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Liquid thunder, storm in a glass

Talisker is an icon malt and it's celebrating its 175th anniversary. Dave Broom takes a walk on its wildside.
By Dave Broom
The Wild Spirit.Saturday night on Scotland’s utter northwest coast. I was staying with a friend who was working on a fish farm and we were heading to a ceilidh in Ullapool.Fortification for the journey came in the form of my first-ever malt. The first swig blasted strange new flavours of smoke and sea into my mouth, then came a chestwarming sweetness.The whisky was called Talisker. It was eight years old and was 100° proof. This wasn’t the normal whisky I’d snaffled from my dad’s supply. This was out there. It was dangerous.We drove through the Torridon landscape where mountains are left like beached creatures on a scoured plain. Depending on your point of view it’s a place which has been reduced to nothing, or a place to start building. Afinishing point or a new start.At that point it was the latter and Talisker was part of the fuel for this feeling of liberation. We reeled into the ceilidh and out again. Life changed that night.Some of that comes back when I take a sip of the new make. It’s sweet, oily. There’s turfy peatiness lurking, some cereal, cider, a hint of pea-pod and brine. It clings to the palate, sweet but peppery, reluctant to move then it’s released into a long drift of peat smoke. Eruptions.I made it to Skye by the backdoor route: the ferry from Glenelg, then thumbing a lift to the Sligachan Hotel (aka The Slig).This was the test. The hills of the mainland were just a preparation. Skye is the big one. It demands respect. It forces you to conform to its dictates, not the other way round.Today, the burns were in spate. Brown, foaming, like an accident in a brewery. The Cuillin ridge was tearing the clouds, halfrevealing itself, teasing, luring me upwards into a new landscape of dark rock and razored ridge, pinnacles, cliffs.A landscape that dwarfs you, makes you dream as it strips away your city-bound mind. It is the romantic vision at its terrible, intense, transcendent best. The clouds cleared and I could see west to Loch Harport. This is the backdrop to Talisker.I was standing in the root zone of a long dead volcano. All this land was once liquid, a place of lava flows and fire which slowly cooled into the rough-grained gabbro and smooth slippery basalt under my boot; both, in Richard Fortey’s (*) phrase, “distillates of the rock itself”. There was only one thing to drink when I returned to The Slig, Talisker 10 year old.That smoke was now reminiscent of moor burn and smoked fish. The palate had the peppery fragrance of coriander seed, its sweetness intermingled with heather and seaweed. I looked into the glass. It all made sense. The water, the air, the heather. The muscularity of the structure.Like Skye it was uncompromising, selfpossessed.A distillation of the day and the land. It too was romantic. Prawn Boats.“You’ll have a cup of tea.” The mug is thrust at me, getting into the shot. Peter Mulryan smiles and waves his hands to tell me to keep on talking.I’m on the back of a prawn boat heading from Portnalong down Loch Harport at the start of a mini-series on Scottish drink for the BBC. The boat smells of rust, drying shells, rope and weed.We round a headland and the Cuillin Ridge is exposed, looking every bit the “exact and serrated blue rampart” of Sorley MacLean’s poem (†). Beneath it, the white walls of Talisker. The Cuillins protect the distillery, frame it, yet Talisker isn’t just a place of the land, but of the sea as well and it is this which makes its setting the most thrilling, most extreme of any distillery.No surprise it does things differently. The stills simply confirm this. There’s five for a start, two wash and three spirit.The latter are small and plain, but the former are large and... well... weird. Bigbottomed, their tall thin necks lead to lyne arms which start out on the horizontal and then dip as if someone has sat on them.At the bottom of the dip is a tiny pipe leading back to the still. Any vapour which condenses here will run back into the body to be redistilled. The books tell you the more contact there is between copper and vapour, the lighter the spirit will be. So, the aim here is a light (but peaty) spirit?“Not exactly,” says manager Charlie Smith. “We run the stills pretty hard so the copper is pretty knackered. The character is sulphury – which is where that pepperiness comes from; but it’s subtle sulphur because of the shape of the still, the nature of the reflux, the purifier – which gives the oiliness – and the worms.” He leads me through the wall where the lyne arms leap back up to their original level before hooking into a worm tub. This adds weight to the distillate. It’s head-spinning stuff, designed to make a complex spirit, seen at its best in the 18 years old, with a sweet nose which mingles together cake mix, linseed, marine elements and smoke.The pepper has become Szechuan. The effect is one of elegance but with a smoky, cedar-like edge. Talisker never really mellows. Yet, all that talking up of copper and the shift away from the importance of water and location of warehouses is chipping away at my old romantic visions like the wind and rain on the basalt ridge.Is Talisker simply a factory on the shore?Can all of its mysteries be explained by the weird alchemy of the stillhouse? Spinnaker.It had been a long, hard, exhilarating sail through the Hebrides. Our faces were sore with salt and laughter. We hoisted the spinnaker and drifted serenely towards the distillery, past the lazy beds suddenly, vividly, illuminated by a rare shaft of sun.This is how Hugh MacAskill would have approached Carbost in 1825, though probably without the spinnaker.MacAskill set out from Eigg back to his family’s original home to take the tack (rent) of the Talisker estate. It was time of change in the Highlands. Skye’s desolate beauty isn’t just the effect of its geology, but the result of capitalist economics being brutally enforced on its population in the 19th century by men like MacAskill.Talisker, like many of its coastal colleagues, is a Clearance distillery. In came the sheep and out went the people: either to America, the Lowlands or from 1830, to Carbost to work at MacAskill’s new distillery, which he believed would be a perfect example of the modern approach to managing the land.Although his vision failed, Talisker survived. But how? If you were to build a distillery today, you wouldn’t choose the shores of Loch Harport, impressive though the setting may be.This is the ‘wrong’ side of Skye. It faces Uist, not the mainland. The sea route is long and, as I’d discovered, tough. The road is hardly easier.Talisker has survived for 175 years because of its quality and character which is in full flow in the new anniversary bottling.The nose is briny, there’s wet rope, seaweed: it’s the sail down the loch again! Then dried fruit, liquorice, honey, wood shavings thrown on a beach bonfire.It has all of Talisker’s contradictions: sweet and salty, dry smoke and gentle oiliness, the shore and the moor, yielding yet firm. It does distil its place of birth.Yet that’s romantic nonsense. Isn’t it? I asked Douglas Murray about my continuing sense of delusion.“Of course you can capture the place in the whisky,” he replies. “You can’t condense the spirit without capturing some of the essence of the location.” Huh? This is a scientist talking. I thought he’d have no time for this twaddle.“There’s something about the site which makes Talisker Talisker. We’ll never know how it happens... and we don’t want to.” Each bottle, each dram, each sip, is a complex weave of location, experience and history. And it is the thread through my whisky life.References
For more details on Talisker’s History: http://www.smws.com/archives/talisker
Neil Wilson, The Island Whisky Trail
The Angel’s Share (*) Richard Fortey
The Hidden Landscape, Pimlico (†)
Sorley Maclean, Spring Tide and
Neap Tide, Canongate