The Isle of Skye And Its Whisky

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - April 16, 2008
| | podcast Podcast |

In the middle of preparing for a whisky dinner, I’m reminded of one of the most intriguing aspects of single malt scotch: its elusive nature.

How can it be that these same, humble ingredients (malted barley, water and yeast) can produce so many distinctly different spirits? How is it that distillers on the same island - sometimes within a mile or two of each other - using more or less the same techniques, produce a dizzying number of flavor profiles?

There are many examples of this magical element when it comes to Scotland’s whisky, but one of the best of all is Talisker. I’m sipping the 10-year-old as I write, still wondering where the unmistakable chili pepper on the palate and the finish comes from.

Talisker is the only distillery on the isle of Skye, a damp and mountainous island inhabited by only a few thousand sturdy Scots. The fact that there’s a successful distillery in production at all on this remote island is, in itself, remarkable, but the fact that Talisker, overshadowed by the dark, jagged Cuillin mountains and nestled on the shore of Loch Harport, produces such an intriguing whisky is enough to make you want to find a friend or two and seriously discuss the problem further - with bottle in hand and glasses for all.

Talisker was a favorite of Robert Louis Stevenson, who referred to it as “the king o’ malts.” Stevenson, I’m sure, like almost everyone who comes to know this marvelous whisky, was intrigued by not just the chili pepperiness of the spirit, but by the incredible amount of oiliness, salt, peat and smoke evident in every sip. And here’s one of the things I love about the world of whisky: Because nobody knows how the chili pepper got into the whisky, no one is willing to risk changing any aspect of production. The distillers are careful to the point of superstition about repetitive distilling.

Some believe that the volcanic rock on Skye contributes significantly to the distinct aroma (its known as the “lava of the Cuillins”), and I’m a believer in the unusual softness of the water, which comes from 21 underground springs.

Talisker 10-year-old is consistently voted the best single malt under 12 years old in the world; you should be able to find it easily in fine wine and spirits stores.

Talisker 18-year-old, a stunning single malt that deserves a place in every collector’s cabinet, was voted Best Whisky in the World at last year’s World Whisky Awards.

It’s an exceptional whisky with a rich and fruit-filled nose and some sweet vanilla and caramel on the initial palate with a hint of smoke behind. The smoke builds a little as you sip, and there’s a seaweed, salty, maritime flavor that sings through, finished, naturally, with a healthy dose of sinus-clearing chili pepper.

This outstanding example of the island of Skye’s intriguing contribution to the world of single malts is available in Hawaii.

The bad news? There are just six bottles left. Grab one while you can.


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