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    Talisker Single Malt Whisky

    Talisker is the only whisky distillery on the picturesque Isle of Skye. The distillery sits in the small village of Carbost, on the shores of Loch Harport, where it was founded in 1831 by brothers Kenneth and Hugh MacAskill.


    In 1848 ownership of the distillery was passed to North of Scotland Bank, who operated it until 1857 when it was sold to Donald MacLennan for just £500. This arrangement did not last, and it changed hands several more times before being passed to Scottish Malt Distillers (a predecessor of current owners Diageo) in 1930. A major fire caused damage to the still room in November 1960, however it was promptly rebuilt and the distillery began producing again in 1962. Other notable events in the history of Talisker include the ceasing of triple distillation in 1928 and then on-site malting in 1972; since this time the barley has been malted at Glen Ord Central Maltings.


    Over the last few decades, the Talisker brand has experienced exceptional growth worldwide, and is now one of the most popular single malt brands in the UK. The maritime character of the whisky and its strong peaty flavour has attracted loyal consumers and critical plaudits alike. Despite such popularity, the facility still has a relatively small production capacity of just over 2.5 million litres annually.

    Despite some stiff competition, Talisker on the Isle of Skye would win many nominations for Scotland’s most beautifully situated distillery. We can do no better than go back some 130 years for journalist and author Alfred Barnard’s description of its setting. “The Talisker Distillery stands at the foot of a beautiful hill, in the centre of the smiling village of Carbost which, after the bare and rugged track we had passed through, was an agreeable change, and seemed quite a lively place. On the broad slopes of the hill, which were covered with crofters’ holdings, husbandmen were busy tilling the soil; whilst at the Distillery below and the village that surrounds it, all was life and motion. Driving along we were struck with the picturesque situation of the Distillery, which stands on the very shore of Loch Harport, one of the most beautiful sea lochs on this side of the island.”

    There are still crofters’ holdings around Talisker distillery, and the village of Carbost continues to be filled with ‘life and motion’. This is largely thanks to the fact that Talisker and its visitor centre is now a major tourist attraction and owner Diageo’s most-visited distillery. Considering the effort that it takes to get to this remote western part of Skye, that is in itself quite an achievement. The distillery is located some 20 miles from the island capital of Portree, partly along single-track roads, and stands in the shadow of the magnificent Cuillin Hills, which attract thousands of climbers every year. Indeed, Talisker’s whisky has been referred to as ‘the lava of the Cuillins,’ and the aptness of that description is apparent to anybody who has sampled this mighty single malt. Talisker was established in 1830 by brothers Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill, who were sons of the local doctor. After trading for 18 years the MacAskills transferred the distillery lease to the North of Scotland Bank, which then oversaw operations.

    In 1857 the bank sold Talisker to Donald MacLennan – sonin- law of Hugh MacAskill - for the princely sum of £500, but six years later he went bankrupt. After two years in the hands of John Anderson, Glasgow agent for Talisker whisky, the distillery formally passed to Anderson & Co in 1868. However, John Anderson was jailed in 1880 for selling nonexistent whisky to customers who assumed it was safely maturing in the Talisker warehouses! In the same year, ownership passed to Alexander Grigor Allan and Roderick Kemp, though Kemp was later to sell his shares and invest instead in The Macallan distillery on Speyside.

    At a time when single malt whisky was a relative rarity outside the Highlands, Talisker was already highly regarded, with the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson writing in his 1880 poem 'The Scotsman’s Return from Abroad' “The King o’drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Isla or Glenlivet!” A programme of reconstruction took place at Talisker during the 1880s, and in 1894 The Talisker Distillery Co Ltd was founded. Four years later, this company merged with Dailuaine-Glenlivet Distillers and Imperial Distillers to create the Dailuaine-Talisker Distilleries Ltd. In 1916 that company was taken over by a consortium including W P Lowrie & Co, John Walker & Sons Ltd, and John Dewar & Sons Ltd, and Talisker was one of the assets which passed into the hands of The Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) in 1925. It was subsequently operated by the DCL subsidiary Scottish Malt Distillers (SMD). Talisker had traditionally performed triple distillation, with Alfred Barnard writing that “The Still House contains three Pot Stills; the Chargers, both of them timber vessels, are placed on a platform, which runs across the Still House. There are two Worm Tubs in connection with the Stills, both of them fed by running water direct from the Burn.” Triple distillation ceased in 1928, though to this day the still house configuration of two wash stills and three spirit stills harks back to the those times.

    Most distilleries have experienced a fire at some point in their histories, and Talisker is no exception. On 22nd November 1960 a valve on the coal-fired number one spirit still was inadvertently left open during distillation. Spirit escaped and caught fire, with the result that the entire still house burned down. However, a reconstruction programme was instigated, and the new still house was equipped with five stills that were exact copies of the originals. The fire may actually have been the salvation of Talisker in the longer term as such a remote distillery would surely have been on DCL’s short list for closure during the company’s radical 1980s rationalisation process, which saw 21 of its malt distilleries silenced during 1983 and 1985. It has been argued that Talisker only escaped because so much expenditure had been lavished on it some two decades previously.

    During 1972 the five stills replaced after the fire were converted from coal to steam heating, and at the same time on-site floor malting was abandoned. Instead, malted barley was shipped in from the recently-constructed Glen Ord Maltings on the mainland, with Talisker’s malt being peated to 18–20ppm. 1988 saw a 10-year-old Talisker included in the new Classic Malts line up, and a visitor centre was created. A decade later the sherry-cask finished Distillers Edition of Talisker was introduced, and the core range was expanded with an 18-year-old. In 2008 Talisker 57° North ( a cask-strength expression with no age statement) was added to the line-up, and Talisker has long been a firm favourite among Diageo’s annual Special Releases, indeed,the 27-year-old launched in 2013 was the 17th expression to have been bottled in this series. 2013 was a very significant year for Talisker, because it saw an upgrade to distillery visitor facilities, whisky sales smash through the two million bottle mark for the first time, and along with the 27-year-old special Release three entirely new Talisker expressions hit the shelves.

    A revised and eye-catching bottle design and label had been introduced the previous year and this refreshed brand appearance was utilised for Talisker Storm, Talisker Dark Storm and Talisker Port Ruighe. In line with the growing trend for no-age-statement expressions, this Talisker trio are flavour-led rather than age-specific. In Storm, the smoky and maritime notes of Talisker are enhanced, principally by the use of a mix of refill casks and rejuvenated casks. The latter – older casks which have been de-charred and re-charred to give them a new lease on life – offer a distinctive wood influence when again filled with spirit. Dark Storm was released exclusively through travel retail outlets and was described when launched by Diageo as the smokiest Talisker to date. This effect is principally achieved by using a proportion of heavily-charred casks for maturation. Port Ruige pronounced ‘Portree,’ after the capital of Skye – is finished in port casks following initial maturation in a mix of American and European Oak refill casks, plus bespoke heavily charred casks.

    Early this year another new no-age-statement expression of Talisker was released, namely the sweeter and more rounded Talisker Skye, which is matured in a combination of refill and toasted American oak casks, with a slightly higher proportion of toasted casks. Talisker Brand Manager Frances Drury explains why Talisker was the single malt chosen for these range extensions. “The varying flavours of Talisker have allowed us to create a portfolio where each variant offers something new whilst keeping them all recognisably‘Talisker.’ " “For example Talisker Storm emphasises the spicy, more intense notes of Talisker whilst Talisker Skye brings out the sweetness and softness in the liquid, but they both have the recognisably maritime, smoke of a typical Talisker and stay true to the new-make Talisker spirit. It is this possibility with the Talisker liquid to experiment and create incredible expressions, as well as the openness of Talisker fans to try them out, which has led to these line extensions.”

    Obviously the investment in and confidence behind the introduction of four new expressions over a two year period must reflect healthy sales figures, and Drury points out that “Talisker is our third-best-selling single malt globally, after The Singleton and Cardhu. The principal markets in order of sales are the UK, France, Germany, USA, The Netherlands, Italy, Australia, Japan and Switzerland. In Western Europe Talisker has grown by 14 per cent volume from 2011 to 2014 and by 17 per cent globally over the same period.” The style of Talisker single malt is influenced by the presence of purifiers on the wash stills, which have the effect of increasing reflux, while a distinctive ‘u-bend’ is present in the lyne arms. The ‘cut points’ are set to collect spirit which has a medium-peated character, and the presence of worm tubs to condense the spirit tends, to an extent, to nullify the ‘lightening’ effect of the purifiers and lyne arm ‘kinks.’ Talisker’s idiosyncratic bottling strength of 45.8% abv is said to be the optimum to showcase the single malt at its very best, and the distillery has an annual capacity of some 2.7 million litres of spirit.

    When asked just what factors make Talisker an ‘iconic’ single malt, Frances Drury replies that “I think there are two main reasons. Firstly its entirely unique yet challenging taste. A Talisker has such a recognisable and unusual taste profile (smoky, maritime, peaty sweetness) that is really incomparable with any other single malt. The distillery’s isolated and romantic location, on the windswept coast on the Isle of Skye, also contributes to its iconic status.” Clearly, the ‘King o’drinks,’ that ‘lava of the Cuillins’ in all its guises, continues to exert a powerful and majestic influence over drinkers around the world

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