I believe every distillery in Scotland is worth a visit, and the good ones even merit a return, but there aren’t many distilleries I would choose to visit on three separate occasions. In fact, that class is currently limited to Aberlour and, the focus of today’s post, Talisker.
In 2006, Sarah and I could barely find the distillery. The small road leading to the outpost of Carbost winds down a valley crossing cattle grates en route to the Talisker, which hugs the shore of Loch Harport in the wild and desolate west of the Isle of Skye. In 2009, as part of a family trip around Scotland, we barely found our way home. We did the amazing tasting tour, and, well, just picture a bunch of giggling traveling Savages in a giant van and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what went down. Last year marked my third visit, but the first in my capacity as Traveling Savage.
It’s a marvel that distilleries like Talisker, that have their products in stores around the world, feel so small and isolated. Then again, whisky-making was originally a farm enterprise as farmers sought to turn a profit on leftover grain from the harvest during winter months. Talisker has been making whisky since 1830, and to this day some of the distillery workers are the same guys who shear the local sheep. We like these stories. They add a deeply personal touch to products that whisky enthusiasts, especially, drink up. It’s the nature of single malts to highlight their provenance and unique stories.
Talisker is one of the upper echelon heavy-hitters of the whisky world, and it has been that way for a long time. Robert Louis Stevenson regaled its virtues in 1880, and Talisker was one of James Bond’s favorite nips. The whisky is bold and hugely distinctive with maritime influences and a load of peppery fireworks that will blow you away if you’re not prepared. When I first started getting into single malts, Talisker made me feel cool because the whisky was such a badass. It’s probably why I once gave my brother a bottle of the 10 Year and humped the Distiller’s Edition around Spain for three weeks so I could give it to my dad. I’ve drifted away from being so image conscious about whisky, but the fact that Talisker is a big ball of delicious flame hasn’t left my consciousness.
This time around I had the opportunity to meet with Michael Goodall, Talisker’s brand home lead guide, and we chatted for a while in the distillery’s gorgeous visitors center (hat tip to Diageo – they know how to present their products). We sat down with a dram of Talisker’s core expression, the 10 Year old, and it was just as peppery and punchy as I remember. There’s a pleasant hotness – it is 45.8% ABV – and a billowing load of smokey sea winds. There’s not another whisky like it, and it seems there’s barely enough to go around since, as Michael mentions, 60% of Talisker’s production goes to blended whiskies like Johnny Walker and Bells. Long ago they stopped selling casks to independent bottlers, which also means places like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society are out of luck.
Despite the wave of special bottlings overtaking the whisky industry, Talisker keeps it pretty simple with standard 10 Year, 18 Year, 25 Year, Distiller’s Edition, and 57° North bottlings. Occasionally they have a 30 Year, as well. There aren’t many finishes or one-off bottlings, and Diageo is pretty consistent about this throughout their portfolio of distilleries. Talisker’s whiskies have more in common with Islay than Speyside, as their spirits use peated malt, but this animal is still a breed apart. Only a few distilleries continue to malt their own barley these days, and Diageo has consolidated maltings for their brands to a few key places. Still, I was surprised to hear that Talisker’s malt doesn’t use peat from Skye since the character of peat varies around Scotland. Sure, it would cost more to ship Skye peat to the maltings on the mainland, but I can’t help wondering if that cost wouldn’t be worth a bulletproof case for provenance.
We wrapped up our chat so I could make the tour. I wasn’t able to visit on a day when the more robust Tasting Tour was available, unfortunately, but I did do it back in 2009 and I highly recommend it should you ever have the chance to visit Talisker. Photos, phones, and all other electronics were forbidden on the tour due to the dangers of the distillery’s “charged atmosphere.” I understand that distilleries have burned down in the past – Talisker included – but Diageo needs to reconsider this stance. Many other distilleries couldn’t care less about visitors taking photos inside the distillery.
After a solid tour, Sarah and I exited into the Talisker gift shop. It’s a dangerous place to be. After my tasting tour in 2009 I purchased a bottle of Talisker 18 on a whim. If the 10 Year is a wild child with endless energy, the 18 Year is his older, wiser brother that’s more refined but with the same fiery streak. Those eight extra years in the barrel yield a very different – and, shockingly, better – whisky. I still haven’t opened my bottle! When I mentioned that I had a bottle of the 18 Year at home, Michael suggested I sell it because demand far outstrips supply (perhaps I should get drunk and buy whisky more often).
I managed to snag a nip of Talisker’s newest bottling, the 57° North, before we left. The whisky is named for its northerly latitude and fills the role of Talisker’s cask-strength expression (coincidentally 57% ABV). The first sip brought forth an image of a ship on fire. The powerful flavors batted about in my mouth like storm-tossed sails. There was a wet wood bonfire and toffee cookies, syrupy apples and black pepper. Ship on fire: it seems a fitting emblem for the distillery itself and it’s how I’ve thought of Talisker ever since.
Perhaps one day I’ll make a short list of must-visit distilleries in Scotland, distilleries that, whether for the product, the experience, or both, simply cannot be missed by anyone with even a minor interest in Scotch. Note to self: here’s one for the list.