Whisky Connoisseur

Arthur J A Bell

Talisker Whisky

Photo of Talisker Bay via Wikimedia

I will never forget the summer of 1955. It was that most glorious of years when the sun never- ceased shining. How rare indeed in Scotland. The barley grew rich and thick, ripened early in August for harvesting. Recently I managed to treat myself to a tiny taste of 1955. It was a bottling by Gordon and MacPhail of Talikser whisky, produced on the misty island of Skye. So I would like to tell you a little bit about Talisker.

The West coast of Skye was suffering in the late eighteenth century. The gathering of kelp on the seashore was one of the major sources of income. There were too many people to feed, and the country was at war with the French, so the land and the kelpers were cleared for the sheep. In 1825, two islanders from Eigg, the McCaskill brothers took over Talisker House. Macleod of Macleod hosted the great Dr. Johnston and his biographer Boswell some years before in the house. The McCaskill brothers, Hugh and Kenneth, gradually extended their farming and business empire. Indeed Kenneth was the banker in Portree, and when you are building a distillery it seems a good idea to have the bank on your side! They built a distillery on a lonely glen on the West coast near to their house and started drawing it's waters from the slopes of "Knoc an Speirehe", translated into English "Hawkhill". A local minister, Reverend MacLeod - avid temperance campaigner, wrote furiously about "The manifest injury of the temporal interests of the people, and the progressive and sure destruction of their morals", coming from the whisky they distilled in his Parish!

When Kenneth went off to meet his maker in 1854, Talisker distillery was sold for one thousand pounds. Eventually it came into the hands of Alexander Allan who happened to be the Procurator Fiscal (District Attorney, to my American friends) of Morayshire. His partner was one Roderick Kemp who already owned Glenlossie distillery. In 1880, Scotland's greatest living writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a poem about it: "The King of drinks as I conceive it, Talisker, Islay or Glenlivet." The reputation continued to spread, despite the great competition from Lowland grain whiskies and the new blending industry. By 1892 Kemp had bought the equally famous MacAllan distillery on Speyside and Allen took over its ownership, merging it with another distillery, calling it Dailuaine Talisker Distilleries. Amongst other capital expenditure in those days was the construction of a tramway linking a pier which they built, to the distillery, and housing for the distillery workers, and even for the dreaded Excise man.

Eventually, during World War I, the fast growing Distillers Company Limited (DCL), owners of such famous brands as Dewars and John Walker, bought Dailuaine Talisker. The original distillery buildings were all destroyed by, a fire on 22nd November 1960, and the whole building had to be re-done. Today there is a visitor reception area where you can see much of the history of this Distillery, and visitors are guided round to see the old warehouses, the five stills and per-chance to take a "wee dram". (The photo here is of the Talisker distillery by "Nick W" via Wikimedia)

Now the only whisky produced (lately) on the Isle of Skye receives rave notices from all of the whisky writers from Stevenson onwards. The writer Neil Gunn commented "At its best it can be superb, but I have known it had to adopt the uncertainties of Skye weather!" Charles MacLean, in his admirable Mitchell - Beasley Pocket Whisky Book describes it as "The lava of the Cuillins exploding off the palate and slipping down like shreaving fire". In his fascinating illustrated guide to Hebridean malts, Neil Wilson says "It must be said that at its best, it is quite simply the very best."

Many times I have enjoyed the slightly peaty nose with hints of burnt heather, and a whiff of the sea. On the palate, Talisker is dry and spicy with a distinctive peatiness, but a particular pleasure to me is in its long, smooth, smoky finish, By the time the very special 1955 bottle I had tested was finished, it was really big and dark whisky - rich and distinctively pungent.

Although the days of "Speed Bonny Boat like a bird on the wing, over the sea to Skye" have gone with the controversial Skye Bridge (picture here is via Wikimedia), it is easier and worthwhile making the journey to this magical island. Drive round the North and fierce Cuillins to the distillery, exploring the countryside around Loch Harport. Then slip quietly back to the Sleat peninsula. There you can relax at the wonderful Kinloch House, owned by Lord MacDonald and his famous cookery writer wife Lady Claire, sitting in one of the ancestral rooms sipping a large measure of Talisker.

This has to be one of the high points of civilisation!

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