The malt used at Talisker is medium peated (16-22ppm phenols) and comes from Glen Ord Maltings. This is ground in Talisker’s Porteus Mill producing at grist with 9% flour, 71% grits and 20% husk. The production water is drawn from 14 underground springs that rise from Hawk Hill (Cnoc nan Speirag) behind the distillery, so named as the hill is frequently home to birds of prey, including Peregrine Falcons. These springs have provided water to the distillery since it was established back in 1830.
A semi-lauter mash tun was installed in 1998 and its polished copper dome dominates the mash room. The first water comprises of 28,ooo litres added at 63.5°C to eight tonnes of grist. As the first water empties, the second water of 9,000 litres is introduced at 75°C. The third water of 31,000 litres is slowly added with the temperature gradually raised to 85°C, this is used as the first ‘sparge’ water of the next mash.
The Oregon Pine wooden washbacks each have a capacity of 53,000 litres and are charged with between 37,ooo – 38,ooo litres of wort from each mash. Three of these washbacks date from the 1980s, one was replaced in 2007 and two additional washbacks were added in September 2008 when production was increased, bringing the total number of washbacks from six to eight.
During the 1800s in the Western Isles it was commonplace to distil three and sometimes four times. This was partly driven by a need to produce a high strength spirit to reduce the number of casks that needed to be shipped from these remote parts. At Talisker, double distillation replaced triple distillation in 1928, but the now unusual three-spirit-stills to two-wash-stills remain - the setup a relic of triple distillation. All five of Talisker’s stills were lost in the still house fire of 1960, but they were replaced with exact replicas in every detail so as not to risk altering Talisker’s flavour.
The two indirect steam-heated copper wash stills have a 14,706 litre capacity and are charged with 11,000 litres. These are unique because their lyne arms drop before passing through the wall of the still house and then rise and fall again in an inversed U-shape before diving into the chilly waters of the outside worm tubs. At the point where the lyne arms go through the wall, a purifier pipe runs from the underside of the arm returning a proportion of condensed vapour to the still.
The kinks in the lyne, coupled with the purifier pipe would usually point to the making of a light spirit, but at Talisker these features are perversely married with traditional worm tubs that tend to produce a heavy spirit. Thus, underneath the smoky notes, the Talisker spirit has an underlying sulphury complexity.
Talsiker has two wash stills and the low wines obtained from this first distillation have an average strength of 23% alc./vol.. The three indirect steam-heated copper spirit (low wines) stills each have 11,024 litre capacity and are charged with 7,500 litres, so producing a new make spirit with an average strength of 70-70.5% alc./vol.. The foreshots (heads) start coming over at approximately 77% with the heart cut made at 74% alc./vol.. This is switched to low wines (tails) at 65% and the feints are run till 1% alc./vol..
The lyne arms on the spirit stills are flat, rather than tilting downwards towards the worm tubs. This increases the potential for reflux and helps towards producing a lighter, fruitier spirit. It is the whole manor in which the still house at Talisker runs, with its increased reflux, that helps to mimic the effect of the historical triple distillation.
The original wooden worm tub condensing coils were untouched by the 1960 fire and are still in operation, although the wooden tubs in which they sit were replaced in 1997-8. The water used for cooling these is drawn from the cold running Carbost Burn next to the distillery. A lack of water occasionally halts production, as was the case the week we last visited at the end of June 2010. Water supplies allowing, total production at Talisker is around 58,000 litres of alcohol per week.
They stopped filling casks at Talisker in 1997 and the new make spirit is collected and tanked to the outskirts of Glasgow where the casks are filled and the vast majority stored. However, the distillery retains its three traditional dunnage warehouses holding some 6,800 old and exceptional Talisker casks. As these are drawn off for special bottlings, their place is taken by new casks shipped back from the mainland.
Talisker is predominantly aged in ex-American whiskey barrels which are converted into hogsheads with a small percentage of European oak ex-sherry butts also being used. The casks are filled at the industry standard 63.5% alcohol by volume.
Talisker is bottled at a slightly higher strength than usual, perhaps a throwback to the days when bottles were shipped out by sea - better to ship less and sell each bottle for that little bit more to then be diluted by the drinker.
As well as being part of Diageo’s six ‘Classic Malts’, the company also releases old and rare bottlings as part of its ‘Rare Malts’ and ‘Special Releases’ ranges.