The Hebrides is an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland, comprising more than 50 inhabited islands, and divided into the Inner Hebrides - which include Arran, Mull, Jura, Islay and Skye - and the Outer Hebrides - embracing Lewis, Harris, the Uists and Barra. Culturally and geographically there is a great deal of diversity among the various Hebridean islands.
When it comes to malt whisky production, Islay has its very own classification, but whisky is also made on many other Hebridean islands, and they provide a great opportunity for lovers of Scotch and the Scottish landscape to explore and discover fascinating places, people and a wide variety of drams.
Most of the islands in question are served by CalMac ferry links (www.calmac.co.uk) and one of the most easily accessible is Arran, which is less than a one hour ferry trip from Ardrossan on the Ayrshire coast, itself a 35 miles drive from Glasgow.
The Isle of Arran is one of the most southerly of Scotland's islands, situated between Ayrshire and the Kintyre peninsula. It is often referred to as 'Scotland in miniature,' since it embraces so many aspects of Scottish geography and topography, including pretty coastal villages, rugged mountains in the north and woodland and soft, rolling hills in the south.
Although Arran is less than 20 miles long and ten miles wide, it is thought that as many as 50 illicit distilling ventures were active during the 19th Century. The island did boast one legal distillery at Lagg, in the south, though this only operated between 1825 and 1837.
Then, in 1993, former Chivas Brothers Managing Director and whisky industry veteran Harold Currie decided to restore whisky making to Arran, with his distillery at Lochranza opening for business two years later, equipped with a single pair of stills.
Although no longer owned by the Currie family, the distillery remains in independent hands, with Euan Mitchell serving as Managing Director of Isle of Arran Distillers Ltd. The company strategy has been to develop a permanent single malt range which embraces 10, 14 and 18 Years Old expressions and Arran has emerged as a highly regarded whisky, while the distillery offers excellent visitor facilities (www.arranwhisky.com).
The isle of Jura is often included with Islay for the purposes of whisky classification, but stylistically Jura single malt bears little resemblance to the classic Islay character. The distillery is in Craighouse, the principal settlement of Jura (www.jurawhisky.com).
Today's Jura Distillery dates from the early 1960s, but replaced a whisky making venture that was operational on the same site between 1810 and 1901. When it came to restoring distilling to the island, some of the existing buildings were incorporated into the new venture.
Jura Distillery belongs to Whyte & Mackay Ltd, and its 'make' is a popular blending component, as well as being available in a range of single malt expressions, which include the peated Prophecy and Superstition variants, as well as 'standard,' well-mannered, unpeated bottlings.
The island of Jura is very sparsely populated, with deer outnumbering residents many times over, and one of its claims to fame is that George Orwell wrote his futuristic novel Nineteen Eighty Four while living in a remote cottage at Barnhill.
Jura can be reached by car ferry via Islay (from Kennacraig, near Tarbert to Port Ellen or Port Askaig, and then Port Askaig to Feolin on Jura) or by seasonal passenger ferry from the Argyllshire fishing village of Tayvallich Craighouse (www.islayseasafari.co.uk).
The ferry journey to the Isle of Mull begins in the bustling Argyllshire port of Oban where CalMac offers regular 45 minute crossings to Craignure in the south-east of the island. Tobermory Distillery (www.tobermorydistillery.com) comprises a characterful cluster of buildings located in the eponymous island capital, noted for its multi-coloured harbour front which featured in the BBC children's television series Balamory.
Unlike Arran, Tobermory Distillery boasts a very long heritage, dating back to 1798 when it was founded by local merchant John Sinclair, who christened the new venture Ledaig, which translates from the Gaelic as 'safe haven.'
It would be fair to say that Tobermory Distillery has enjoyed mixed fortunes over the years, and has actually been silent for more than half of its existence. Fortunately for the distillery, Burn Stewart Distillers saw its potential and in 1993 spent £600,000 buying it, devoting a further £200,000 to the purchase of maturing stock.
Today, production from the distillery's four tall stills is split 50:50 between unpeated whisky - sold as Tobermory single malt - and heavily peated whisky - marketed under the Ledaig name, while the 'make' is also used in the company's popular Black Bottle and Scottish Leader blends.
Since the opening of the Skye Bridge in 1995 the Isle of Skye has become the only Hebridean island with a distillery where a ferry journey or plane flight is not necessary. Head to the Kyle of Lochalsh, some 80 miles west of Inverness by road, and follow the road 'over the sea to Skye,' as the old Scots song has it.
Once on Skye, travel north-west on the A87, passing the tiny ferry terminal at Sconser which serves the neighbouring small island of Raasay. Here R&B Distillers Ltd has plans to build a craft whisky distillery and visitor centre, but the project is still in its early stages.
Three miles beyond Sconser take the A863 at Sligachan to visit the famous Talisker Distillery (www.malts.com). Talisker is situated amid spectacular scenery on the shores of Loch Harport, and in the shadow of the Cuillin Hills in the west of the island, a 30 minute drive from the island capital of Portree to the north-east.
Talisker Distillery was established in 1830 by brothers Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill, and today is owned by industry leaders Diageo. Following major reconstruction during the 1960s, the distillery is quite modern in appearance, but inside it retains its long-standing, idiosyncratic configuration of five stills - a throwback to the days before 1928 when triple distillation was practised. Talisker is bottled at an unusual 45.8% ABV, considered the optimum strength at which to showcase the single malt.
Talisker has a distinctive smoky, peppery character all of its own, and during the past couple of years Diageo has introduced several expressions of Taisker without age statements, including Storm, Dark Storm and Port Ruighe, to accompany the existing aged range, which stretches from 10 to 30 years of age. Rather surprisingly, considering its relative remoteness, Talisker plays host to more visitors each year than any other Diageo distillery.
At present Talisker is Skye's only distillery, but that is set to change when work is completed on Torabhaig, located on the Sleat peninsula in the south of the island. Torabhaig Distillery was the vision of the late businessman and Gaelic enthusiast Sir Iain Noble, but the farm steading where the distillery is being created is now owned by Mossburn Distillers. The first phase of restoration work was completed last year, and if all goes to plan, spirit will flow some time during 2017.
Rather than retracing your steps back across the Skye Bridge a tempting alternative is to head for the ferry terminal at Uig in the north of Skye and make the one hour and 40 minutes crossing to Tarbert on the Outer Hebridean island of Harris.
The Harris Distillery, located close to the harbour, is Scotland's newest, having officially opened on 24 September. According to Isle of Harris Distillers Ltd (www.harrisdistillery.com), "We want to make a 'Social Distillery,' with the future of Harris at its heart, not only to enrich the island, creating an enterprise that will thrive for decades and even centuries to come, but to send the magical, elusive spirit of the island out into the world."
The Hearach single malt whisky is being produced from a pair of Tuscan built stills and visitors are welcome at the distillery six days per week, with Sunday being observed as a day of rest in keeping with the religious traditions of Harris and Lewis.
The islands of Harris and Lewis are effectively one island, with Harris occupying the southern portion of the land mass. To discover Lewis's only (licensed) distillery head north from Tarbert on the A859 towards Stornoway and then west to Carnish, and Abhainn Dearg Distillery via the B9011 (www.abhainndearg.co.uk).
Abhainn Dearg (Red River in Gaelic) is Scotland's westernmost distillery and was created by Stornoway businessman Mark Tayburn. Production began in September 2008, and the distillery - built around a former salmon hatchery - boasts a truly idiosyncratic pair of stills, reminiscent of old fashioned, domestic hot water tanks, with necks like elongated witches' hats, linked to arms which twist before descending into a pair of wooden worm tubs.
In addition to the steam-heated 'formal' pair of stills, Abhainn Dearg also boasts a genuine former illicit still, which takes an 80 litre charge and is used from time to time, with the make being filled into Oloroso sherry casks. While most spirit produced is unpeated, a period of distillation with relatively heavily-peated malt takes place each year.
Having released a 3 Years Old single malt in 2011, the next milestone for Abhainn Dearg will be the bottling of a 10 Years Old in 2018.
From Lewis you have the option of returning to Tarbert and the Isle of Skye, or heading to Stornoway, an hour's drive east from Abhainn Dearg and taking the CalMac car ferry to Ullapool on the shores of Loch Broom in Ross-shire, some 55 miles north-west of Inverness. There are also regular flights to Stornoway from a variety of destinations (www.flybe.com).
The Hebrides offer an extraordinary variety of landscapes and whiskies to explore and savour, and there is something about the lure of the islands that keeps drawing you back to discover new places and sample more of the local drams.