The northern parts of Scotland are beautiful. After visiting the Orkneys and the north-east with all its distilleries we could find and visit, we were taking one last rare whisky from the well stocked bar at the Dornoch Castle Hotel on the east coast of the northern Highlands before hitting the sack. Looking forward to our day off, a completely distillery-free day with little over an hour driving, having a go at the search for the Loch Ness Monster (she really doesn’t like to be called that) and only a couple of kilometres to travel to our next stop at Fiddlers Highland Restaurant, in the Nessie infested town of Drumnadrochit. Maybe we had had one too many, but from one of us came the idea to change the schedule and do something silly; drive to the other end of the country to visit the Talisker Distillery, and back.
The Talisker distillery is one of the distilleries that is “a little” out of the way if you are distillery-bagging like we are. It is there, in the fishing community of Carbost with a surprising amount of B&B’s, with next to nothing else in any direction. To first let the coffee do its thing and wake us up, we decided to take the easy route down the A9 passing the Vintages Matured to Perfection, the Men of Tain and the Cigar Smoking Stag, before turning onto the A862 on the roundabout right before the Cromarty bridge, driving south-west. In Dingwall, we chose to follow the main road which would turn into the A835, south of Loch Ussie, but we could just as easily have chosen to take the A834 north of the loch, and eventually have ended up on the same route anyway, in the picturesque village of Contin. Following the A835 alongside the Black Water river with its Rogie Falls, we quickly found ourselves at a junction in Gorstan, allowing us to change our course onto the A832. From there, we didn’t have much of a choice but to keep on going and enjoy the panoramic landscapes. A beautiful scenery built from rock-covered mountain sides, withered lochs and lochs filled to the brim and the occasional castle, or ruin thereof. Well paved double lane roads, every now and then exchanged for a long stretch of small, but very drivable single lane road. Along the way, a handful of tunnels were accompanied by railway tracks from the Inverness – Kyle of Lochalsh ScotRail, so the trip should be very doable by train as well, for the people interested in doing Scotland by train, which we may have a go at sometime in the future.
A little back from the Kyle of Lochalsh, our road bent around the last obstacle at Auchentyre and merges into the A87, which directed us due west towards the Isle of Skye. We were told many stories about the beautiful bridge over the Eilean Bàn, but when we had crossed it, we were looking at each other and went “that was it?”. Turns out, it sure is a beautiful bridge, but when you are on the road, you hardly see anything of it and you have crossed it before you know it. Stopping at the shops just before the bridge or turning left at the first roundabout on Skye driving towards Kyleakin, gives a beautiful look at the pretty bridge and a parking opportunity to stop and snap a panoramic picture or two. Weather permitting though, which was the reason we continued the road towards a small supermarket to satisfy our stomachs with a cheap early lunch with fruit and fresh, scorching hot tea, hiding from the rain in our car on a parking place looking out over the archipelago including the Isle of Raasay, which is to open its own distillery soon. Another thing to come back to the area for, as well as the long, bendy detour to the Ardnamurchan distillery at this side of the country.
Not having much of a choice of the road to drive, we continued west on the A87, until the tiny brown sign at Sligachan (and our GPS) told us to turn left onto the A863, in order to reach today’s goal – the Talisker distillery. The scenery, still beautiful, has changed quite a bit from what we described in the Highlands, but if you like your mountain views, this is the place to be. Beautiful, heather covered hillsides and long mountain ranges in the distance with patches of snow on the tops. It is a little wonder there is anything viable here except moss, sheep and the fish in the lochs. Shortly after, a slight turn left again onto the, mostly single track B8009, is hard to miss because of the large brown sign on the left of the road, telling us there are only another three miles to go until we reach the Talisker visitor’s centre. We were surprised by the amount of people that made the trip to this corner of the world, and upon our arriving we were glad we made reservations for a tour before we had decided to hit the road. Large groups of tourists from all over the world were continuously gathered and professionally guided over the terrain in pre booked time slots, which gave us the opportunity to browse Diageo’s most visited visitor’s centre for a while after collecting our tickets and getting our passport stamped, because we were fashionably early again.
From this browsing, we learned the Vikings have roamed the shores of the Thalas Gair (the Sloping Rock) as early as the seventh and eighth century. In 1925, land-owning MacAskill clan became the new owners of Talisker House Estate, and founded a distillery in 1930 in the same location as we find it today, originally starting with a triple distillation production. The distillery survived several take-overs and bankruptcies, until in 1916 DCL took reign, a consortium of major blending companies, which would later branch out and become current owner Diageo. In 1928, the consortium abandoned triple distillation and they continued distilling till the second world war, when they needed to stop production due to scarcity of grains. After the war, they picked up where they left off, and when a malfunctioning valve in one of the coal fired spirit stills resulted in a burned down still house in 1960, they rebuilt the exact same coal fired setup and reopened production in 1962.
It took until 1972 before the coal fired stills were remodelled into the much safer steam powered heating source we still see today. During this period of refurbishment, they also abandoned their own malting floors in favour of the slightly peated (ca. 20 ppm) malted barley from the Glen Ord Maltings in the Highlands, a stone’s throw from the route we passed this morning. The malt is delivered by the same small roads we drove and is crushed by the old Porteus mill before it is transferred into the large eight tonne stainless steel, lauter mash tun with a copper top, where it is mixed with water drawn from 14 underground springs rising from Hawk Hill (Cnoc nan Speirag) besides the distillery. Six hours later, a clear wort is slowly pumped into one of the eight Douglas Fir washbacks, where – according to the tourguide – a ridiculously short fermentation of only 40 hours is triggered by a creamed yeast, cultivated on molasses. Other sources claim a longer fermentation up to 65 hours, so we are a little at a loss here for the truth. A truth sought after many times, but we had to make do with what was given during a noisy tour with a tourguide often switching to a local dialect (which was, to us, complete gibberish, like Dutch is for most people not Dutch).
Although it was a Saturday and like many Diageo distilleries the plant was not producing any whisky during the weekends, we were still not allowed to make photographs at any point during the tour, Diageo’s default rules and regulations. Luckily, we could read and jot down the handful of signs around the place and deduct the two wash stills have a capacity of 14.706 litres. Their tall, straight necks bend into a straight lye arm with a large “U” shape, acting as a purifier before transferring into its own wooden worm tub outside, cooled with the ice cold water from the fast running Carbost Burn. The low wines are collected in a receiver and are fed into one of three slowly running, 11.024 litres spirit stills for a second distillation, with cutting points from 75% to 65% abv. The resulting three million litres per year of the 70%-ish spirit is diluted to the industry standard 63.5% before being casked and transferred into one of the dunnage-type warehouses, where the sea-air is said to magically circulate with the spirit to introduce the typical Talisker flavours.
Sadly, we could not visit and smell the Angel’s Share in the warehouses, and were also forbidden to walk to the back of the distillery to take a look at the worm tubs, but were guided directly to the tasting cubicles, decorated with wood and marketing, where we received a dram and discount coupon to purchase a 70cl bottle of anything available in the shop, which we spent on a nice bottle of Mortlach we have had our eyes on for some time already. A nice touch when we were back in the shop was that although it was really crowded, the staff ran around with serving trays of drams to be tasted, if you would have missed anything favourable in the cubicle.
As a band-aid for not being able to take our own pictures, Diageo has allowed Google inside the distillery to make an interactive map of the distillery insides, so you will not be completely be missing out on the beautiful light ornaments in the mash house or the funky-shaped lye arms of the wash stills. Getting faster through the distillery as we thought, we were outside in the rain again and looking at the hands on the clock, listening to our stomachs and the hard to understand tourguide, other locals and the complete interwebs that had previously visited Talisker, everything told us to take a nice walk up the steep hill behind the distillery and visit the Oyster Shed for a trio of locally caught lobster, oysters and langoustines – with chips. Looking out over the Eilean a’Cheo whilst eating these local delicatesses, we prepared for another drive in our trusted vehicle, back to the mainland, to say “Hi” to Nessie and Jon in Drumnadrochit.
Another 156 km to go. No rush, quite the bit shorter as what we did in the morning and although the first part of the trip on Skye was the same, but reversed, simply because there are no different roads to take, the largest part we had was a new route to explore with new sceneries. Shortly after the Skye bridge we parked the car for the obligatory picture of Eilean Donan Castle in Loch Duich, when a Police car passed us with high pitched sound and speed, into the same direction we were about to take. We did not take much notice of it at the time since we had heard it before, and continued en-route to enjoy the views and meandering roads. Halfway the A87, with little over 50 kilometres to go, we met the source of the previous sirens. A queue of about a dozen cars on both sides was held up by the police and an ambulance, and we were told the investigation of a car accident would last about four to five hours, during which, the road would be blocked for all traffic. We decided not to wait and drive back via the only road available; the same road as we had taken this morning, adding an extra 100 km to our trip.
Later than anticipated we arrived at a fairly busy Fiddler’s Inn in Drumnadrochit, where we were welcomed with a very welcome, warming dram. After a great dinner at the restaurant, we crossed the street to get a good night’s rest at the B&B. We have had a great day, mostly on the road, and had a good time at the Talisker distillery and the island. We definitely need to go back to the island much longer, cross our fingers the weather is less dreigh and take some more detours, walks and pictures of the island that is considered to be one of the most scenic places of the Scottish Isles.
Thomas & Ansgar
More photos of this distillery and road trip can be found on our Facebook page