Voyage to the Whisky Islands
In a commercial world gone wild about high-end distilled spirits, single malt Scotches are without peer in terms of global cachet and consumer interest. Sales in 2005 of the most expensive level of single malts were up an astonishing 11.3 percent over 2004 totals, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Single malt Scotch whisky, created from 100 percent malted barley in the pot stills of a single distillery, is the unchallenged top-drawer spirit of our generation.
Like many nations that produce alcoholic beverages in the major categories, Scotland is divided into provincial districts of production and, to a lesser degree, style. As many as nine malt whisky regions—Speyside, Lowlands, the Campbeltown peninsula, Northern Highlands, Western Highlands, Central Highlands, Eastern Highlands, the Isle of Islay and "other" islands—have been loosely delineated by keen aficionados, tourism councils, Scotland's government and the distilling industry. And because single malts are the ultimate distillates of "place of origin," their identification with a specific location is paramount to the telling of their stories.
Yet for all the hoopla regarding Scotland's single malts and their fabled regionalism, there is one geographical group—the country's non-Islay islands—whose whiskys tend to be overlooked compared to the more popular regions of Speyside and Islay. Speyside, located in Scotland's mountainous central-north Highlands area, is home to about 40 of the country's 90-plus functioning malt whisky distilleries. Islay, off Scotland's west coast, has earned numerous press accolades for its seven operating distilleries and their feral, smoky whiskys.
18 Top "Other" Scottish Island Single Malts
Classic (96-100)/ Highest Recommendation
Superb (90-95)/ Highly Recommended
Very Good (85-89)/ Recommended
So, what about the five "other" Scottish whisky producing islands—Skye, Mull, Jura, Arran, and the Orkneys—and the six malt whisky distilleries located there (Highland Park, Scapa, Talisker, Tobermory, Isle of Arran, Isle of Jura)? What makes them and their malt whiskys worthy of far more consideration than they currently receive?
The Orkney Islands are situated in the forbidding North Sea off mainland Scotland's northeast coast. The main island of the Orkneys chain, referred to by Orcadians as the "mainland" (population 15,300), is fortunate because both the Scapa Distillery and the legendary Highland Park Distillery coexist here, making it hallowed ground for whisky lovers. Scapa Distillery, Orkney's best-kept secret, was founded in 1885 under the guidance of France's Pernod Ricard Groupe and offers medium-bodied malt whiskys that are delectably salty in nature. Scapa's distinctively saline flavor profile is due primarily to the distillery's heavily peated water source, Lingro Burn, and the site's seaside location.
Highland Park Distillery, operated by the Edrington Group, Ltd., is the world's most northerly located whisky distiller and is viewed by international whisky cognoscenti as one of the world's four or five greatest distilleries of any type. To say that Highland Park is a cathedral in the religion of single malt whisky is an understatement. Think Mecca. Think Vatican. Its whiskys continually garner awards from around the world, but should still be known by a wider audience. Highland Park 12-Year-Old, for instance, is considered the benchmark malt whisky of that particular age while the 18-Year-Old is often called the finest expression of Scotch malt whisky, period. Whatever one's leanings, there is no debate that these moderately smoky, concentrated, oily, and intensely malty whiskys are top-notch spirits and among Scotland's short-listed best.
Among its multitude of idiosyncrasies, which includes an elusive warehouse ghost, is the fact that Highland Park is one of Scotland's few remaining whisky distilleries that malts part of its malted barley requirements (about 20 percent) on premise. They also dig their own peat from nearby Hobbister Moor to heat the kiln, which dries the malted barley. This is in preparation of making the beer that after double-distillation and aging in oak for a legal minimum of three years becomes malt whisky.
Highland Park's new whiskys are placed in both old Sherry casks (10 percent) and old Wild Turkey Bourbon barrels for long maturation periods. The warehouses hold about 45,000 casks of aging spirits. Another aging phantom that roams the HP warehouses in the wee hours is said to be that of the long-departed, 18th century church officer Magnus Eunson, with whom I tried to commune in 1997 when gamely spending a night in the warehouse. When the night watchman unlocked me from the warehouse the next morning, I told him that I didn't see the ghost. "Not to worry," he dryly replied. "He saw you."
Shifting from the Orkneys in the north to the Inner Hebrides island chain off Scotland's blustery west coast, we arrive at the beguiling isles of Skye, Mull and Jura. Skye (population 9,200) is, without doubt, the most beautiful of the "other" whisky islands, due in large measure to the impossible-to-miss Cuillin Ridge. The Red Cuillin is the worn and rounded segment of rock mass while the Black Cuillin is the jagged, pointy stretch.
Many hikers hearty enough to walk the Cuillins soothe burning muscles with a dram of Talisker, Skye's very own single malt whisky, at the end of the trail. Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill founded Talisker Distillery in 1830. The facility is owned nowadays by Diageo, the world's biggest beverage alcohol company. Regarded as one of island's jewel attractions and commercial assets, Talisker is a bustling distillery that produces some of the most heralded malt whiskys from Scotland's islands. Talisker's single malts are stouthearted, pipe tobacco-like, and alluringly spicy. The distillery's water source, like Scapa's on Orkney, is extremely peaty, thereby impacting the aroma and taste of the final product. Beloved for its highly individual style, Talisker is a classic island/maritime malt whisky that is likewise revered within the whisky community as a prime influence in blended Scotch whiskys, most notably those of Johnnie Walker and White Horse.
South of Skye is the tourist-friendly Isle of Mull, home of 2,660 inhabitants, two castles (Duart and Torosay), the picture postcard harbor town of Tobermory, and one malt whisky distillery also named Tobermory. Burn Stewart Distillers Ltd. is the distillery owner. Established in 1798 by local merchant John Sinclair, Tobermory Distillery began as a brewery and eventually turned to distilling to meet the increasing demand for malt whisky in the early 19th century. While not as profound as Talisker and Highland Park, the Mull whiskys are nevertheless engagingly silky, nutty, malty sweet, and ideal as an aperitif. Mull is definitely worth a one-day visit if you happen to be in the western Highlands. The connection points on the mainland for ferry service transport to Mull are the port villages of Lochaline and Kilchoan or, better, the large seaside town of Oban.
Directly south of Mull off the Argyle coast is the Isle of Jura. The most wonderfully desolate of the "other" islands, wild Jura is home to 190 people, 6,500 red deer and a single malt whisky distillery known to all as— surprise—Isle of Jura, owned by Whyte & Mackay Ltd. While islanders claim that distilling has occurred since 1502, the official start of the facility is 1810. Ideal for a daytrip, nature lovers, deer stalkers, photographers and hikers flock to Jura by ferry from Islay's Port Askaig to enjoy its pristine environment and purposeful lack of civilization and amenities. Novelist George Orwell escaped to Jura in the late 1940s to finish his masterpiece, 1984.
Jura's single malt whiskys are strikingly more Highland-like than what one normally thinks of as island-like, meaning they are neither as salty nor peaty, smoky or briny as most other island whiskys. For many, including myself, that is their appeal. While the lovely and elegant 16-Year-Old is, with full honors, the distillery's flagship whisky, it's the Isle of Jura Superstition bottling that has catapulted forward as a fan favorite because of its keenly zesty and peppery taste profile.
The fifth and last, but hardly the least, of the non-Islay whisky islands is the 20-mile long Isle of Arran (population 5,000). Arran lies off Scotland's southwestern Ayrshire coast and is easily reached by an hour-long CalMac ferry ride from the town of Ardrossan. The main town, Brodick, lacks the flair of most other small Scottish seaside towns, so it's best to visit the village of Lochranza on the north coast, stopping by the 13th-century Lochranza Castle and Isle of Arran Distillery.
Independently owned, Arran's malt distillery was established only in 1991, with production starting in 1995. In a little over 10 years, Isle of Arran single malts have earned deserved kudos for their freshness, vibrant malty flavors and finesse. Like so many other contemporary Scottish distillers, Isle of Arran likes to experiment with aging their immature whiskys in different types of used oak barrels from the norm. Their single malts that have been aged for time in old barrels that formerly aged Port, Calvados and rum and released undiluted at cask strength are of particular note. I cite the sensational Arran Port Finish Cask Strength and rest my case.
Though less visible on the market, these six island distilleries and their malt whiskys are every bit as savory, authentic and luscious as those from Islay and Speyside; in fact, that hint of obscurity adds to their aura. Not convinced? A wee dram at the close of the day of pruny Talisker Distiller's Edition 1992 or ultrasophisticated Highland Park 18 will prove the point. Slainte!