Talisker: Home By the SeaApril 25th, 2013
Talisker has unveiled a new million pound upgrade to its distillery visitor facilities. Jonny McCormick traveled to the Isle of Skye to take a look.
There are precious few signs that spring has arrived on Skye. The fabric of the mountainside is a muted patchwork of exhausted greensand intense purples from the quiescent winter grass and last summer’s heather. A severe storm is grinding itself out on the Hebrides, with dense, savage rainclouds enveloping the summits of the Cuillins on the Minginish peninsula. Rain and snowmelt have swollen the many burns and streams which cascade down steep slopes into the lochs; the unpredictable routes of the brilliant white torrents reminiscent of the legs running down your whisky glass. I approach Talisker distillery after a five hour coast-to-coast drive, the car whipped by rain every single minute of the journey. Talisker: give me shelter from the storm.
Talisker welcomed 60,000 visitors last year, the highest footfall of any Diageo-owned distillery in Scotland. This is a growing brand that continues to receive attention with smart updated packaging, premium limited editions, and new no-age-statement line extensions including Talisker Storm and the new Talisker Port Ruighe. These are soon to be joined by Talisker Dark Storm, a new Travel Retail expression matured in heavily charred casks.
No wonder the parent company has invested seriously in how the distillery in Carbost presents itself to the world. It’s styled by the tagline “Made By The Sea,” and as I enter, they are not kidding around. Carved waves surge out of the floorboards, lapping at information stations that encapsulate materials central to whisky making here: copper for the stills, the wood of the wormtubs, and the curious U-bend in the lyne arms with the skinny re-entrant pipe that loops condensed spirit back down into Talisker’s wash stills. Hand in hand are the rugged elements representing the strong winds driving the waves onto the rocks in Loch Harport, yachting sails, and rigging marking the maritime positioning fitting the distillery’s exposed setting.
The stories are rich from the distillery’s origins in 1830 with Hugh MacAskill who orchestrated the Clearances on Skye, the dependency on old Clyde puffers to bring in raw materials and take away casks to the mainland, and the night of the major stillhouse fire in 1960. The new ground floor reception area is a triumph of contemporary design and a breath of fresh (salty) air compared with the former upstairs lounge area where expectant visitors used to sip a dram in the past, while tour numbers grew to a critical mass. The new space has come at the expense of part of the sea-facing Duty Free Warehouse #4, but the tour still offers a view into this working warehouse where the oldest casks on site are maturing (currently two casks filled in 1979).
Talisker offer a basic tour at £7 (around $10-11) and an in-depth tasting tour for £25 ($38) that takes around two hours and includes a tasting of five different expressions plus an opportunity to try Talisker new make. This year, they are introducing something new with a ‘tasting without a tour’ session for repeat visitors and whisky enthusiasts who have seen it all before and just want to get their nose into the new products. The new tasting room has a colorful border of jumbled texts and fonts like a wood type block, each singing out a distinctive flavor descriptor; honeycombs, smoky bacon, wooden fish boxes….
This room will host the tasting tours and visiting media representatives like today, when a party of French journalists are attending a press launch for Talisker Port Ruighe. The space where the tours conclude is my favorite part of the redesign; a versatile room that can be partitioned by a blue swing panel covered in slogans of the key messages. The areas are bounded by vertical wooden planks, each laser cut with the names and flavors of a different expression of Talisker single malt whisky.
It’s the clever little touches that impress, such as the mirrors beside the narrow dunnage warehouse windows to increase the natural light and the sail ropes that hoist the vertical planks upwards like storm covers hiding cannon muzzles on a man-of-war. When the visitor season hits full swing later this summer, the tour guides will be conducting 30-35 tours per day with tour groups coming into this area for tastings every 15 minutes.
I’ve been visiting Skye since I was a boy and it still takes me a second to remember to use the Skye bridge and not pull off the road at Kyle of Lochalsh down to wait for the roll-on-roll-off ferry to make the short crossing to Kyleakin. Despite today’s cataclysmic downpour, I can reassure you that the Isle of Skye looks glorious in the summertime if you are planning a trip. The impressive new million pound facilities at Talisker Distillery will handsomely reward your efforts for making the journey. This display will leave you with a deeper understanding of the necessary characteristics embodied in the spirit of the Islanders: resilient, inventive, humorous, tough, self-sufficient, waterproof, patient, lucky.
Photographs by Jonny McCormick