Whisky's island outpost

Whisky's island outpost

For very obvious reasons Islay tends to dominate the landscape when it comes to Scotland's whisky islands. But the other islands offer plenty for the whisky enthusiast

Travel | 10 Nov 2006 | Issue 60

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From the benign and gently climactic island of Arran in the South West of Scotland to the rough and ready Orkney isles in the North East, it is hard to imagine a more disparate and varied range of islands than those that arc the West and North of Scotland.Islay may boast eight distilleries and be known for its whisky but take it out of the equation and there are nearly as many distilleries littered across the other islands.Indeed, should Shetland ever get a distillery, and Sir Iain Noble fulfil his dream of opening a second distillery on Skye, the islands will have as many distilleries as Islay does – and a great deal more diversity.For while it is often assumed that the islands produce rugged and rough whisky, this is not always the case. Sure, if you want peat you can have it. But sweet, fruity and creamy whiskies are all on the menu too.And the islands have another advantage, too. Go to Islay and you’re going for the whisky, and you’ll not be convincing anyone otherwise. Go on a tour of the islands, though, and there is plenty to do for all the family. Just as well really, because to visit the distilleries off the mainland is no easy feat and will require either a big budget or an investment in time and patience.Caledonian MacBrayne offers regular and comprehensive ferry services to most of the islands, there are some flights and Skye can be approached by bridge. But pretty as the route is, the roads are slow.Nevertheless all the islands offer something special and make the journey worthwhile. The whisky is sensational. Here is an island by island guide to whisky way out west.ARRAN

How to get there
Crossings from Ardrossan to Brodick up to six times a day. The journey takes about 55 minutes. Ardrossan can be reached easily by road from Glasgow or by train from Glasgow or Prestwick.The distillery
Isle of Arran Distillery was built just 11 years ago so it is purpose-built for tourists, with a comfortable visitor centre and shop, and tours conducted by well-trained and affable staff. It’s a very visitor-friendly experience altogether because the distillery is built with the tourist in mind and is logically laid out. There is good food here, too.The distillery visit hours are 10.00 to 18.00, seven days a week from March to October and 10.00 to 16.00 from November - February when it is open only three days : Saturday, Monday and Wednesdays.The whisky
Arran had a long history of whisky production but went about 150 years without a legal one, so unlike some other attempts at producing island whisky, this one would seem to have a substantial platform to build from.Arran sits in the gulf stream so it’s in a mild climate, and the distillery itself, at Lochranza, seems to benefit from any sun that the island gets. So the whisky matures faster than in some parts of Scotland, and it’s definitely a work in progress with the recent 10 year old being the best release so far. The distillery started bottling after only three years and has tried a myriad of finishes. Tread carefully with these and taste before you buy as not all of them have the sweet creaminess of recent bottles.Other attractions
Arran is a great island for walking and cycling, though be warned: parts of it are extremely hilly. The island boasts an excellent brewery and it manufactures soaps. Brodick Castle, with impressive gardens and museum, is well worth a visit, as are the standing stones on Machrie Moor.From the accommodation point of view there really is something for everyone - camping, self-catering, good B&B or guest houses up to four-star hotels. It is a relaxing place to go within such easy reach of key centres on the mainland. Good food is also available from quality, simple fare to more ornate cuisine. The Auchrannie Hotel in Brodick houses a spa facility which can be useful after a lot of walking or just for a chillout break.JURA
Ferries to Islay from Keenacraig and then a short ferry ride from Port Askaig. Flights from Glasgow to Islay then car to Port Askaig and ferry.The distillery
The history of the distillery stretches back to the 19th century but the current site was built in the 50s and developed in the 20 years following. From the ferry there is only one road and you follow it until you reach the distillery, which is very small and dinky, and has a homely almost farm-like feel about it.This year the neighbouring properties were refurbished so there is luxury accommodation there too, and a friendly and down to earth hotel across the road. Not much else, though.The whisky
Traditionally Isle of Jura whisky has been lost in the wake of its dominant neighbour, being as it is a subtle and elegant whisky. Occasionally, though, it has kicked back. Avery salty and peaty four year old matched anything that Islay produces and a peated version of Jura called Superstition proved it could do smoke, too. Recently, too, there have been signs that the whisky overall is getting better and better. And some of the older expressions are remarkably robust.Definitely worth exploring.Other attractions
You’re back to nature big time here, so any entertainment tends to come courtesy of the wildlands you find yourself in. The island is dominated by the Paps of Jura, serious walking when accompanied by a guide. You can also stalk deer here, as the island has hundreds of them. If you can get near enough, the Corryvreckan whirlpool is one of the biggest in the world.MULL

How to get there
The main ferry route goes from Oban about six times a day.The distillery
Sited at the end of the beach as you enter the main town of Tobermory, Tobermory Distillery is a compact and neat distillery which welcomes visitors with a short film and tour. It’s all very compact though.Its visitor hours are Monday - Friday 10.00 - 17.00 and the last tour goes out one hour before closing time. These hours are for both summer and winter visits, though the shop only is open on Saturdays in summer - a lovely little place and a key location for any visitor.The whisky
Tobermory is to all intents and purposes two distilleries in one. Tobermory whisky initself is a lightish and inoffensive malt with a trace of peat that comes entirely from the water.A peated version is known as Ledaig (Lech-aig). It is a rich malt, with full peat and some phenolic notes and the common consensus is that most recent bottlings and some of the younger ones show a malt going from strength to strength.Other attractions
Tobermory is the place where the children’s series Balamory is filmed so your young ones can amuse themselves spotting the famous painted houses while you get on with the serious business of tasting whisky.It’s a delightful seafront, too, and there are some great bars to take lunch in. The history comes courtesy of Torosay and Duart Castles.Mull is another favoured destination for walkers and climbers with great scenic reward once you reach the top. Other things to do and see include Torosay Castle; Duart Castle - home of the Clan Maclean; Mull Steam Railway (March – October only); a visit to Iona Abbey; sail to Fingal’s cave; take trips for dolphin or whale watching or go on a land-based wildlife trek. The website www.holidaymull.org has loads of information on these and other activities.Please note that a lot of the roads on Mull are single track, even part of the main road into Tobermory, so slowing down to the island pace is required.Mull also enjoys the full range of accommodations including some fine hotels and restaurants.SKYE How to get there
Ferries run from Tarbert, Mallaig and Glenelg and it’s a short crossing. And nowadays there is the bridge.The distillery
Talisker is one of the truly great whiskies and the distillery doesn’t disappoint. It sits broodily by Loch Harport on the west side of the island, and is at ease in its volcanic, otherworldly setting. You almost want it to be cold, wet and clammy when you roll up here because if ever a whisky was designed to warm the cockles of your heart it’s this one.The distillery itself is as you’d expect from a drinks company the size of Diageo – a well designed, ordered and efficient visiting experience with a well-stocked shop and a knowledgeable and informed staff.Talisker opens Easter to end October from Monday - Saturday 09.30 – 17.00; Sunday afternoons in July and August; November – Easter afternoons only from 14.00 – 16.30.From 2007 the last tour will probably start one hour before closing instead of a half hour.The whisky
Talisker in its younger expressions is an explosive pepper and spice super-taste experience with a dry finish and plenty of smoke in the mix. But look out for the Distiller’s Edition which is finished in sherry wood and is therefore more three dimensional, more chewy and with toffee nut notes among the spice; and the 18 year old, which breaks with Talisker convention and almost softly and subtly brings over-ripe fruit in to the mix. It might offend purists but it’s a cracker.Skye is also the home to Sir Iain Noble’s whisky company, which currently produces two whiskies with claims to some Skye content, and which is in the process of establishing its own distillery on the island.The plan was to make it an all Gaelicspeaking operation but various setbacks recently suggest that the language issue will be fairly low on the priority list.Other attractions
Skye is stunning in terms of views and makes for excellent walking and cycling territory. The backbone to the island are the Cuillins, the mountain range that offers some of the best climbing in the world. The strong historical links can be explored, you can visit the grave of Flora MacDonald, and there is a Musuem of Island Life which gives an insight in to the islands troubled history. Plenty of craft and gift shops, too.Accommodation ranges from camping or self-catering to top class hotels like Kinloch Lodge and The House Over By, along with other comfortable country house hotels.There are some really fine B&Bs and guest houses as well as more moderate but good quality hotels.Portree, the main town, has its fair share. A visitor can be spoiled for room choice here but do book early for main summer season and holiday weekends.THE ORKNEY ISLES

How to get there
Ferries run from Scrabster and John O Groats and there is a longer ferry link from Stromness. There are flights to Kirkwall from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.The distillery
Although there are now two working distilleries on Orkney as Scapa has been reopened, a visitor centre at the latter remains a dream at present so the only visiting option is Highland Park. But what an option. This is how a distillery ought to be. It fires its own peat, has its own floor maltings (one of just a handful that still does) and it has the quirky shambolic feel of a truly wonderful distillery. You’ll get a thorough tour here, a film presentation and a dram on your return to the warm and friendly shop and visitor centre. Opening hours vary by season with afternoon tours only Monday – Friday in winter and seven day opening May – August, with Monday – Friday only in April, September and October.And then there’s the whisky… The whisky
Highland Park is one of the great, great malts, and just like Talisker, it tastes even better in its natural environment. Both the 12 year old and 25 year old are excellent but the dream dram is the 18 year old, which perfectly balances fruit, spice, oak and smoke. Highland Park is robust without being aggressive.They say that while Highland Park is the Manchester United of whisky, with fans across the world, then Scapa is Manchester City, the one the locals tend to follow. Don’t know about that but in taste terms it’s a very different prospect altogether.Sweet and easy to drink, it is more of a session whisky than its island cousin but none the worse for that. Now under new management, we should see more of Scapa generally available. Try and find the cask strength bottling as it’s excellent.Other attractions
How long have you got? Whisky or no whisky, The Orkney Isles warrant a visit by everyone at some point. Stone circles, one of the oldest excavations at the village of Skara Brae, the little chapel built by Italian prisoners in the second world war, trips across Scapa and a visit to the museum that tells you of the islands’ role through two world wars, the sea roads built by Winston Churchill, the list of island attractions goes on and on. Underneath Scapa lies the remains of the German first world war fleet and an official war grave where the Royal Oak was sunk by a U-boat. Book a cruise with a sea camera to see the German ships, and watch for seals and orcas.Kirkwall is the site of most accommodation though there are several other centres with some great rooms and food in locations a little way out like Stromness, Evie, Harray or St.Margaret’s Hope. You won’t be stuck for a good bed or meal on Orkney. Like the other islands there is something to suit all tastes and budgets.Local seafood, beef and lamb are particularly good when eating out.
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