Towering mountains and swirling waters run through the DNA of Skye residents. Communities are shaped by the elements, and so too is the whisky made at the island’s oldest working distillery, Talisker. The single malt producer has stood on the Carbost shores, tucked in a western inlet, for almost 200 years. So it’s no surprise that its ‘Made by the Sea’ identity also underpins every aspect of its all-new visitor experience and the Talisker Distillery tours that come with it.
‘Talisker is inseparable from the unique Isle of Skye landscape and its whisky is inherently shaped by the sea and landscape that surrounds it,’ said Barbara Smith, managing director of Diageo’s Scotland Brand Homes, when news of the revamp was first shared in August. And to visit the site on a windswept October day only serves to reinforce this notion.
In fact, what sets the new Talisker Distillery tour and visitor centre apart, even from its Diageo siblings, is this rich sense of place. The spirit of Skye permeates every fixture and fitting. The island is considered with each design nuance. The experience is as distinct as the geography itself. And then the sensory comes to the fore.
Talisker is the sixth Diageo site to benefit from the behemoth £185-million tourism investment first announced in 2018. And like the other recipients, including the Johnnie Walker Princes Street Experience, it offers an aesthetics-led journey (designed by BRC agency), charting a course far from the traditional. Instead of a tour punctuated by fermentation length and still sizes, guests are wowed from the get-go. This is a multi-sensory experience, bringing in the unexpected at every turn. There’s moving-picture, audio, even art installations. You’ll get to know Talisker with your eyes and ears as much as your nose and palate.
On arrival, guests are immediately offered respite from the Scottish chill. A striking electric fire, dressed with scattered, cosy blankets, forms the spine of a relaxed seating area inside the main entrance. Over to the right is a sleek retail space, fitted out with boat-shaped units and merchandise, from hoodies to Christmas baubles, hats to ice trays. A polished bottle-your-own corner, with the same measuring kit and engraving station as installed at other Diageo distillery tours, is already proving popular.
‘We even had a proposal here – he wrote it on a bottle and gave it to his partner down on one knee,’ Talisker Distillery’s events and experiences assistant manager Louise Ellis tells me. A special dram marked the moment: the nine-year-old, 59.8% recharred red wine cask packs a punch, with a haul of red berry sweetness coming through with the signature Talisker smoke. The proposal is a reminder of how much this distillery means to so many of the 75,000 visitors expected each year.
‘Over the summer, we had around 700 people a day,’ calculates Ellis. It’s an astonishing number. But when one considers Skye is the second most-visited part of Scotland after Edinburgh, it becomes less of a surprise.
For visitors, there are now two experiences available, with a third offering due early next year. The most conventional is a distillery tour which accommodates a maximum of 16. It’s incredibly popular, and booking in advance is strongly advised. For £20, guests are walked through the process step by step, from milling to maturation, with three drams to taste at the end. This is a tour for enthusiasts, rather than experts: there’s an emphasis on flavour over facts and figures. ‘It engages people more on different levels,’ says Roger Shann, our distillery guide.
Light, media, music, and of course whisky enrapture the senses for 30 minutes
Then there’s the Made by the Sea Tasting. Guests are ushered into a vibrantly cinematic space that envelops from the outset. Centre-stage is a vast table, inset with a contoured map of the island. Projections are splashed on every wall. What follows can only be described as mesmeric. Light, media, music, and of course whisky enrapture the senses for 30 minutes – from the island to the distillery’s history and the tasting, the production genuinely astonishes. And at £15 for the session, it’s great value, too.
For those suffering from distillery tour fatigue or looking to tick the connoisseur box, there will soon be a Cask Draw and Tasting Experience. At the luxe end of the spectrum, guests will taste through five live casks alongside an expert and in a warehouse that’s been given a glossy makeover. All whiskies will be distinct from the core range, and part of an in-depth discovery lasting 90 minutes.
For sampling, two beautifully designed tasting rooms have found a home in old warehouse buildings. And if guests want more, there are two bars. The first serves drams, located next to that beautiful fire. The second, the Wild Spirits Bar in a separate building, offers widescreen views over Loch Harport and the mountains beyond. Its menu has cocktails – we savoured the Merlion Martini – as well as drams, plus locally-sourced snacks. The vision was to curate a warm, welcoming space where tourists and Skye residents could seek shelter from the oft-inclement elements. It certainly provided us with safe harbour, and a space to drink in the views through the raindrop-lined glass.
Does the sleekness of the new Talisker experience strip back the charm of a heritage distillery? It’s certainly an elevation. What the team do well is to balance a working site with the need for a refreshed take on the distillery tour. The line between convention and cliche is a tricky one to walk. Die-hard traditionalists may not like it, but at Talisker Distillery, it’s handled with ease.
Talisker Distillery is open to the public seven days a week from 10am. Closing times vary throughout the year. Booking for Talisker Distillery Tours is recommended via Malts.com. The Cask Draw and Tasting experience is expected to open in early 2023.