As I said on Wednesday, our trip to Scotland was not centered on whisky. We spent most of our time out and about, on and by lochs, up and down hills, on beaches and roads, and inside and outside castles. But I’m not going to be posting about that stuff on the blog. What you’re going to get here is going to be strictly whisky and food, giving you the impression that the trip was in fact very whisky-centered. I’m going to start with Skye even though it wasn’t our first stop. Nor was Talisker the first distillery I visited in Scotland; but it was the first I toured.
I hadn’t originally been positive that I wanted to tour Talisker. Reports from the whisky community were that it was a standard Diageo tour, by the numbers and uninteresting. As we were going to Islay I’d thought I might as well tour Lagavulin instead. However, after snagging a spot on Lagavulin’s Warehouse Experience I decided not to add another hour of whisky activity onto that day. And so the tour of Talisker was on. Since this is the only Diageo tour I’ve done I can’t confirm that it was the standard Diageo tour; I can confirm, however, that it was by the numbers and not terribly interesting. That’s not to say it’s not worth it for anyone; it all depends on what you’re looking for.
But first a bit about the distillery. Located in Carbost, a bit off the main A87 drag in Skye, Talisker is situated on the shore of Loch Harport. As distilleries situated by the water go (see Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila, which I’ll write up in a week or two), it’s not the most dramatic setting. This is down to how it sits on the road across from the water and the fact that the distillery buildings feel somewhat cramped at the end of the parking lot; and then once you’re at the distillery you can’t really see the water anymore. I walked between some of those distillery buildings to get to the visitor centre and discovered on entry that its approach to presenting the distillery is sort of theme park’ish and rather character-free.
The very first thing you see is a sign directing you to tickets for the tour. On one side of this central counter area is a series of displays on Skye and the distillery and on the other side is the shop. I went up to verify that I could in fact get into a tour and learned that they operate a large number of tours. Indeed, they appeared to be dispatching tours every 15 minutes. I booked a spot and we went off to lunch at the Oyster Shed up the hill past and above the distillery and then I came back for the 2.30 tour. Our older brat decided he wanted to join as well and so I purchased a ticket for him as well—Diageo allows kids above the age of 8 on tours. You might think that since there was space on the tour they might have allowed the kid in for free but this is Diageo and so I paid £5 for him. I paid £10 for myself: this paid for the tour and a small pour of what turned out to be the Talisker Storm at the end of the tour. It also entitled me to £5 off a bottle from their regular range. (On Islay I was to discover that for the same price Laphroaig gives you three pours; that Bowmore and Kilchoman charge less and give you two pours and a nosing glass; that even Lagavulin charges less and throws in a nosing glass. I guess when you’re the only distillery on Skye you can make a little more money off the visitors.)
Okay, so we’ve established that the whisky you get a small pour of at the end of the tour is nothing special; how about the tour itself? Well, our guide was perfectly pleasant but also somewhat mechanical. I guess when there are so many tours going through it’s hard for them to keep the energy levels up. The very first thing we were told is that we were not allowed to take photographs anywhere in the production areas. This prohibition is standard across Diageo’s distilleries and we were told it’s to prevent fires. This is obviously poppycock—non-Diageo distilleries don’t share this concern and none have burned to the ground (Talisker, however, has and I don’t think visitors were to blame). My own theory is that they do it to keep the tours moving quickly. To that point our guide asked if we had questions at every stop but her demeanour suggested she was perhaps hoping not to get any. I did ask a couple of questions and after the second one realized that I should stop: she’d mentioned something about how maturation on Skye imparts certain qualities to their malt and I asked what proportion of the spirit was aged on the island as opposed to on the mainland. I was not trying to be a smart aleck, I was genuinely interested in the answer; but as her smile curdled and she responded vaguely I realized those were not the kinds of questions she was hoping for. At the end we were walked past a warehouse (and encouraged to take photographs of it through a plate glass window) but we didn’t learn much about capacity etc.
It wasn’t until I got to the visitor centre again at the end of the tour and actually took a close look at it that I realized just how much of a faux pas my question had been. They go to a great deal of effort in their displays on the island and the distillery to figuratively stress the idea of terroir: this is what Skye is like, this is what the people of Skye are like, this is what the distillery is like, this is what our whisky is like. It’s a romantic story for the casual visitor and that is also exactly the profile of person that the tour is aimed at. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. I didn’t get the sense that any of the others on the tour were whisky geeks and they all seemed interested enough. But if you already know a decent amount about the general whisky making process you’re not going to learn anything special at Talisker. Now you might say that you shouldn’t expect anything more from a basic tour but at Bowmore a few days later I got quite a lot more out of the basic tour (which again was cheaper, and included a nosing glass and pours of the 12 yo and anything else of your choice from their core range up to the 18 yo). And, of course, their other tours may be much better—though apparently the Tasting Tour (which costs £40) is the same tour as the basic tour with a more extended tasting added on—and I don’t believe you get anything not on the core range in the tasting.
So I guess what I’m getting at is that if you’re not very interested in the details of production, and if you’re not going anywhere else in Scotland where there are distilleries with better tours available, then Talisker is a good choice if you do want to visit one famous distillery. But if that’s not true then I would suggest giving it a pass. I’d gone in to the distillery with low expectations of the tour, thinking that it would be fun enough and at least get me a £5 discount on the distillery-only bottling but at the end of the tour I was less enthusiastic about the prospect of the distillery-only bottling and ended up passing (it goes without saying that there’s no “fill your own” option here). This was somewhat unexpected as Talisker, as represented by their malt, is one of my very favourite distilleries. By the way, though this is by no means unique to Talisker, there’s rather a lot of merchandise available at the shop (as well as core range whiskies from Diageo’s other mainline distilleries).
Launch the slideshow below for pictures of the distillery buildings, the visitor centre and the warehouse and the tasting area where the tour ended. Scroll down for a look ahead to other reports to come.
Next week I’ll have a report on the Warehouse Experience at Lagavulin (also a Diageo distillery but a very different feel) and I’ll also do a quick report on my brief visits to Tomatin (which was the first distillery I visited) and Oban (which I hadn’t planned to go to at all). I’d originally thought I’d write those up with the Talisker report but I’m sick of resizing pictures. Look soon as well for more on the Oyster Shed, which I would suggest is the better reason to go to Carbost.
MAO, I’ve toured a fair number of distilleries in Scotland, and here’s the deal: Islay is different from everywhere else. The standard tour in most places will be much like your tour of Talisker, geared to the casual tourist who is probably taking the only distillery tour ever in his life. That sort of tourist is almost nonexistent in Islay, and the guides there are much better prepared to deal with nerdy questions. Of course, many distilleries in recent years have instituted specialized tours at higher prices, which weeds out the vaguely curious. And again, the Islay plants ratchet that experience up another notch. But I’ve never been disappointed by a basic tour there, and if I’ve ever asked a question the guide couldn’t answer, he or she at least acknowledged that it was his or her failing, and not mine. Even Diageo, for the most part notorious for providing a dull experience such as you report on Skye (the most touristed of the Hebrides), has to up its game at Lagavulin and Caol Ila. Just one reason among many that it’s a special place.
I believe readily that the Islay distilleries are collectively above the average* but I’ve also heard stories of other distilleries on the mainland that do a much better job than Talisker/Oban/Dalwhinnie and the like, even if that only means not being mechanical.
*I should acknowledge though that I’ve also heard/read accounts of the basic tour at Lagavulin being uninspired/uninspiring.