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Isle of Skye, Scotland
The Isle of Skye was once home to seven registered distilleries as well as numerous illicit operations. Established in 1830, only Talisker survives, a super star amongst malts, revered for its uniquely salty pepper character.
In 1818 Lauchlan Maclean took over the lease to Talisker House and started to clear its estate for sheep farming. In 1827, Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill, who had returned to their family’s home of Skye from the smaller island of Eigg a couple of years earlier, acquired Talisker’s lease. The two brothers set about clearing the crofters from their lands to expand the estate’s sheep flocks. Their not so neighbourly endeavours proved so profitable that in 1829 they also leased the 20 acre site at Carbost with the intention of building a distillery.
Building went ahead in 1830, despite protests by Parish Minister, the Reverend Roderick Macleod who used his weekly sermons to preach against the evils of whisky and proclaimed that if the distillery was built it would be “one of the greatest curses that could befall it or any other place.” The distillery proved anything but a curse and prospered.
In 1843 Hugh MacAskill gave up his lease on the lands at Talisker. Then in 1848 he surrendered his interest in the distillery itself to Jack Westland, manager at the North of Scotland bank, although his brother Kenneth retained an interest until Hugh’s death in 1854, which coincided with a major depression in the malt whisky industry.
Despite Talisker’s reputation, the distillery was advertised for sale for just £1,000, one third of the building cost 24 years earlier, but in 1857 the lease passed to Hugh’s son-in-law, Donald MacLennan, for just £500.
MacLennan took over at the worst possible time and by 1863 he was forced to declare bankruptcy. In 1866 the lease passed to Glasgow agent John Anderson who at the time declared, “There is not a whisky gets a better reputation in the market.” Despite his exuberant start, by 1879 he was also declared bankrupt.
In 1880, Roderick Kemp, an Aberdeen merchant and Alexander Grigor Allan, the Morayshire Procurator Fiscal, jointly took over the Talisker distillery. The new partners enjoyed an upturn in the distillery’s fortunes and that same year Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his poem ‘The Scotsman's Return from Abroad’, “The king o'drinks as I conceive it, Talisker, Isla or Glenlivet”. The new partners began to modernise the distillery but were prevented from installing a much-needed pier by their laird, MacLeod of Dunvegan.
Today, accessible by lorries and tankers from the mainland, the distillery originally relied on malt supplies by sea, as barley has never been successfully grown on the wet and infertile Skye. Similarly casks filled with whisky had to be rowed to the steamers moored 400 yards (365 meters) out in the loch. In 1891, Kemp wrote to MacLeod describing the risks associated with manhandling the heavy casks from small boats onto the waiting ships, “The difficulty and danger no one can imagine except those who witness the operation.” MacLeod refused the request and in exasperation, Kemp sold out to his partner in 1892. The distillery was then valued at £25,000, a staggering fifty times the value it had realised 35 years earlier.
In 1898, Alexander Grigor Allan merged his interests in the distillery with Thomas Mackenzie, owner of Dailuaine distillery in Aberlour, then the largest in the Highlands. The following year, after the death of MacLeod, a successive Laird finally approved the building of the much needed pier. This was finally built in 1900, some half a mile along the loch from the distillery where deeper water enabled ships to pull up closer to the shore. A narrow railway track ran from the distillery to the pier head and the old tracks can still be seen running across the now disused pier.
In 1916, after Mackenzie’s death, both the Talisker and Dailuaine distilleries were taken over by a consortium which included John Walker & Sons and John Dewar & Sons (and Talisker has been a key constituent in Johnnie Walker Black Label ever since). In 1925, the consortium became Distillers Company (D.C.L.), one of the ancestors of Diageo, who now owns the distillery.
The Talisker distillery prospered until the 22nd November 1960 when the valve on the No.1 spirit, coal fired, still was not shut properly. Spirit bubbled over the fire below, starting an inferno which destroyed the still-house and the stills within. The distillery reopened two years later with exact replicas of the old five copper pot stills, still heated by external coal fuelled furnaces. The floor malting, which was spared by the 1960 fire, closed in 1972 and was demolished soon after. Also in 1972, the five pot stills were converted to more efficient steam heating, fuelled by an oil-fired burner.
In 1989, the successful ‘Classic Malts’ range was launched with each of the six whiskies representing the different malt-producing regions of Scotland. Talisker was a natural choice to represent the Islands alongside the other greats, Oban (West Highland), Glenkinchie (Lowland), Dalwhinnie (Highland), Lagavulin (Islay) and Cragganmore (Speyside).
Today Talisker enjoys cult status, revered by malt whisky enthusiasts and its distillery attracts more than 50,000 visitors each year who make the trek from the mainland to visit Talisker and experience the rugged but beautiful Isle of Skye scenery.