Distillery Focus

Teasing Talisker

An eccentric entrepreneur is seeking to challenge Talsiker's status as the only distillery on Skye. Tom Bruce-Gardyne went ot meet the man behind a special brand of Gaelic whisky.
By Tom Bruce-Gardyne
Sitting at his desk on the Isle of Skye, Sir Iain Noble is gently extolling the virtues of Gaelic. His office is a cosy, wood-panelled room that dates back to 1812 and was once a shop. Outside the sea sparkles as intermittent shafts of sunlight break through the clouds rolling in across the Sound of Sleat. It is a beautiful yet perhaps distracting view for a would-be whisky baron needing to compete with the global giants who dominate the trade.For this is the headquarters and corporate nerve centre of the Pràban na Linne whisky company. Right from the start I was intrigued. Why had this 64-year old Edinburgh banker and serial entrepreneur taken up Gaelic and then turned to whisky?And what was he doing in the Hebrides? Sir Iain, full of patrician charm in his tweed suit, quietly waited for the flow of questions to subside, and then began at the beginning. "I was born in Berlin, was christened in Rome and went to school in Shanghai and Buenos Aires." This was due to having a diplomat for a father who then sent him home to finish his education in England and spend holidays with an uncle in Argyllshire. After working for the Scottish Council in Edinburgh he co-founded Noble Grossart, Scotland's first merchant bank, in January 1969. That same year the Eilean Iarmain estate on Skye came on the market. Sir Iain had been bitten by the Hebridean bug ever since walking from Stornaway to Barra with a cousin and clearly imagined that if he was going to end up anywhere it would be on Lewis. "Well, on the spur of the moment I put in an offer for something I never expected to get. I was on holiday when the news broke and remember dashing in and out of phone kiosks all round Shetland."Having set up a company in Aberdeen to provide supply ships for the North Sea drilling rigs, he decided to quit Noble Grossart and was by now spending three weeks a month on the island. Clearly he was not going to be an absentee landlord. The local papers were abuzz with rumour – Was there oil on Skye? Instead Sir Iain loaned money to a skipper from the Isle of Scalpay to buy a trawler on the condition he moored the boat on Skye for three years and taught others to become fishermen. A second boat was purchased, but with the slump in the fishing industry it never made money and the business eventually collapsed.There followed a knitting mill which at one point employed 17 islanders, but that too never broke even and was also wound up. After six years of failure a lesser man might well have despaired, but Sir Iain swears he was never disheartened. Besides he was determined to disprove a damning article in the Economist from the early seventies which stated that there was no solution to the so-called 'Highland Problem' and that the islands would always require subsidies – 'their only value being a lung for tired businessmen on holiday.' Finally in 1976 he moved to set up Pràban and hit the world with Gaelic whisky. A pràban, akin to the Irish poitín, was a place where moonshine whisky was sold and sometimes made. Conventional wisdom among marketing gurus is that any new product should be extensively test marketed and have a strong, catchy and above all pronounceable brand-name. With this in mind, Pràban launched its first blended whisky Té Bheag, pronounced 'chey vek'. It is Gaelic for 'little feminine one' or 'wee dram' with the only English printed on the back of the label making it virtually illegible until the bottle is drunk. As Sir Iain explained, "the first thing was how to launch it – whether we should try and under-cut everyone else or whether that would equate 'Gaelic' with 'cheap' which would soon be dismissed as a gimmick." As for test marketing, various drams were tried out on the regulars in the bar of the hotel next-door, also owned by Sir Iain. "In the end we decided to produce a really good whisky with a high proportion of relatively older malts." And indeed, the blend appears to work well, with a gentle dryness giving way to something sweeter and more heathery. It was a man called Allan Campbell who was entrusted with building up sales with Sir Iain lending a hand whenever he could. "One year I decided I was going to visit every single island apart from Gigha and Colonsay which had a license. Every day I would set off with a personal challenge to sell 15 cases." After some 18 islands averaging 45 calls a day, sales reached 3,200 cases by the end of year four. "My best deal was selling 50 cases to a hotel in Benbecula in South Uist." Though as Sir Iain admits the hotelier drove such a hard bargain that it did precious little for Pràban's profits.The company did at least obey one of the tenets of marketing; that it should be close to its main market. From the start it was never envisaged that Gaelic whisky would sell anywhere but the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Yet out of the blue came a request from an Englishman living in Paris. Brian Wakefield, who already had the agency for Scottish and Newcastle beer, reckoned their might be a demand for Té Bheag from the Brêton bars in Brittany and Paris. After five or six years the agency passed to François Dugas, who had previously represented The Macallan in France. Pràban was concerned about the labels being in Gaelic. "But didn't the Gaels invent whisky?" retorted Dugas. "Did you ever hear of a good Cognac producer putting English on the label just so he could sell it? The fact that the label's in Gaelic proves it's genuine – I'll be able to say it's the only genuine whisky available in France!" By now the fame of Té Bheag had spread even further. Sir Iain had been over in Canada, prompted by something his grandmother had once said about there being more Gaelic speakers there than in the whole of Scotland. According to one estimate in 1900 there were 200,000 of them living on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. They had been evicted from the Western Isles during the Highland clearances, and though now in their fifth generation there was still a sizeable community with a thirst for uisge beatha. Again the issue of labelling came up with Pràban wondering how it could cram three languages onto the label, but the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission ruled that French and Gaelic would be just fine. Before continuing, we should perhaps pause and consider the whole question of Gaelic, something that has been an obsession of Sir Iain's for the last 30 years. Having visited the Faroe Islands a number of times he had been struck by the island's thriving economy and general optimism that lay in stark contrast to the shrinking population and sense of despair endemic in the Hebrides. He remains convinced that part of the solution lies in the resurgence of Gaelic. Despite a rapidly expanding business in Aberdeen, the string of ventures on Skye and having a hotel to run, he was determined to learn the language. "It was a hectic scamper of a time, but I used to have a tape in the car, and made a rule that I would always try and speak a few words to anyone I met. Within six months I could go into a bar and speak for an hour, and by the end of 12 months I could do meetings." At the time most of the locals over 25 could speak it, though few under 35 would care to admit it. Persuading the hotel staff to try proved almost impossible, until he hit on the wheeze of extending the scope of the swear box. "Every time I caught one of them speaking English it was 10p in the box – it became a terrific joke." In 1982 a 12-year-old vatted malt was added called Poit Dhubh, pronounced 'potch ghoo' and meaning 'black pot' or illicit still. Sir Iain is not averse to shrouding his whiskies in a little Celtic mist. "We can neither confirm nor deny that they were made in an illicit still," he says, dreaming of the publicity coup the day the gaugers come crashing through the door to be met with a barrage of flash bulbs. A lucky break did occur one morning when the hotel rang to say that a party of commandos had come ashore in search of the Sunday newspapers. When Sir Iain heard they were from the Royal Yacht Britannia, moored round the bay, he shot round with a bottle of
Té Bheag. Poit Dhubh is now available as an unchill filtered eight-year-old and as a rare 21-year-old, with the older ones bottled at the slightly higher strength of 43%abv. They are all robust, fulsome malts with an attractive herbal-mineral flavour especially evident in the unfiltered 12-year-old. Apparently they all contain a little Talisker, enough to give them a wee taste of Skye, but not too much that they are overwhelmed by the malt's famously pungent pepperiness. There is a certain good-natured rivalry with the island's one and only distillery, and teasing Talisker is a popular pastime in the Pràban office. When Talisker filled the old ferry with leaflets telling people to come and visit 'the island's only distillery', Pràban came back the year after saying theirs was the only one 'with its head- quarters on Skye'. This was hardly something their rival could deny. In any case, Talisker may soon have to revise that claim about being the only distillery. Since the very beginning the company has always contemplated producing its own whisky on site.With the whisky loch filling up again and a number of distilleries beginning to look vulnerable it would appear a bold move. Yet Sir Iain feels the timing could be quite good, for while the industry remains so top-heavy with big players merging into even bigger players there is scope for the small fry to thrive. "Come let me show you." And with that we cruised off in Sir Iain's Mercedes to a derelict farmstead, four miles south.Despite the overgrown courtyard piled up with rusting farm machinery, it is not hard to share in the vision. With a little restoration and general tidy-up it could make an enchanting distillery, beside its ruined castle and with views across to Mallaig on the mainland. Detailed plans have been drawn up and the water from the burn than runs past has been analysed and pronounced good. Whether it will ever happen depends on sales which will need to double from their current level of 10,000 cases a year. Much rests on Skip Clary, an engaging young American from Virginia who set off to see to the world five years ago, hit Scotland, and never left. It seems that love got in the way. Now married on Skye he runs the company's UK sales and is slowly getting to grips with Gaelic. If foreign sales keep growing and Skip does his stuff back home, the Isle of Skye's second distillery could well become a reality.