Friday 02 March 2018
This article is from
The Isle of Eriska Voyage
Share this article
Rugged, often desolate, battered by the winds and salt spray of the North Atlantic, Scotland’s west coast – an in particular the chain of islands which stretch up from Mull to Lewis and round to Orkney – offer some of the most distinctive landscapes in the world. And it is out of these landscapes, and the people that have called them home for at least 10,000 years, that we find some of the most prized and eclectic whiskies anywhere in Scotland.
One of the most surprising aspects of Scotland’s islands is how distinct they are from one another once you’re on the ground. Geology, plant life and communities vary so much within relatively short distances, even from one coast to a small island to the other, that the inquisitive traveller is constantly surprised.
The whiskies on offer are similarly diverse. Highland Park, distilled on Oban, produces some of the most crowd-pleasing (for all the right reasons) single malts money can buy. Full of character and just sweet enough, with a little spice and just a touch of barbeque smoke, it’s one of those staples that seems to suit any palate. Further down the coast, Jura single malt (named for the island it calls home) is a much lighter spirit, with delicate sweetness and slight salt. Travel down further still and you will reach Tobermory on Mull, who 10 year-old is round and honeyed, with a malty nose and a hint of smoke and black pepper in the finish.
Yet it is Islay, with its eleven distilleries, which is arguably the jewel in the island whisky crown. Exposed to the elements, there are large swathes of the island where little grows to any height, and the extensive peat bogs provide the only source of fuel for burning. This ancient peat is steeped in centuries of sea spray and its exact character is unique to the island.
When Islay’s early brewers went to kiln-dry their malted barley, they found the distinctive maritime, iodine tang of the peat smoke gave the grains a special savoury character. The tradition of peat-smoked barley continues today, and each of the island’s distilleries has its own unique peat profile and level of smoke influence, from the very subtly peated Bruichladdich ‘Classic Laddie’ to the TCP-like Laphroaig. Whatever your taste though, they’re all excellent whiskies, with a lot more to them than just smoke.
For whisky lovers, the Scottish islands deliver exactly what you would hope for and expect. Even from the ferry, the long, low, white walls and pagoda-topped roofs dotting the shore signal that you are in distillery country. But there is more to this place than history, as new distilleries spring up to satisfy global demand and the growing tourist industry. Torabhaig on Skye, the Isle of Rathsaay Distillery, Abhainn Dearg on Lewis and The Isle of Harris Distillery have all opened in the past decade (or will open soon).
Traveling on and between the islands is relatively simple, with a little planning. Skye is accessible by bridge from the mainline, while regular and reasonably priced CalMac ferries take passengers by car and on foot pretty much everywhere else. Public transport can be patchy but, with good planning, is always fun, as it affords a chance to speak to the locals, who are usually very happy to have a chat with respectful tourists.
While they are undeniably beautiful by land, we would always recommend taking a sea tour of the islands if you get the chance, as it reveals a side to their character that you simply won’t see from the road, with stunning views and awe-inspiring wildlife.
Whisky is one of those drinks that genuinely embodies the earth from which it was created; it’s why the honour of being dubbed a ‘Scotch malt whisky’ is so heavily protected. The island and west coast whiskies are an expression of the landscape, of nature and of the people who have lived there for decades. And the best place to experience these very special spirits will always be in their home.
Share this article