Fàilte gu An t-Eilean Sgitheanach.Welcome to Skye. Welcome to Scotland served to Hollywood order; to the Highlands at their most Highlandic. Welcome to splattering sideways deluge and somnolent, gaudy-anoraked tourists in the wrong shoes; welcome to road awareness posters and kamikaze sheep. And welcome, amidst all that, to the most lung-punching, throat-seizing, thigh-pounding, eye-goggling natural exquisiteness anywhere in the United Kingdom.
Skye is beautiful the way the sea is wet, but the highlights reel, the bits that make you blink and gape, are the places where the beauty has been unmade. Where wave and weather and tectonics and time have chiselled and hewn and hauled the bones out from beneath the raked-back grass and ericaceous moor. Where mega-anna of pummelling Hebridean tides have thumped cliffs into kilts for giants, and Jurassic lava spears through the earth into rocks like petrified titans.
This is an awesome place, in the old-school sense of awesomeness – before teenage Americans learned the word and added water. Everything looms and swells and thunders; every turned corner twists into a new complexity of breathtearing enormity and splendour. Skye is idiosyncrasy writ biblical. It is the bellow of a living land.
I’m not sure what this article is. It’s not the Burnsish catharsis I sometimes grind for in the throes of Highland holiday hangovers. It’s not a new pulpit to bang; you won’t find excoriation here. You probably won’t laugh. I suppose it’s a breed of travel writing, though it won’t be a bucket-list verbal frot through the must-dos or a jejune “on my holiday I did…” I think it’s about homes. And stories. And roads.
It’s certainly about distilleries. Skye has two, and there’s a third across the water on Raasay. We’ll go there as well.
But first, a kitlist. A uniform. A shrugging off of shirts, jeans, chinos, desert boots. A wriggling into the scuffed up, the unloved and unlovely. Climbing trousers with frayed-thin knees that rustle as you walk. Waterproof jackets that stick to your arms if you don’t wear a jumper, but being Skye, and being September, you’re always in a jumper; the roughest, baggiest, oldest in the wardrobe. Boots, if you want to walk further than the wheezing, heaving Floridian septuagenarians. And warm socks. Most important of all. The more lamb wool the better.
It’s almost theatrical, this transformation. Office drone to wannabe outdoorsman. It’s clothing as necessity rather than statement. As protection – from the cold, from the wet, from twisted ankles, blisters and misery. The mocked, sensible trappings of the trainspotter, the birdwatcher, the extra on Time Team. If you’d wear it in London, you don’t wear it here. The trousers, in particular, are an affront to all that London holds urbane, erudite and civilised. But up here we’re closer to Norway than to London, and the iron rule is that if you don’t have something, you’ll wish that you did. It comes with the turf; the place imposes its costume upon you.
The geophysicist has no problem with it whatsoever. We’re on the ferry from Sconser to Raasay, twenty-five minutes of drenching and blasting as the wind cracks its cheeks and the sheet rain floods even your pockets. I grouse below, fiddling numbly with loathed Velcro and popping buttons; weather-watching through grimy condensation. The geophysicist hops and flaps and splashes on deck like a demented penguin, chirruping with joy as the Sound of Raasay crushes Lear and Macbeth and The Tempest into one torrential half-hour.
Raasay has the feel of Skye. It was once part of it, of course, eons ago, and part of the mainland too. Now it is split on both sides; jostled and shouldered. It is the least populous distillery island; two rugby teams fewer than Jura’s two hundred. One in sixteen of the population work at the distillery. When it begins to bottle its own whisky that number will be one in eight. Like Jura its population huddles largely in the south, close to its ferry artery to a larger neighbour. And like Jura, that population is forced by size and isolation into self-sufficiency. To be a Raasite (their true noun eludes both me and Google) is to be an electrician, a mechanic, a plumber, a joiner, a builder or a close friend of all of the above.
And, as of the last two years, a barley farmer as well.
Increasing numbers of distilleries talk about local grain. You’ve “single estate” Ballindalloch, the releases from Springbank, the Cotswolds in England, Kilchoman and Bruichladdich on Islay. Peter Bignell grows his own rye for Belgrove and of course there’s the Waterford fiefdom, newly heralded by Squire Newton. But in none of those places is it half as hard to grow barley as it is on Raasay.
Calum, the head guide, tells us a story about the harvest. Raasay has just one barleyfield; there isn’t a single harvester on the island. Skye doesn’t grow barley at all, and amidst the September gales there was just one day on which the weather was forecast to be suitable for bringing in the crop. The night before, their distillery manager drove a landrover to Orkney and back – four ferries, five hundred odd miles and fifteen or so hours, round trip. A borrowed “mini harvester” was lashed to the land rover, and, on return, it was all hands to the furrows, staff frenetically humping barley into hessian sacks, following the manager-turned-farmer in a car-turned-harvester along the slender lines on a tiny Hebridean rock where detractors had told them barley could not be grown. Then straight back to the distillery for business as usual; scratch-handed, soil-covered, clothes dusted with husk and straw and Raasay dirt.
“We were absolutely knackered” said Calum. Then a beam. “It was the best achievement ever.”
There are people – plenty of them – who sneer at the idea of barely’s provenance mattering. “Yet to be proven,” they announce. “Irrelevant. Why bother?”
Because. Because it is the ingredient. Because the place that a thing grows and is made matters to the people who grew and made it. Because barley grown on Raasay cannot be the same as barley grown on Islay or Kintyre or in Waterford, Cork or the Cotswolds. And if it doesn’t taste the same to begin with, then how can it possibly taste the same in a far more concentrated form? “We see our USP as the island,” said Calum. What simpler or clearer USP could a single malt whisky have?
Of course Raasay can’t meet all of its needs from one field alone. Its crop is padded by barley from the mainland. Barley anonymous. Everybarley. This year, for the first time, Raasay have enough of their own to barrel its resultant whisky separately. When they’ll bottle it is anyone’s guess. I hope, when they do, that it isn’t priced in line with some of this year’s inaugural releases from other distilleries. Imagine if someone from Raasay couldn’t afford to buy a bottle of their island’s very essence.
Raasay won’t be bottling any whisky of its own for some years yet. In the meantime their “While We Wait” expressions, sourced and bottled in the rough style they’re looking for from their own liquid, are all worth the entry fee. The third, by my lights, is pick of the crop so far.
Another day, another island, another storm. It’s a drier storm today; the cataracts and hurricanoes roar without spouting, but Atlantic waves still pummel and blast the frangible coast. “It doesn’t count as windy until our sign blows over,” says the cheery bloke at Torabhaig.
Torabhaig is new. In fact it’s New. Nappies and sleepless nights new. The wood panels are spanking, the letterwork unchipped. It’s still a risk to touch the paint and no one’s spilled coffee on the carpet. Yet. As a distillery it’s classically twenty-first century. Visitor centre so shiny you could shave by it, humming café that clanks and burps with bustle and homemade soup. Even the bowels of the factory itself are laid out with clumsy, feckless visitors in mind; one cigar-shaped production line of a room – tun here, washbacks here, stills here, next door leads to the board room for the tour-ending entry level: bish, bash, bosh, any questions?
Except, actually, it’s not all that new.
Before it was a distillery, Torabhaig was a farm steading. That dates back to the nineteenth century, but the stones date back further still. Á la Lagavulin a ruined castle, Cnoc, sits within eyeshot of the building. It was considerably less ruined before the farmers plundered it for materials. You can still see the line along the walls where the castle began to buttress the farm. Now the farm buttresses the distillery. The old gives way to the new, but cornerstones and upholds it; gives it a history and a direction. Although listed building status threw its roadblocks at the project; the tuns and stills for Torabhaig came in through the roof.
Visiting a distillery which hasn’t yet popped its cherry is a somewhat metaphysical experience. A whisky factory without a whisky. Local barley, fermentation times, cask quality, aimed-for character; these are all very well, but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating, and pudding here is still at least two year-long courses away. It puts marketing departments into something of a tangled quandary; how to praise something that hasn’t yet been made? “We’re confident our whisky will be of the highest quality” … “this will be, we hope, the most profound whisky ever” … “this will be the ultimate expression of our place.”Three years to rub the crystal ball, nail your identity, drum up a fanbase who like the look of your instagram shots, justify the price you’ll pin to your minimum-age inaugural.
Right at the moment, I suppose, I’m struggling to see what Torabhaig’s USP is. Besides being the first new distillery on Skye since 1830. Perhaps I’m looking too hard. Perhaps that’s enough. But amidst the cacophony of whisky social media, Torabhaig seems slightly lost. Slightly unsure of itself, perhaps; less gushed-over than other, louder distilleries with slicker PR operations. It seems, to me, like a distillery that is trying to make a perfectly decent, no-fuss peated single malt. Which, at face value, should be all one asks of a distillery. But with over 100 competitors in Scotland alone, I can’t help wondering whether it needs something more for us to sink our teeth into. Time, I suppose, will tell.
At which point, of course, it’s time for the Elephant on the island. The big one. The Classic Malt. The beast of Carbost whose spirit has trickled over line arms since 1830.
Everyone knows Talisker. Knows the whisky, knows the story, knows the brand message. Hardy, hearty fare; vital, visceral, elemental. That’s what Talisker says. Wrought by the sea; pounded and blustered; made in its unmaking; Skye in a bottle. On your knees, ye light and honeyed Speyside milksops; this is a whisky for weird sisters and blasted heaths. This is the Hebridean thunder that rolls around the world, they say. Sip it in your London drink dens, your New York speakeasies, your still, sticky tropics or the slow quiet of Tuscan villas and be blustered by the shriek and might of tempestuous Skye.
The distillery is whistle clean. Whitewash clean. Laboratory clean. Antiseptic clean. It almost squeaks.
We lounge and spool through the plinths and cabinets of the visitor centre; a burnished 30 year old here, a discreetly lit special release there. Lines of the flagships, shelved in regiment; everything placed and perpendicular. An American picks up a bottle of 10 year old; a polo-shirted employee quietly brings a bottle forward from the next row to fill the ranks.
Everything here is control and precision. The casks are imprisoned behind glass windows, the walls are lined with breakdowns of the production basics, in English, French, Spanish, Italian. The tour’s information is rattled off smilingly, but by rote. This will have been done dozens of times today. “Ask anything you like … ah, they don’t tell us that!”Quietly, conspiratorially, as we sip our Storm at the end, my friends ply me with soft, muttered questions. They didn’t need to at Raasay or Torabhaig.
Talisker is the Skye whisky. Its identity is communicated minutely on back labels and by note-perfect brand ambassadors; the sense of what it wants to be expressed in the clearest black and white. I’m with Jason, personally; I love any Talisker with a number, but I’m not sold on their NAS. At an intellectual level, I’m not sure how much it excites me; the geophysicist commented that she felt she learned more about their history than their production. You won’t find experiments here with yeasts, with fermentations, even really with casks. Much of the wood has old-teabag syndrome; the tour is sterilised, if not quite sterile; the watchwords are efficiency and consistency. But it makes whisky that people want to drink. And, if I was a gambling man, I’d bet that a bottle of the excellent 18 year old Talisker will ultimately come in cheaper than a three year old Raasay or Torabhaig.
It’s difficult to imagine three more disparate distilleries than the trio on Raasay and Skye. All three are single malts, and all three are peated, but there it ends. In age, in fame, in outlook and in process they plough furrows so different as to be indistinguishable from each other, yet all three insist that they are defined and shaped by their place. “Our USP is the island.”
Mark, I have no doubt, would argue that none of them are. Raasay still gets most of its barley from the mainland, and no barley is grown on Skye at all. (Prevented by 300 million year old Lewisian Gneiss, I was told, by someone who presumably didn’t imagine I’d check.) No Torabhaig matures on Skye, and only a portion of Talisker does.
Perhaps it is simply effective marketeering; perhaps it is my human nature (I do have some) looking for tenuous connections where none exist. But there is, I think, something of Skye reflected in Talisker. Even if Talisker’s edges have been sanded down by the strains of commercial expectation. There is a communicated wildness; communicated by the liquid itself. The apple may have fallen slightly from the tree, but the fierce, bracing growl is still there; still the right malt for the shelter of the hearth and the warmth of the Klondike stove to a backdrop of all-shaking thunder.
Torabhaig could very easily have designed their malt to be honeyed and light and delicate and orchard fruited. They haven’t. Their malt is peatier yet than Talisker’s, and whilst peat is fashionable and “in”, I suspect their motive was simply that a honeyed and light and delicate and orchard fruited malt would have felt incongruous to the bass orchestra of autumnal Sleat.
Single malt, at its best, is an expression of a unique place. Terroir may be individuality at its most extreme, but several roads divide in this wood. I think, for what it may be worth, that in the glinting of their make and malt, all three distilleries on Skye and Raasay reflect some image of their home. We can argue the toss on how shadowed those images may be.
A stream meanders down from the Black Cuillins, the hardest climbs in Britain. It’s called the River Brittle, though not many people know that. To most of them it is simply the home of the Fairy Pools. From the line of parked cars, behind the dotting of bright cagoules and breathy walkers, I can see the whole curve of Glenbrittle. Ahead of me, dark, granite, titanic and brutal, the wall of Cuillin looms with crag and crenellation. To my right, down a long, heathery sweep, the river wends its softer, green, almost pastoral way. Two landscapes. Two irreconcilable scenes within a head’s turning. And along the river’s banks the slender path runs on in both directions.
(Image of Raasay Distillery pinched from the internet, and distinctly un-representative of our weather…)