Talisker Distillery – The King O’ Drinks

Black and white vintage worn paper style wide angle photograph of Talisker Distillery main building including talisker distillery logo
Talisker Distillery Est. 1830, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Talisker Distillery History

Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill founded Talisker Distillery in 1830. They took the lease on Talisker House and farmland, owned by the head of Clan MacLeod, John MacLeod of Dunvegan Castle, and set up the distillery to diversify their income. Hugh MacAskill worked as a ‘tacksman’ through the 1820’s and 30’s for Laird MacLeod – collecting rents and clearing the land of the families that comprised the tiny scattered townships and small farm holdings.

Clearance and Temperance

Like Clynelish, Talisker is a clearance distillery – sheep farming and whisky were far more profitable than the taxes collected off the human inhabitants. Once evicted, the crofters (small farm renters) were expected to move into the newly formed townships of Carbost and Portnalog, else leave Skye, and in some cases, leave Scotland altogether. Some were able to find work in the new distillery, but those that remained mostly did so in poverty

Clearance activities aside, the MacAskill’s distillery initially had a strong local market, and Talisker whisky developed an excellent reputation. Talisker was a favourite tipple of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, which he immortalised in the poem The Scotsman’s Return from Abroad – “The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!”

The MacAskill’s prowess as farmers and distillers aided them through many years of poor weather and bad harvests. However, farming and distilling expertise was of no help as the Temperance Movement took off, and the consumption of spirits in Scotland fell. By 1848 the distillery had been seized by the North of Scotland Bank.

Fraud and Frustration

Donald MacLennan took on the lease in 1857, but he was bankrupt by 1863. Anderson & Co took control in 1867, but Mr Anderson was found guilty of fraud in 1879. He’d advised merchants that their whisky was in bonded storage when it wasn’t.

Alexander Grigor Allan and Roderick Kemp & Co. acquired Talisker in 1880 and commenced the petitioning of their landlord for the construction of a pier. One of the biggest difficulties for the distillery was (and likely still is) its remote location, which was made worse by the grave difficulty in accessing it. There was no pier until 1900. The landlord, then Norman MacLeod of Dunvegan, refused to build one, so the casks had to be floated 300-400 yards out to ships in Loch Harport.  Likewise, any supplies such as barley or fresh casks towed in.

The refusal to build a pier put many lives and the cargo at risk, as the boats would often arrive at night, and in stormy seas. It was a great source of frustration to the new owners, to the point where Kemp sold his share of the business to Allan in 1892 and went off to buy Macallan Distillery.

In 1894 Allan formed the Talisker Distillery Company, which subsequently merged with Dailuaine-Glenlivet Distillers and Imperial Distillers.  They would form Daluaine-Talisker in 1898.

A New Century and a New Beginning

Talisker Distillery was now in the hands of Thomas Mackenzie who had successfully overseen the enlargement of Dailuaine.  In 1900 he proceeded to upgrade Talisker, building the pier, a connecting tramway to the distillery and distillery workers houses. Notably, Laird Norman MacLeod had died in 1895 – the works approved under the lordship of his son Norman Magnus MacLeod.

Thomas Mackenzie died in 1915, which coincided with a decline in the overall whisky trade, fixed pricing on blended whisky, and World War 1.  These trying times lead to the merger of many smaller distilleries trying to pool resources to stay alive. In 1916 a consortium of distilleries including John Dewar & Sons Ltd, DCL, and John Walker & Sons Ltd purchased Dailuaine-Talisker Distilleries.

In 1925 Talisker Distillery was brought fully under the DCL fold as a wholly owned subsidiary. 1925-1928 also saw a significant process change at Talisker, in that they moved from Triple to Double distillation.

DCL would eventually go on to form Diageo, the current owners of Talisker Distillery.

Where is Talisker Distillery

  • Talisker Distillery is located in the town of Carbost, on the Isle of Skye, north-west Scotland (Post Code IV47 8SR – GPS 57.302107, -6.353981).
  • A car is by far the easiest way of getting to Talisker. Ensure you enter ‘Talisker Distillery’ and NOT simply ‘Talisker’ into a navigation system. Talisker Distillery is located in the town of Carbost, not in the region of Talisker. You’ll end up 4-5 miles out of the way if you go to Talisker.
  • If bus is your only option, the 608 from Portree to Fiskavaig stops at Talisker Distillery 2-3 times a day Monday to Friday (varies), however these are spaced well apart so you’ll need to plan accordingly. There is only 1 bus on Saturday and no buses on Sundays.
  • Taxis are another option, such as Skye Magical Tours

What else is near Talisker Distillery

While there were initially seven registered distilleries on Skye, Talisker was the only distillery still operating, until recently:

Talisker Distillery Map

Talisker Distillery Tours and Bookings

  • BOOKINGS ARE ESSENTIAL! Talisker receives around 70,000 tourists a year, and they are also the only main attraction on Skye that’s undercover. It rains a lot on Skye, and it is not a big distillery. Don’t be upset with the staff if they are already booked out. Book in advance and save disappointment.
  • For health and safety reasons, the distillery does not permit children under eight years in the production areas.
  • A Classic tour takes approximately 45 minutes, includes a tasting and costs 10 GBP and a voucher for 5GPB redeemable on a 700ml purchase. Book Online Here 
  • The Talisker Flight tour takes 90 minutes, includes additional tastings and costs 25GBP.
  • The comprehensive Tasting Tour is for Talisker Connoisseurs. The tour costs 40GBP, takes 2 hours and comprises five tastings (which will likely include the 18 YO and 25 YO). You also get to keep a tasting glass.
  • Online bookings close 48 hours in advance. Give them a call on the day (or the day before) to secure a spot. In summer, tours run roughly every 15 minutes, but there are only 16 persons maximum on each, so be prepared to wait a while if you haven’t booked and they’re already full.
  • Telephone Talisker on 01478 614308 or Email talisker@diageo.com

Useful Visitor Information

  • The little coffee shop across the road from the distillery (Caora Dhubh Coffee Company) does rather good cakes, slices and coffee.
  • If you’ve had a few too many tasty drams and need to hang around Carbost for a bit, or, you caught the bus and have a few hours to kill, check out the Oyster Shed on the road behind the distillery
  • Talisker Distillery is in Carbost, Skye not Talisker, Skye.  Save yourself the confusion and follow the signs to Carbost.
  • As with all Diageo distilleries, photos are not allowed in production areas, which is most of the distillery. No, it’s not because they think you’ll try and steal their ideas or equipment design! Ethanol is highly flammable, and electronic equipment poses a potential source of ignition. As such, they’ve implemented a policy on all their sites – no electronic devices to be in use in production areas, or where ethanol is likely to be in higher concentrations (like warehouses).

How to pronounce Talisker

Talisker Whiskies

Even though the Talisker Distillery has a sea-side location, their warehousing is no longer on site, and the spirit is shipped off in tankers for filling near Glasgow. As Ralfy notes below, Talisker whiskies are not so maritime anymore. They’re also often chill-filtered and can contain caramel colourant.  You can still find some good ones though, and the 25yo is especially to my liking.

Talisker Distillery Images

Worm Tubs and Kinky Wash Stills

The wash stills at Talisker are unusual, in that the lyne arm (pipe leading from the top of the still) is ‘swan-necked’, with 90 deg turns forming inverse U shapes. The wash still lyne arms bend before entering the wall, and then again outside before entering the worm tubs (see pictures below). Furthermore, at the point where the lyne arm goes into the wall, a purifier pipe returns some of the spirit vapour back to the bulbous wash still for redistillation.

The combination of bulbous wash stills (lots of reflux/greater copper contact/purity) and lyne arm kinks (increased copper contact) would usually result in a ‘light’ spirit. However, Talisker’s continued use of worm-tubs (versus more modern shell and tube condensers) means less exposure overall to copper, than many other distilleries. Therefore, much of the sulphur remains, resulting in the ‘heavy’, peppery, slightly sulphurous characteristics for which Talisker is known.

An Odd Ratio

Talisker Distillery has three Spirit/Low Wines stills, yet only two Wash Stills.  Most distilleries have a 1:1 ratio Spirit Still: Wash Still, although distilleries like Springbank run with an uneven number as they distil more than twice. Springbank distils their signature whisky Springbank 2.5 times, and Hazelburn 3 times. On his visit to Talisker in 1887, Alfred Barnard noted that there were three stills. Three stills would make sense as Talisker was triple distilled until 1928.  For some unknown reason, during upgrades and refurbishments since then, the number of stills remained ‘odd’ even though triple distillation no longer occurred.

In 1960 a Stillman accidentally left one of the Spirit Still covers off. As the still began to heat up, it spewed its flammable contents out through the opening and onto the flaming coals below. Consequently, a fire erupted and ripped through the still house, destroying the stills, though surprisingly the worm tubs were undamaged. The stills were rebuilt again using coal fire as the heat source, but in 1972 this was upgraded to internal steam coil heating.  Also in 1972, the malt floors were demolished and the malted barley acquired from Glen Ord, as it is today.

Wide angle copper tinted photo of Talisker Distillery spirit and wash stills
Two of three low wines stills and both wash stills at Talisker Distillery. Talisker was triple distilled until 1928.
Close up of Talisker Distillery spirit - lots of lovely copper tones
Low wines stills No. 1 and 2, Talisker Distillery
Copper tinted photo of Talisker Distillery wash stills and one of the low wines stills
The wash stills are quite unique in having a swan-neck style lyne arm that bends several times before it dips into the worm tubs outside. There is also a purifier pipe extending from where the lyne arm enters the wall, back into the ball-necked wash still.
Talisker Distillery has 3 low wines stills (pictured) and 2 wash stills. An unusual combination, given stills are usually found in pairs (1:1 wash:spirit).
Talisker Distillery has 3 low wines stills (pictured) and 2 wash stills. An unusual combination, given stills are usually found in pairs (1:1 wash:spirit).
Talisker distillery spirit safe and stillman Mike
Talisker's spirit safe, feints receiver, and Stillman Mike.
Douglas Fir/Oregon Pine washbacks at Talisker Distillery
Douglas Fir/Oregon Pine washbacks at Talisker Distillery
The six Douglas Fir/Oregon Pine washbacks. at Talisker Distillery
Talisker has 6 Douglas Fir/Oregon Pine washbacks. The washbacks hold 53,000 litres but are only charged/filled with 37,000 - 38,000 litres of wort from each mash cycle. Once the yeast is added, the wort will foam and 'grow' as it ferments - the washbacks must not be overfilled or they may flow over.
Stainless steel mash tun with a copper lid. Talisker Distillery, Isle of Skye
Stainless steel mash tun with a copper lid. Talisker Distillery, Isle of Skye

For more images and to buy prints head to our Talisker Distillery Gallery

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING

  1. David Broom, The World Atlas of Whisky, 2014 (2nd) Edition
  2. Alfred Barnard, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, 2008 Edition, first published in 1887 by Harpers Weekly Gazette