Talisker Distillery on the Isle of Skye is best approached by boat, so Charles MacLean sets sail on the Classic Malts Cruise
The best way to arrive in Venice is by sea, taking a vaporetto across the lagoon and watching in awe as Venus rises from the waves. So it is with Talisker on the Isle of Skye, and for the other whisky distilleries in the Western Isles of Scotland, which stand at the sea’s edge on Mull, Jura and Islay. The reason for their coastal location is easily explained. Historically, raw materials such as barley and coal arrived by sea and casks of whisky left the same way. The carriers were small cargo vessels called ‘puffers’ – their shallow draft and flat bottoms allowing them to run right onto a beach and unload their cargo.
Approaching these island distilleries by boat is the best way to understand their often remote location and elemental character. Malt whisky is the quintessential ‘spirit of place’. The liquid from each distillery is different, and the flavour of each seems in some way to reflect its surroundings.
This is romantic imagining, of course. There is no scientific reason for the salty tang found in many island malts being attributable to the distillery’s proximity to the sea – even if the warehouses in which the spirit matures are lashed by salt spray during winter storms, as many are. But it would be a hard heart indeed that was not stirred by the sight of trim, white-washed distillery buildings clustered on the edge of a lonely bay – especially once that heart has been warmed by a drop of ‘golden nectar’ made in that distillery.
That’s why I joined the Classic Malts Cruise this summer. The voyage starts and finishes in Oban – the Gateway to the Islands – on the West Coast and, over the course of two weeks, visits three Hebridean distilleries, Talisker, Lagavulin and Caol Ila. A special welcome is extended to crews of yachts sailing the West Coast during the last fortnight of July and participants rally on set evenings at each distillery for ceilidhs, barbeques, tours and tastings.
Wind in the sails
Having sailed among these islands as man and boy, I’m not surprised that yachtsmen rate this stretch of water as among the finest sailing grounds in the world. It’s up there with the Aegean and the Caribbean – and it’s more challenging than both. The area is relatively small, with the hundreds of islands within easy reach of each other by sea. This makes for great variety, and you can run for shelter if the weather changes – and it can turn in the twinkling of an eye in these northern latitudes.
The prevailing wind is from the west, so if the weather is really foul all you can do is run before it towards the menacing exposed shore, praying you’ll be able to manoeuvre into shelter. You are generally safe at sea ‘so long as you have water under your keel’ – so you can run cheerfully over the open deep, even if it’s stormy. This is not possible on the West Coast: the Sea of the Hebrides is relatively shallow and littered with hazards. A Gaelic proverb sums it up neatly: ‘The sea forgives, but the rocks are merciless.’
There are rocks galore, often where you least expect them. Just as the Inuit have many words for snow, so the Gaels have different names for such rocks. A sgeir is a rock surrounded by sea but visible even at high tide and a bogha is a submerged rock, close to the surface at low tide. Maol (meaning ‘bald’) is a sea-washed rock and carraig is a rock jutting out into the sea. Admiralty charts of the West Coast are embellished with unpronounceable poetic gems.
The tides are huge, and surge north on the flood, south on the ebb, twice a day, in some places running faster than most sailing vessels can travel. Plunging along under full sail, and yet realising from the passing shore that you are travelling backwards, is a strangely un-nerving experience.
Though not for the faint-hearted, the cruise is an unforgettable experience. The hospitality is immense, the company (both nautical and local) terrific, the yarns heroic and the whisky… simply sublime. Just as wine tastes best in the vineyard, malt whisky, that elemental liquor, reveals its true nature at its birthplace. You can experience the spirituality, history and craft that goes into making this fine spirit whenever and wherever you nose and taste a dram. From a hectic bar in Shoreditch to a classy restaurant in Mayfair, you can be instantly transported to the peace of Loch Harport and Talisker Distillery.
‘Safe harbour after storm doth greatly please,’ wrote John Donne. Oh yes!
Talisker 57˚North, 57% ABV
Talisker is everything you could hope for in a single malt; big, strong, complex and warming. Situated in the small coastal community of Carbost at the head of Loch Harport, the distillery is one of the most remote in the world. But, like all the best things in life, it is worth seeking out.
Famed for the award-winning 10-year-old and 18-year-old expressions, as well as the amazing 25-year-old releases, its latest whisky is 57° North, a classic, intensely vigorous Talisker with unique strength of character.
Nose: Clean and intense initial aroma with light smoke soon appearing. Creamy toffee with pronounced fruit acidity; then hints of seaweed, heather blossom and calming vanilla that balances the
crisp attack. Chalky and minty notes are detectable, followed in time by chocolate, then salt. The chocolate becomes slightly nuttier – like praline. Water tempers the attack and brings out a
slightly oily note. Sweet yet salty, with a savoury sharpness.
Palate: Tart fruit, sweet to start, with smoke and tar abruptly exploding around the middle of the mouth. Sweet-centred yet tempered by a savoury edge. Water deepens the effect and smoothes out the abrupt shift between sweet and smoke. Mouth-filling, silky and complex.
Finish: Oily. Fairly medicinal with drying tartness. Tingling and peppery – smoother with water.
Expect to pay: £44 for 1-litre in travel retail.
For more information about the Classic Malts Cruise, visit www.worldcruising.com/classicmaltscruise