Go Beyond Islay to Scotland’s Other Whisky Islands

We all know and love Islay and its eight distilleries, but look around; Islay is only one of Scotland’s distilling islands. A scan of a gazetteer reveals another eight whisky distilleries spread across seven islands, each with their own distinctive identities, some old, some very new. Both Tobermory on Mull and Highland Park on Orkney date back to 1798, whereas newcomer Isle of Harris Distillers opened in October 2015. And, where mighty Talisker and Caol Ila measure their annual production in millions of liters, the tiny stills at Abhainn Dearg trickle out just 10,000 liters a year. Such are the contrasts we find in island life.   

So let’s start this tour with the only distillery on Arran, the largest island in the Firth of Clyde. Arran is a favorite of Glasgow vacationers for its easy access, benign climate, and, because of its varied topography, known as ‘Scotland in miniature’—except that until 1995 it lacked a distillery. Thankfully, this was remedied by Hal Currie, a former senior executive with both Seagram and Pernod Ricard, who retired in the early 1990s to devote himself to the Arran project.

The Arran distillery is located at Lochranza on the north of the island and this year celebrated its 21st birthday with the release of its first 18 year old whisky. Since opening, Arran has become the island’s most visited tourist attraction, with a remarkable 88,000 visitors last year. They tour the distillery, eat fresh, local food in the welcoming café, and happily sample the distillery’s 10, 14, and 18 year old core products, as well as one-off expressions and distillery-only bottlings. The Arran malts are generally sweet and warming in style, with some well-balanced but gentle smoky notes. Fans of more pronounced peat smoke-influenced whiskies will prefer the Machrie Moor expressions (available at 46% ABV and in a 58.2% cask strength version), given their delicate yet clearly smoky flavors. Unusually, Arran still offers the opportunity to purchase casks of new make spirit, a practice largely abandoned by other established distillers and now only available from start-up projects.

Isle of Arran is a “mini Scotland” with a varied landscape and a sole distillery. (Photo by Federico Zovadelli/Alamy)

Following a number of difficulties with financing, familiar to many small, independent ventures, Arran appears to be in robust health. In fact, the distillery will temporarily shut down to undergo a substantial expansion at the Lochranza site—a £1.1 million investment that involves the installation of new stills and an increase in production capacity from around 750,000 liters to over 1.2 million liters annually.

If that is not evidence enough of success, then the news that the company will shortly begin construction on a second distillery, due to open in August 2018, should be conclusive. Unable to secure sufficient land for further building at Lochranza, Arran plans a completely new distillery for Lagg, on the island’s southern end, where Arran’s last legal distillery worked until 1837.

A Stopover on Islay, then Ferry to Jura

The Jura Distillery at Craighouse, the island’s center, can trace its origins to 1810, but was closed in the 1920s. It was rebuilt and distilling restarted in 1963, undergoing further major expansion in 1977. For years the output was destined largely for blending and accordingly produced in a relatively mild-mannered style. Since the late 1990s however, when a substantial proportion of the stock was re-racked, the quality of the single malt has improved dramatically. This ten-year rolling program involved some 27,000 casks, all of which had to be carefully emptied and the whisky then refilled into wood of superior quality, thus enhancing the aging process.

According to recently retired distillery manager Willie Cochrane, Jura continued production in the late 1970s and 1980s when other distilleries cut back. Therefore, the higher-quality re-racked stock was, fortunately, available when the whisky market improved. Today, owners Whyte & Mackay, part of Emperador Inc. of the Philippines, a globally significant brandy producer, is continuing to invest in the distillery and sales and marketing. A new Jura single malt is planned to launch in early 2017 exclusively in U.S. markets.

The distillery is currently operating seven days a week and all of the planned 2.4 million liters of annual production are now reserved for sale as single malt—a marked change from the distillery’s early days. There are a number of expressions available: if you’re familiar with the 10 year old, then try either Superstition (non-aged but carrying more peat weight) or Willie Cochrane’s personal favorite, the rich and full-bodied 16 year old Diurachs’ Own. He insists it’s what any of the islanders would choose!

Another seventeen miles along the island’s main road, small-scale distilling recently began at the Ardlussa Estate. The newly founded Lussa Drinks Company will soon commission a 200-liter still from Portugal to boost production of their gin, made with locally-sourced botanicals. Co-founder Georgina Kitching says, perhaps wistfully, they do not plan to make whisky, but as a further expression of Jura’s distilling culture it should not escape our notice.

Colorful skiffs rise and fall on the tranquil waters at picturesque Tobermory on Mull. (Photo by Jason Smalley Photography/Alamy)

Back to the Mainland, Drive to Oban and Ferry to Mull

Mull is home to Tobermory Distillery, a venerable venture with a checkered history of on-and-off operations. As the name suggests, the distillery is located in Tobermory, a very pretty harborside town that features on any travel itinerary to the Hebrides and provides a safe anchorage for the many private yachts and cruise ships that visit these waters. The building dates back to 1798 and though the only warehouse was converted into apartments years ago, distilling still takes place on the original site. 

A photograph from 1923 hangs in the tasting room; on a door behind the assembled staff one can read the legend, “Visitors may see over the Distillery On Applying to the Manager.”  Tobermory was thus a pioneer in distillery tourism and, apart from malting which has long ceased, the tour feels largely unchanged.

This is a relatively small distillery, making around 750,000–850,000 liters annually with a potential to produce around 1 million liters. Apart from a modest amount used in the Black Bottle blend, all the production is reserved for single malts. There are two styles: the unpeated Tobermory, and Ledaig, which uses Port Ellen malt peated to 39 phenol parts per million (ppm) that might bring to mind a Lagavulin or Laphroaig, were it not that the Ledaig seems ‘meatier’ in character.

Now owned by Burn Stewart Distillers, part of the Distell group of South Africa, recent investment at Tobermory is apparent in the stillhouse as well as enhanced packaging for the older, super-premium expressions. I was always partial to the 15 year old Tobermory, but as the distillery visitor center recently sold the very last bottles, it was replaced with the standard 10 year old, spicy and full-bodied despite its deceptively pale color. A 42 year old, using spirit from the distillery’s 1972 reopening, is available for £2,500. The dark, sherried, and spicy character may appeal to some, though I must confess to finding it somewhat over-aged and excessively dominated by wood.

A Drive Over the Sea

Back on the ferry, we return to the mainland and our route takes us along the A87 trunk road, past Eilean Donan Castle to Kyle of Lochalsh, from where we drive over the sea to Skye on the Skye Bridge (now, thankfully, toll free—more cash for drams).

Previously, Skye was home only to the mighty Talisker, but that changed in November when the first spirit ran from the long-awaited Torabhaig Distillery. This £5 million project from Mossburn Distillers is forecast to make around 100,000 liters from a traditional farmhouse operation on the Sound of Sleat at the south end of the island. Chris Anderson, a former head of distilling for Dewar’s, got the operation up and running, after which manager Richard Beattie and his colleague Hamish Fraser took over the Forsyths-made stills.

Worm tubs at Talisker Distillery on Skye

The major distillery on Skye is, of course, Talisker, just to the north of Torabhaig.

Talisker has long had its fans: in 1880 Robert Louis Stevenson listed it as one of the three “king o’drinks,” and in his seminal and highly influential book Whisky (1930, but look for my annotated and illustrated reprint) Aeneas MacDonald had Talisker wrestling with Clynelish for inclusion in his list of the twelve most distinguished of Highland whiskies. As things have worked out, Talisker appears to have won that titanic struggle.

Today the Diageo distillery operates along quite traditional lines. It still uses wooden worm tubs and, uniquely, the lyne arms on the wash stills are designed to trap vapors from the first distillation before they reach the outside worm tubs. A small secondary copper pipe carries the trapped vapors back to the wash stills for a second distillation. Also traditionally, and commendably, Talisker is bottled at the higher strength of 45.8% just to add to the fun.

If the distillation sounds complicated, it’s because it is, but all of this has a huge influence on flavor. The result has to be experienced to be completely appreciated; once tasted it is never to be forgotten. Out of the various releases I’d recommend the standard 10 year old as an introduction to Talisker, then move on to the 18 year old; the non-age stated Storm variant; one of the many limited releases; or the excellent Port Ruighe, finished in a port wine cask.

Just off Skye on the tiny island of Raasay, R&B Distillers started construction of their new distillery. Spirit is expected to run by summer 2017. The Victorian Borodale House will be restored and renovated to serve as the distillery visitor center. Like the team behind Torabhaig, R&B is also planning to open in the Scottish Borders. Their operation, which is to be located in Peebles, will begin construction once the Raasay Distillery is up and running.

R&B Distillers is constructing a facility on the tiny island of Raasay. The historic Borodale house (pictured) is being renovated and will serve as the distillery’s visitor center.

Four More Hours at Sea

From the very north of Skye, it takes half a workday by ferry to reach Harris and Lewis. Physically they are one landmass, actually the third largest in the UK after Great Britain itself and the island of Ireland, but always referred to as two separate islands.

Two distilleries are now operating here: Abhainn Dearg (pronounced Aveen Jarræk, which means ‘Red River’ in Gaelic) is located in Uig on Lewis, remote even by Hebridean standards. The tiny distillery was founded in 2008 by Mark Tayburn, whose vision led to the first legal whisky distillery in the Outer Hebrides in almost 200 years.

The first Abhainn Dearg single malt was released in 2011, a 3 year old special release. No further bottlings will be available until 2018, when the first spirit laid down will be a mature 10 year old single malt.

Rather more accessible for the visitor is the newly opened Isle of Harris Distillery in the main port of Tarbert. Led by former Glenmorangie sales and marketing director Simon Erlanger, this is a £10 million-plus project that aims to produce a single malt whisky of the highest quality. Known as the Hearach, it will be distilled, matured, and bottled on the island. Additionally, the distillery already produces Isle of Harris gin.

The Hearach will not be ready for some time. In the interim, a subscription to their 1,916 Club will secure abottle of their first release of this island single malt expected in 2019. (The number 1,916 refers to the population of the Isle of Harris.)

Mark Tayburn evaluates the first casks laid down at his remote Abhainn Dearg Distillery on Lewis. (Photo by Leila Angus/HIE/Scottish Viewpoint)

Onward to Orkney

Our final stop is on Orkney, an island group just north of John O’Groats. But first, on the even further-flung Shetland Islands, former Glenglassaugh master distiller Stuart Nickerson is distilling Shetland Reel gin at Saxa Vord Distillery, with plans to install whisky stills and produce Shetland’s first-ever single malt.

Orkney, too, has its own craft gin distillery, or will soon. Orkney Distilling Ltd. began producing its artisan Kirkjuvagr gin this past summer. It was made elsewhere in Scotland, but planning permission has been granted and the Kirkwall site will open early in 2017.

No whisky is planned by these Orcadian newcomers, but fortunately the islands are very well served by Scapa and the better-known Highland Park, both controlled by industry giants—Chivas Brothers and the Edrington Group respectively.

Scapa opened in 1885 but operated only intermittently up until the Chivas takeover. It has since benefited from greater continuity and better marketing, including the April 2015 opening of the distillery’s visitor center. However, stocks remain tight and the current expression, Skiren, carries no age statement despite Chivas’ repeated assertion that ‘Age Matters.’ Rumors are that there will soon be a 14 year old replacing the current 16 year old, and later a 25 year old. This would indeed be welcome news.

However, the dominant force in Orkney distilling is Highland Park. The note of smoke in Highland Park is distinctive, yet very different from an Islay peated malt, reflecting the underlying character of the island and the makeup of the peat bogs themselves. The distillery has long prided itself on the “five keystones” of their production—traditional floor malting, aromatic peat, cool maturation, sherry oak casks, and careful cask rotation. It sounds like a marketing strategy, but in fact these values can be traced to the 1920s and probably earlier.

Rolling casks at Orkney’s Highland Park Distillery

With its extensive range, sophisticated visitor operation, traditional floor maltings, and the marketing muscle of Edrington Group behind it (don’t underestimate the impact of having Macallan as a stablemate) Highland Park is an international power brand, notching up growing sales and an enviable number of awards.

Back in the Western Isles, the Isle of Barra Distillery was first announced in November 2005. Since then progress appears painfully slow, reminding us of the old Hebridean saying that nothing in the Gaelic tongue quite conveys the urgency of mañana! Such is the pace of island life.

So salute the pioneers of Arran, Jura, Mull, Skye, Lewis, Harris, and Orkney and raise a glass to those Scottish island distilleries outside of Islay. As the poet John Donne would remind us, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Or in other words, please buy their whisky! 

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