Scotland’s distilleries make up an important part of the country’s culture.  That’s not just because us Celts enjoy a dram, but because whisky production has been an important part of Scotland’s economy for generations.  There are 128 operating Scotch Whisky distilleries across the country, giving direct employment to an estimated 10,000, and accounting for over 20% of all UK food and drink exports.  It’s estimated that at any one time there will be as many as 20 million casks maturing across the country. Them’s some serious numbers!

I’m quite partial to a wee dram now and then, so one of the things that was top our list when visiting Skye this summer was to visit the Talisker Distillery.

Typically, we’d left ourselves fairly short on time to make it there, with our ferry arriving into Armadale at 2.45pm and the tour beginning a 40 mile drive away in Carbost at 4pm.  Now 40 miles might not sound like much, but when you consider that navigating Skye’s roads involves winding your way around single track paths with seldom passing places and an abundance of rogue sheep, you may as well double it.

Thankfully we arrived with a whisker to spare, and were relieved to find our group of fifteen or so others just as the tour was about to begin.

We were taking one of Talisker’s Classic Tours, which take around 45 minutes and which walks you through the ingredients and processes behind each bottle before finishing with a tasting session.

The tour began in the showroom, where our guide introduced us to the process of whisky distillation and talked us through the history of Talisker, which has been making single malt whisky since the early 1800s and is the island’s oldest working distillery.  It’s also the only distillery which has its water fed directly from the dark cuillin mountain range above, giving it that magical quality.

Scotch whisky is made out of three ingredients: water, barley, and yeast. Our guide explained where Talisker gets these ingredients and how they work together to start the whisky making process.  He also explained that many of Scotland’s whiskies get their distinct smokey flavour from the country’s peat.  Talisker is known for its peaty tones, and I was suprised to learn that the company get their peat from Skye, but also from Caithness, over on mainland Scotland.

As we moved through the different areas of the distillery, our guide explained how malting, milling, mashing, fermentation, distillation, and maturation take you from the basic ingredients to the finished product, single malt Scotch whisky.  If you’re wondering what exactly makes a ‘Scotch’ whisky, the drink must be made from 100% malted barley from one distillery, and not blended with any other products.  It must also mature in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years.

Last stop on the tour was a glimpse at the barrel room.  This is where the whisky is left in casks to mature, and it was really interesting to learn how much of an impact the casks themselves can have on the end product.  The type of wood selected and the length of time left to mature both contribute to the flavour of the whisky.  The environment they are kept in is also relevant, and our guide pointed out that many people often pick up on a salty flavour to their whisky; the reason?  The distillery is by the sea.  Pretty neat, right?

There were some seriously old – and seriously expensive – barrels on display, so it’s no wonder they were kept behind glass, although another good reason for this might also be the fact that a small percentage of every barrel’s whisky is also lost through evaporation.  The airborne traces of whisky have become known affectionately as the ‘Angel’s Share’ and our guide seemed reluctant to answer the likelihood of staff and visitors being able to get tipsy off the fumes…funny that.

Finally came the moment we’d all been wating for; the tasting session.  After carefully measuring out our nips into the bell-shaped glasses, our guide handed us each a dram of Talisker Storm – a unique blend which combines different ages and styles of whiskies made at the distillery.  Before sampling Storm we were encouraged to take in the aroma, and it was easy to identify the distincive smell of smoked peat coming through.  Then we were encouraged to take a tiny sip straight, before adding a few drops of water and trying again.  It was amazing how much of an impact the water made to the flavour.  I’ve always been against the idea of diluting my whisky (it’s the islander in me…), but actually adding just a couple of drops of room temperature water really opens up the flavour and gives it an entirely different – and softer – taste.

We quickly fell for Talisker Storm.  It’s smokey and packs a fair punch, so won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I also got echoes of honey and sweetness, as well as a smell that reminded me of drizzly summer evenings, camping by log fires.  If we didn’t have to drive to the other side of the island, I might well have had another dram!  Instead, we made do with a purchase from the distillery store…

Whether you’re a whisky drinker or not, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the Talisker Distillery.  You’ll learn a lot about this historic industry and its significance to the island community, you’ll get to meet some of the locals, but also you’ll be treated to some of the loveliest views Skye has to offer, with Loch Harport and the cuillin mountains gazing languidly on.  The views alone are worth the drive!

The Classic Tour lasts 45 minutes and will cost £10 per person.  This includes a £5 voucher to spend in the gift shop.

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