Exploring the Whisky Islands of Scotland

Nowhere in spirits is the idea of terroir as revered as in Scotland. Tour the islands, and discover how each environment shapes the flavor of its whisky.
Ardbeg Distillery on the island of Islay, Scotland / Photo by Dan Kenyon

As you approach via a small boat bobbing in the water, enveloped by the salt-laced sea air, excitement builds for the island paradise that awaits.

Map of Scotland, within the greater United KingdomScotland’s islands, with rocky shores and bracing, whipping winds, bear little resemblance to the postcard-perfect jewels of the Caribbean. But their rugged beauty enhances the whiskies made here, creating terroir-rich profiles that offer saline hints of coastal sea spray, smoky notes derived from local peat and delicate floral or herbal notes that reflect the terrain.

Of these rugged Scotch-producing islands, known as the Hebrides, Islay has earned the most renown for its peated whiskies and abundance of distilleries. But the islands of Jura, Arran, Mull, Skye and Orkney’s archipelago are also noted for their whiskies and dramatic scenery. Pour a dram and take a closer look at who and what make these island whiskies so special.

Neil Johnston, Ardbeg stillman and mashman.
Neil Johnston, Ardbeg Stillman and Mashman / Photo by Dan Kenyon

Islay

Pronounced EYE-la, this is the most prolific of Scotland’s whisky-producing islands, yet it retains a small-town feel. Clustered along the rocky coastlines, its distilleries are particularly cherished by those who relish smoky, peated Scotches. Their flavors range from campfire smoke to barbecue, with flavor notes that run the gamut from smoked fish to dark and tar-like.

Ardbeg is one of the first distilleries that comes into view as you approach by boat from the mainland. Among the people largely responsible for the whisky made here: Bill Lumsden, the head of distilling and whisky creation; Brendan McCarron, head of maturing whisky stocks; and Islay native Neil Johnston, a stillman and mashman who has worked at the distillery since 1997.

To many insiders, Lumsden is affectionately known as “Dr. Bill,” as he holds a PhD in biochemistry. He joined sister producer Glenmorangie in 1995 and continues to work with Glenmorangie and Ardbeg today.

Ardbeg Distillery.
Ardbeg Distillery / Photo by Dan Kenyon

McCarron joined in 2014. His previous work included help in the design of Roseisle Distillery, the first distillery built in Speyside in 30 years, as well as management of distilleries on the mainland and Islay.

McCarron describes Ardbeg’s whisky as a “peaty paradox” that juxtaposes massive smokiness with more delicate flavors.

“Using a purifier, which catches some of the vapors in distillation and puts them through the pot still again, allows us to bring out more of the citrus, tangy lime and maritime notes that intertwine with the big, smoky flavors to create an incredible balanced whisky,” he says.

Ardbeg Kelpie.
Ardbeg Kelpie / Photo by Dan Kenyon

Indeed, Ardbeg is known to coax out a wide range of notes from its peated whisky. Brooding Corryvreckan offers almost bacon-like mesquite and black licorice tones, while the aptly named Kelpie channels a more savory seaweed quality.

In August, An Oa became the latest addition to Ardbeg’s core collection. Lumsden says it possesses notes of smoky tea leaves, aniseed, cigar smoke and, believe it or not, grilled artichokes.

Try This

Ardbeg Kelpie; $110. This golden dram layers mouthwatering seaweed and bell pepper with vanilla and a trace of tropical fruit. It finishes with smoke and black pepper intensity.

Graham Logan, Distiller Manager for Jura Whisky.
Graham Logan, Distiller Manager for Jura Whisky / Photo by Dan Kenyon

Jura

From Islay, you can gaze east and see Jura. It feels like just a quick swim away.

The small island is relatively wild and scarcely populated—fewer than 200 people live here. The island’s single road leads to its namesake distillery, the island’s only pub and one hotel.

Author George Orwell once called the island “the most un-get-at-able place.” He wrote his dystopian novel 1984 while he lived in a farmhouse amid this idyllic backdrop.

In the late 1950s, two landowners, dismayed at the island’s declining population, hired William Delmé-Evans to build a whisky distillery. He went to extreme lengths to ship in unusually tall stills, which are believed to produce a lighter distillate.

According to Graham Logan, distiller manager for Jura, working within Scotland’s smallest distilling island community helps to make the whisky unique.

Jura Distillery.
Photo by Dan Kenyon

“The reality is that living on a remote island, in a small community of about 180 people, means everyone has to work together,” says Logan.

He would know: Logan worked more than two decades alongside former distillery manager Willie Cochrane, a beloved figure who retired in 2016 after a 39-year career.

Logan started out 25 years ago, when he manned the stills and mash tubs, and worked his way up to distillery manager. When he first set eyes on Jura, Logan was aboard the HMS Liverpool during his time as a marine engineering mechanic in the Royal Navy. Little did he know that his father had accepted a job on Jura, and that he’d soon call it home.

“For two centuries, whisky has been our only major export, and the distillery is the main driver of tourism,” he says. “It takes more than barley, water and yeast to make Jura 10. It takes an island.”

Try This

Jura 10 Year Old; $55. The distillery’s newest bottling is an easy-drinking dram. Time in former Bourbon and oloroso Sherry barrels means that lip-smacking hazelnut, coffee and cocoa take a starring role, and it all finishes with just a mild puff of smoke.

James MacTaggart, Master Craftsman at Isle of Arran Distillery.
James MacTaggart, Master Craftsman at Isle of Arran Distillery / Photo by Dan Kenyon

Arran

The Highland Boundary Fault divides this island into two very different sections, the craggy, mountainous landscape to the north and the lush green pastures of the south. It’s sometimes known as “Scotland in miniature,” as it shares characteristics of both the Highlands and Lowlands. The whiskies made here are equally complex, often relatively light and usually unpeated, showing citrusy, floral or spicy characteristics.

In the 1800s, many of the distilleries here were built on the island’s south side. When Harold Currie, the former managing director at Chivas Brothers, founded Arran Distillery in the 1990s, he chose to build in the north. The site was close to what he deemed a superior water supply, a critical element to make good Scotch. The distillery opened in 1995, and was the first legal distillery on the Isle of Arran in more than 150 years.

Isle of Arran Distillery.
Isle of Arran Distillery / Photo by Dan Kenyon

Today, James MacTaggart is the “guardian and champion” of Arran whisky. A beloved figure in the industry, MacTaggart has more than 40 years of experience. He relocated to Arran in 2007 after a stint making whisky for Bowmore Distillery on his native Islay.

After more than two decades of whisky production on Arran, ground was broken to build a second distillery on the island in February. Compared to the signature light, spicy Scotch, the new distillery is expected to focus on peated whiskies.

Recreating History to Find What Makes Bourbon Unique

Try This

The Arran Malt 12 Years Old Cask Strength; $70. Honey and heather are at the core of this soft, unpeated whisky that finishes with dusty cocoa and cinnamon-clove heat.

Graham Brown, distillery manager at Tobermory Distillery.
Graham Brown, Distillery Manager at Tobermory Distillery / Photo by Dan Kenyon

Mull

The Isle of Mull, the second-biggest island of the inner Hebrides, is known for Tobermory’s brightly painted waterfront houses, plenty of free-range wildlife (eagles, otters, long-haired Highland cattle, seals) and, of course, whisky.

However, if you’re planning to visit Mull, the whisky might be a little harder to find. On March 31, the Tobermory Distillery took a two-year hiatus for refurbishment and equipment upgrades, though its visitor center remains open.

This seems like a well-deserved respite for the only distillery on Mull, and one of the oldest commercial distilleries in Scotland. Established in 1798, Tobermory was known initially as Ledaig Distillery. Two single-malt labels are still produced here: the robust, smoky Ledaig and the fruity, unpeated Tobermory.

The brightly painted waterfront houses of Mull.
The Brightly Painted Waterfront Houses of Mull / Dan Kenyon

Both are overseen by Graham Brown, Tobermory’s Mull born-and-bred distillery manager, who took over the distillery when his father retired, along with Kirstie McCallum, senior blender at parent company Distell.

McCallum started out as a developmental chemist for Chivas Brothers. She later became a blender at whisky producer Burns Stewart, followed by several years as its global brands ambassador. Burns Stewart was acquired by Distell in 2013, and, in 2016, she stepped into the senior blender role.

While whisky production has paused, that doesn’t mean there isn’t Scotch to be had: A number of bottlings are available in the U.S. Though many Scotch producers consolidate whisky from various years for non-age-statement bottlings when stocks become tight, Tobermory instead offers a range of specific age-range options. These are highly sought by collectors, given the advanced ages and limited supply.

Try This

Ledaig 1996 Vintage; $190. Created from some of the first spirit distilled at Tobermory. Peaty embers on nose and palate, plus black pepper and mint sparks.

Stuart Harrington, distillery manager at Talisker Distillery.
Stuart Harrington, Distillery Manager at Talisker Distillery / Photo by Dan Kenyon

Skye

Think smoke and saline. Known for its desolate beauty that mixes mountains and shoreline, the Isle of Skye seems a fitting backdrop to make a whisky often described as briny and brooding.

Talisker, the oldest working distillery on the island, produces one of the peatiest single malts under the watch of its distillery manager, Stuart Harrington.

Harrington has worked in the spirits industry and for parent company Diageo since he graduated from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University with a degree in brewing and distilling in 2010. He joined Talisker in 2012 as site operations manager, and was promoted to his current role in 2015.

Talisker Distillery.
Talisker Distillery / Photo by Dan Kenyon

In general, Talisker whiskies are characterized by what Harrington describes as a “smoky, maritime flavor,” plus distinctive pepper notes.

“The intense flavor comes from our unique distillation process and carries on it the salted smoke of an island battered by wind and waves,” says Harrington. “Beneath the smoke, you will find soft fruits and cereal notes, and in the older expressions, a rich vanilla imbued by the aging process.”

While he admits that not everyone will appreciate its flavor profile, which he describes as “challenging but adored,” there’s no doubt that this Scotch is adept at capturing the island terroir. “Talisker Whisky’s smell and taste instantly connect the drinker with the rugged coastal environment of the surrounding area,” he says.

In addition to Talisker, Isle of Skye whisky also is made on the island. It’s a mellower blended whisky, with some Skye malt included in the mix.

Try This

Talisker Storm; $66. Campfire smoke and honey lead the nose, while salted caramel unfolds on the palate. It finishes with a brisk, peppery finish and smoky wood-ember fade.

Gordon Motion, Master whisky maker at Highland Park/
Gordon Motion, Master Whisky Maker at Highland Park / Photo by Dan Kenyon

Orkney

Compared to the other whisky-producing islands off the coast of Scotland, Orkney is set apart, perched at the northernmost tip of the country. This cluster of 70 islands embraces the Viking legends of its past. Some say it’s as close to Norse culture as you can get outside of Scandinavia.

The landscape is different than that of other islands, too. The relentless sea spray means that many trees and other plants found elsewhere in Scotland don’t grow well here. Orkney’s peat, made from wetland vegetation, is different than Islay’s peat. All this is reflected in the Scotch—it’s often herbaceous, piney or earthy, though it also has a pleasing, honey-like thread of sweetness.

Highland Park, one of the few distilleries to use locally cut peat, is the Orcadian whisky label most often found in the U.S. The brand’s master whisky maker, Gordon Motion, oversees the operations here. He brewed cider and beer while growing up in Currie, Scotland, and he earned a postgraduate degree in malting, brewing and distilling.

Motion worked in breweries all over Scotland and England, and joined Edrington, parent company of Highland Park, in 1998. He became Edrington’s master blender before the move to his current position in 2016, toiling for Scotch brands including The Macallan, The Famous Grouse and Glenturret along the way.

“What makes our peat so unique are the climatic and geological conditions in which it was laid down in Orkney, creating an unparalleled floral, smoky flavor,” says Motion.

In addition to Highland Park, Orkney also is home to Scapa, another single malt. It’s a bit harder to find in the U.S., and its unpeated, fruity profile has been compared to easy-drinking blended Scotches.

Try This

Highland Park Valkyrie; $80. Earthy and herbaceous, look for hints of honeysuckle, chamomile and ginger. The finish is relatively dry. Adding water coaxes out a bit more honey-like sweetness.

Published on November 6, 2017
Topics: Spirits
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of Shake.Stir.Sip.: 40 Effortless Cocktails Made In Equal Parts (Chronicle Books, 2016) as well as ROAD SODA: Recipes and techniques for making great cocktails, anywhere (Dovetail Press, 2017). Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net




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