The big malt of Skye (Talisker)

The big malt of Skye (Talisker)

Powerful but elegant, Talisker is a prince among whiskies. Margaret Rand went over the sea to discover what makes the magic

Distillery Focus | 16 Oct 1999 | Issue 6 | By Margaret Rand

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Drive round the Cuillin Hills and you'll come to a huddle of white buildings looking out over Loch Harport, where the sea draws back at low tide to reveal a foreshore laced with bronze seaweed.Surrounded by the grand scenery of Skye is the Talisker distillery, birthplace of one of the world's greatest malts.Indeed, if there was ever a whisky that conveyed a sense of place, it is Talisker. It's a big malt, but shot through with elegance, with a balance - what some drinks writers would call 'breed' - that marks it out from every other island malt.Talisker, the name is Norse for 'Land of Stones', mirrors the bare splendour of Skye, but like the island it also demonstrates a depth and refinement. Indeed, the distinguished man of letters Dr Johnson found Skye full of surprises when he visited in September 1773. Delighted to find a library in his room at Talisker House, he observed: "that it was one of the remarkable things of Sky [sic], that there were so many books in it."The Talisker distillery was founded in 1830 by High and Kenneth MacAskill from the nearby island of Eigg. They acquired Talisker House in 1825 and infamously set about clearing their land of crofters. This was common practice at the time by landowners in the region and was part of what history now calls The Clearances. The massive waves of emigrations that resulted founded the Scottish populations in North America and Australasia and no doubt spread the word about the pleasures of whisky drinking.After the MacAskills died, the distillery changed hands several times before becoming part of Dailuaine-Talisker Distilleries at the turn of the century. In 1925 Dailuaine-Talisker Distilleries became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Distillers Company Limited (DCL). It has long been a key malt in the Johnnie Walker stable and the famous striding man logo even used to be on the Talisker label.Nowadays the operations manager is Pauline Ogilvie, a chemist from Speyside whose parents were both in the whisky industry and whose brother is at The Macallan. Old pictures, she shows, reveal the Talisker distillery pier teeming with hundreds of people. Now just eight process workers, working in shifts, keep the distillery operating from 10pm on Sunday to 10pm on Friday. Scientific advances have effected clearances of their own. Twelve mashes a week and then a weekly production of 38,000 litres of pure alcohol equals "not quite full capacity," says Ogilvie. That would be 13 or 14 mashes per week. The first six mashes are put to ferment for 60 hours; the washbacks are then cleaned out midweek before the second six go in. These days the mach tun is self-cleaning - a boon to the men who used to have to scrub the old one down with handfuls of heather before the went home on Friday nights. It was put in in 1997, as part of a £2million plus upgrade, which involved closing the distillery for six months.Not much else was changed, however. The mash tun is now stainless steel instead of cast iron, and according to Ogilvie many, many checks were made to ensure that there was no change to the spirit character. That's always the problem with malt whisky. While far more is known now that ever before about how malt gets in character, the importance of each individual factor at a particular distillery is still hard to pin down. And you tinker at your peril.Ogilvie's view is that the peatiness of Talisker tends to mask changes in character that might show more clearly on a lighter Speyside. On Speyside malts, for example, she says you can detect the character of the yeast, whereas at Talisker they have recently abandoned the traditional mix of cultured yeast on its own. "The change seems to have had no effect. There may be some congeners missing - ones that come from brewer's yeast - but it's not obvious either on the nose or the palate," she declares.So what does give Talisker its character? There are no definite answers. Ogilvie ascribes some importance to the extremely peaty spring water: even the waterfalls that streak the mountains here have a faint brown tinge, though the water is also remarkably translucent, like topaz lit by sunbeams. The barley species is Dercado, and malt is bought in at a degree of peating, that Talisker prefers not to divulge, though other sources put it at about 25 parts per million. Less heavy than Islay malts, in other words, but still pretty substantial."Everything that is unique to Talisker is on the wash side," says Ogilvie. The most obvious curiosity is the fact that the lyne arms describe a horseshoe before they enter the work tub.Talisker lore has it that the reflux thus caused give the spirit a peppery character. Well, it must do something, but exactly what remains elusive. Why it's there in the first place is also a mystery.Professor Alan Rutherford, Professor or Distilling at Heriot-Watt University, surmises that the original coppersmith was experimenting with extra reflux and everyone liked the result. "I suspect he was a bit of an innovator," he muses. The fact that Talisker was originally almost triple-distilled points to a degree of improvisation."The third distillation took the form of distilling only feints and foreshots in the third spirit still. That changed in 1928, and now the feints, foreshots and low wines all get mixed up. The stills themselves postdate the disastrous fire of 1960, when the hazardous nature of coal-fired stills became horribly clear. It only took somebody to leave open a manhole on a still, and low wines dripped on to the flames beneath. The whole stillhouse went up.The current stills (two wash and three spirit stills) are replicas of the old ones. The wash stills are charged 46 times each week with 3,000 litres each time, for a three-hour distillation. The wash stills are heated with steam pans, whereas copper coils heat the spirit stills: steam pans heat the stills more quickly for this short distillation. The spirit stills, heated more gently, run for eight or nine hours.The origin of another Talisker quirk, the condensing coils in the five water-filled worm tubs, is easier to spot because it's how spirit used to be considered in the days of illicit distilling. The current worm tubs were built just 18 months ago as part of the refit, and are so crucial to the flavour that they opted to maintain the old system. Olgilvie mentions Dalwhinnie, Mortlach and Glen Elgin as also having worm tubs but they're certainly not widespread.The distillery's wood policy remains a central factor in determining Talisker's character. In a nutshell, it's to use whatever comes along. Some of the casks were originally used for Bourbon, some for sherry, some for wine. But it's a fair while since any of them saw these liquids. By the time they reach the distillery, neatly repaired and ready for use, they're on their third or fourth fill, having been doing the rounds of who-knows-what distilleries in the intervening years. Ogilvie says that even so, there remains some Bourbon or sherry or wine character in the casks.Now I'm loath to argue with a chemist but, if that is so, shouldn't there also be some character of other whiskies there? Surely what you get in these much-used casks, if anything, is a faint but complex cocktail of Speyside, Highland, Lowland, Bourbon, sherry and whatever else. That's all to the good.Whatever the answer - and I'd be interested to hear any further thoughts from UDV - the standard 10 year old bottling makes a fascinating comparison with the 1986 Distiller's Edition, which was finished in sherry casks.Here the sherry character takes the peatiness head on, and the result is a much richer, rounder malt - but one that, to my mind, doesn't taste like Talisker. Curiously, it feels much weightier; an excellent dram, but without the elegance of the 10 year old. So far it is a one-off, but no doubt it will be repeated if sales warrant it.The 10 year old standard bottling is a relatively recent innovation. DCL used to sell it at eight years. Gordon & MacPhaiil, which used to take a few casks for its own bottlings, bottles it no longer after UDV asked it not to, presumably because it wanted its bottling to be the only one. Gordon & MacPhail says that it's a malt that can take further ageing, and will develop more complexity. The issue of multiple bottlings is a marketing decision, and no doubt UDV is right to monitor the situation.Taking the 10 minute drive across the island from the distillery we are back at Talisker House - where Dr Johnson and his travelling companion, the Scottish writer James Boswell, stayed. The house is now a hotel, and there can be a few so perfectly situated.As Boswell wrote: "Before it is a wide expanse of sea, on each side of which are immense rocks; and, at some distance in the sea, there are three columnal rocks rising to sharp points. The billows break with prodigious force and noise on the coast of Talisker."At low tide the sand is black, powdered with silver. And across a deep blue sea rise the silhouettes of the Western Isles.You leave your car by Talisker House and walk down a track to the bay, and the wind blows, it seems, constantly. As I hugged my clothes round me, I unconsciously reflected that is must be lovely here in the summer. Then I looked at the foxgloves and clover, the cottongrass and meadowsweet, and remembered that this is as warm as it gets. No wonder they started making whisky.

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