I arrived at Talisker Distillery knowing that tours were fully booked up, and had been months in advance, but I was interested in seeing what was on offer in the distillery shop.
There was a long wait to gain entry. The queue stretched the length of the yard out front, and it moved slowly, as one by one we were allowed access only when another visitor had departed, in accordance with COVID-19 regulations. The sun baked down, as it had done all week, glistening on the azure waters of Loch Harport, reflecting harshly off the white-walled distillery, and radiating from the tarmac beneath my feet.
These were not the kind of weather conditions I had expected to encounter on Skye, where more often you are soaked to the bone and trying to keep upright against a howling wind. I was parched, so – like many before me – I sought permission to leave the queue temporarily, to get refreshments from the Caora Dubh coffee shop across the road. Before long, recharged with caffeine and a hit of sugar, I was back to wait some more.
All in all, it has been a long wait for me to get to Talisker, even before this queue extended the wait further. I’ve long been a fan of the age statemented core bottlings, and enjoy the Distillers Edition too, but visiting Skye and the distillery itself had just not happened for me.
On my previous Skye vacation, our holiday was pretty much abandoned after a storm ripped through Glen Brittle, the wind and rain coming in off the sea buffeting my parents’ trailer-tent so badly that the poles buckled, and the whole thing collapsed into a sorry, soggy heap. Since then, this wild and enchanting Island had very much been on my bucket list, but it had only been glimpsed on the horizon from the mainland, most often shrouded in mist and well out of reach.
Even on my trip to Skye this summer, distillery visits had to wait, but this time because the weather was so gloriously good. Distilleries and whisky tasting are usually high up my agenda when in Scotland, but never at the expense of climbing the mountains when the weather is fair and the summits are clear. I can buy whisky online from home, or drink it in local bars and pubs anytime, but opportunities to climb hills in good conditions are few and far between!
Talisker is proudly “made by the sea” at Carbost, but it is also made at the foot of probably the most spectacular mountain range that Britain has to offer. The Black Cuillin is a jagged ridge of rough gabbro, and smooth basalt, that once formed the wall of a volcano, but has since been worn down by glaciers, wind, rain, lightning strikes, and further ice and snow. The result is some stunning scenery, and a mountaineer’s paradise with some incredible technical climbing, best enjoyed with ropes, helmets, and in my case with a guide from Skye Adventure (given my lack of local knowledge and rope skills).
So, yes, Talisker had to wait for me to explore the Cuillins first. But right then, back in the queue, I’d had quite enough of waiting for entry. Staff were at least friendly and informative as we inched along in a socially distanced manner. It turns out the queue was not just due to COVID restrictions, but also because the shop had recently been moved to a temporary site. As a result, the shop was smaller, held fewer customers, and they’d been experiencing some teething problems with the new tills.
Change is afoot at Talisker. The old shop is being redeveloped, and a new café is being constructed. In many ways this is change long overdue, as there is clearly scope for improvement in the visitor experience at the distillery. More cynically: without a café, the potential for making money was not being fully realised.
This redevelopment has been met with some local opposition. The potential for extra visitor traffic is unwelcome on the narrow road through Carbost, and the junction to the distillery entrance is notoriously bad. Also, whilst Talisker proudly points to its status as a major employer and bringer of wealth to the island, there are concerns for local businesses.
It’s hard to think that establishments like the Caora Dubh coffee shop, that many distillery visitors currently frequent, will not be adversely affected. The Old Inn, just down the road will likely take a hit too. Talisker may well provide some additional employment with a new café, giving a boost to the local economy, but it’s not possible to cover up the reality that whilst the profits at smaller local businesses are ploughed back into sustaining island life, the profits at Talisker make their way to the behemoth that is the drinks giant Diageo, and to its shareholders. Only a small portion of that profit will make its way back to investment on site at Carbost.
I should note that Talisker seem to have been trying hard to address the concerns, redesigning the car park entrance, and working alongside local businesses, including Caora Dubh, so that they will become suppliers of produce to the new café. Distillery staff, who I quizzed about it all whilst waiting in the queue, were also keen to stress that the new café would bring a unique offering locally, with a more upmarket emphasis, serving a different clientele. We’ll have to wait and see what the end result will be, but hopefully the consultation process will have led to a positive outcome for the distillery, tourists, and the residents of Carbost, who will have to live with the consequences.
As I continued to wait, the gate was closed behind me, as new arrivals were prevented from joining the queue with closing time approaching. Perhaps they were the lucky ones, as – when I finally entered the shop – I was slightly underwhelmed. There was a smattering of other Diageo distillery releases, some Talisker themed accessories, and an offering of Talisker whisky that was smaller than I’d expected, with no handfill option available.
Tasting was not possible, unless you were organised enough to get on a tour, due to distillery COVID protocols and the lack of space in this temporary home. Staff seemed less friendly here; it was the end of long hot day no doubt! They were more akin to bouncers, checking temperature on entry, keeping people socially distanced, and trying to keep people moving through the shop so that those stuck outside could come in. The queue for the till passed right in front of the Talisker whisky display, making it hard to browse what was on offer, and meaning that once in the queue for the till, you constantly felt like you were in the way of other customers.
Finally, the prices were set pretty high. Better value would be found buying from other retailers, Master of Malt, the Whisky Exchange, supermarkets and elsewhere. This meant that the only sensible option I could see (apart from buying nothing at all) was the Distillery Exclusive. This was not cheap, costing £90. It has no age statement, is one of 6,000 bottles, bottled at 48% in 2019. It’s been matured in “refill oak casks,” then “heavily charred American oak hogsheads,” before a final maturation in “old sherry puncheons.” It felt overpriced but seemed worth a punt, due to my previous enjoyment of Talisker, and the potential that it would be a worthy celebration of my stupendous few days in the Cuillin mountains.
Purchase complete, all that was left to do was to make my way outside and return to the car with my long-awaited prize in hand, passing the remnants of the queue as I went.
Talisker Distillery Exclusive Bottling 2019 – Review
On the nose: Orange oil, dark salted caramel, liquorice, vanilla and toasted oak. With more time there’s baking spices, raisins, summer berries, very subtle smoke and a hint of pepper.
In the mouth: It starts with a lot of citrus, with lemon and orange hitting at the same time, before other flavors start to come through. Cinnamon, nutmeg, toffee, caramelised orange peel, all with a background earthiness and delicate smoke. Fruitcake comes and goes, swapping out with vanilla, charcoal, and some slightly resinous notes too.
It was worth the wait. It’s smooth and well balanced, packing less of a punch than most Talisker expressions. If you like Talisker for its peppery abrasiveness then this might not be for you, but if you prefer your whisky more nuanced and approachable then it’s well worth a go. I’m enjoying it, picking up different things each time I drink it. The price is the sticking point for me, as it is for most Diageo limited releases, and it results in a point being docked off the score, which would have been a highly respectable 7. (See the Malt scoring bands here.)
If you are visiting Talisker in the near future, don’t forget a tour will need to be booked well in advance! I’m sure that such forward planning would lead to a much more satisfactory time at the distillery.