of the stillhouse – but this potential disaster probably helped secure its long-term future. During DCL’s radical distillery rationalisation programme of the 1980s, the comparatively recent investment in Talisker’s infrastructure may well have saved it from the oblivion suffered by all too many of its stablemates.


Major production changes took place in 1972, when the stills were converted to steam heating and floor malting was abandoned. In 1988, Talisker took centre stage in 10-year-old form as one of the stars of its parent company’s new Classic Malts line-up; a visitor centre opened in the same year.


Beyond learning about the history of Talisker, a key focus of the distillery tours is the highly distinctive distilling regime at the heart of the operation. Attention is drawn to the presence of five stills, two wash and three spirit – this unusual configuration dates to the years prior to 1928, when triple distillation was practised.


The lye pipes on the tall wash stills, which lead off from the main necks, are U-shaped, designed to trap vapours from the first distillation before they reach the outside worm tubs. A small secondary ‘purifier’ copper pipe carries these trapped vapours back to the wash stills for a second distillation.

The purifier pipe is said to add oiliness to the spirit, and relatively low levels of copper contact donate a sulphur note to the new-make spirit, while the generous amounts of reflux refine the fruity characteristics developed during fermentation.


Explaining Talisker’s unorthodox distilling regime, Diageo’s senior global brand ambassador Ewan Gunn says, “The U-bend in the lye pipe and the ‘reflux’ pipe into [the] stills make for lighter spirit, but the presence of the worm tubs pushes it into a meatier, heavier style. It’s almost contradictory.”

Inside the revamped Talisker visitor experience. Credit: Diageo

At the forefront of Talisker’s range are the 10 Years Old and 18 Years Old. Gunn says the former combines notes of smoke, spice, maritime sweetness, and delicate citrus, but that the smoke notes lean toward elegance rather than power. “There’s a gentleness on the palate and for a 10-year-old, there’s a lot going on.” The latter, he says, smooths the rougher edges of the 10 Years Old with added sweetness and a softer finish.


“With all Taliskers, you get pepper on the tip of the tongue, and chilli heat at the end, with various elements in between, depending on the expression,” Gunn explains, adding that the brand’s traditional bottling strength of 45.8% ABV is said by blenders to be “the optimum strength to showcase spice and intensity”.


Along with the 10- and 18-year-olds, the Talisker range includes 25- and 30-year-old expressions, the non-age- statement Skye and Storm, a Distillers Edition finished in oloroso sherry casks, and Port Ruige, finished in ruby port casks. 2022 saw the appearance of the distillery-exclusive Talisker Elements, matured in refill hogsheads, heavily charred casks, and European oak sherry puncheons, and Surge, initially launched as a travel-retail exclusive.


This was followed by the 44-year-old Forests of the Deep, created in collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, an organisation that protects marine ecosystems around the world, where the finishing casks were charred using sea kelp. There is also Talisker x Parley Wilder Seas, which is the distillery’s first whisky finished in French oak XO Cognac casks. 


A 37-year-old expression appeared in Diageo’s Prima & Ultima range in 2022, along with an 11-year-old Special Releases variant which included whisky from wine-seasoned casks in its make-up. Visitors to the distillery may also take advantage of a popular ‘bottle your own’ option.


Not every Talisker tour participant will relish the prospect of a potential doubling of visitor numbers to 150,000 per year, but Diageo has worked to mitigate possible negative effects of the distillery’s popularity and ensure that the visitor experience will continue to be of a high calibre for everyone who makes the journey to Carbost.

Enjoying a dram of Talisker. Credit: Diageo
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