We're Going To Skye! Talisker Here We Come!
Talisker, one of my favorite distilleries, one of my favorite whiskies and a whisky that holds a special place in my heart.
I'd so badly wanted to visit Skye and Talisker on my recent trip to Scotland, but after checking time schedules, balancing budgets and all in all realizing how difficult getting to Skye and Talisker would be (one of the most isolated distilleries in Scotland) I'd called off this dream of visiting Talisker our first time in Scotland.
And then Whisky Live Perth occurred. There I met someone who I thought was just another Diego rep at the Talisker stand. As soon as Whisky Live Perth opened it's doors I was heading straight for the Talisker stand to try the brand new Talisker Storm!
While there Nick, the Diego rep, got to chatting. I'd informed him that my wife and I were going to Scotland in a couple months time, I'd also informed him that Talisker was one of my favorite distilleries.
He asked if I was going to visit Skye at which point I sadly informed him that we wouldn't be, even though we really wanted to. He gave me his card and told me that after Whisky Live we should talk a bit.
I didn't think too much of it then, but little did I know it, my wife was going to change just a little bit.
But before I continue a little back story on our love for Talisker. As many of you readers know I believe that whisky is more then just a drink, it's an experience. It's not just about the liquid inside the glass, but who you're with, how life is treating you, everything.
On my wife's and my very first wedding anniversary we were poor, no denying it. It'd been a hard year and money was tight to say the least. We'd decided to go to the hotel where we'd stayed our wedding night and enjoy a meal in the restaurant.
My wife had suggested that we have a whisky while we were out so I grabbed my freshly bought whisky bible and off we went.
However when we arrived at the hotel we were in for a disappointment. Everything was more expensive then we remembered it and the whisky selection was very minimal. Mainly Johnnie Walkers and the standard Glenlivet 12 and Glenfiddich 12 year olds. Whiskies that we'd already had before.
At the bottom of the menu I saw a Talisker 10 year old, which I'd never had before, going for $10 a dram. I pulled out the whisky bible, looked it up and saw a lovely score of 93/100. I looked at my wife and she nodded.
When we ordered it, it came out in this massive tumbler, probably the biggest tumbler that I have ever seen in my life and out of it wafted beautiful aromas of peppers, meat, smoke, soft peat, complex and enticing. Both my wife and I heartily enjoyed this one dram that we were able to afford, so much so that as soon as we could, we purchased a bottle. Ever since then I've always kept a bottle of Talisker 10 year old in the cabinet.
Every other Talisker that I've ever tried since that fateful day has been absolutely lovely, from the refined 18 year old to the raw 57 North to the elegant 25 year old.
After Whisky Live I sent Nick an email letting him know how much I'd enjoyed the Storm and in his reply he said that if my wife and I could get to Skye, they'd host a special VIP tour for us.
Oh my god! I was totally speechless. A VIP tour for my wife and myself!?
We'd already decided that we weren't driving in Scotland and I'd already hired the very awesome Roy Mathers from About Speyside tours to take care of the driving and tour guiding and in general awesomeness for us in Speyside. MAYBE he'd be willing to drive us to Skye.
So I immediately call him up, asking him if he'd be willing to drive us to Skye.
He tells me that he has driven some people to Skye before, but it's a long drive and it's always been for repeat clients of his. He then asks if it's to go to Talisker.
I inform him that it is.
At that stage he says that while Talisker is very awesome, the Diageo tours tend to be quite standard and definitely not worth the cost of going to Skye just for it, not unless Talisker was doing a VIP tour.
I inform him that I've been told it's going to be a VIP tour.
He says if that's the case, then we HAVE to go.
Now it's time to find accommodation for both Roy and myself while we're in Skye (it totally wouldn't be fair to make Roy pay for his own stay after helping us out!)
That night I send out a couple dozen emails to bed and breakfasts and hotels on the Isle of Skye that are nearish to Talisker.
I finally get confirmation from two of them after days of back and forth. They each have ONE room. Neither have 2 rooms.
I book each room, figuring that should be fine.
For the next few weeks I hear from Nick a couple times a week and then soon Liz and then Marianne. All in regards to our VIP tour. So many things are thrown around. Free glassware and a meeting with the artist who designed the artwork for the newly released Talisker 10 and Storm. Everything under the sun.
Nick is a legend in setting this up and when we're a couple of days prior to leaving for Scotland, puts me in contact with Liz in the UK who then takes over the Talisker tour. I quickly discover that Nick isn't just a Diageo rep, he's the brand manager of Diageo for the entirety of Australia.
To sit here and say that at this point everyone from Diego have been brilliant is a MASSIVE understatement. At one point when I'm talking to Liz she mentions that there is a newly released Mortlach bottling available that was released for the Speyside festival. They're down to just a couple, but if I want they'll set one aside for me.
Finally we're in Scotland and I'm still chatting with Liz, arranging the visit. It's not a problem. It's more like the guys at Diego have SO MANY awesome ideas that they're overwhelmed. I hear every idea under the sun. I'm nervous, but excited. Each time I say no problem, it's fine. I've booked Roy for the visit, I've paid for the hotels, it's a go. It's just a question of how awesome this is going to be, but I already know from the sounds that it's going to be brilliant.
Throughout our first week in Scotland, while in Edinburgh and Glasgow I'm talking to Liz and Marianne of Diego about the visit, settling times, details and such, but I still have no idea what to expect. At one point I hear a distillery tour by the distillery manager, Mark Lochhead might be what happens.
This is getting more and more crazy and I can't wait to see what finally happens!
Finally Saturday, our very last day in the Speyside occurs. Roy picks us up at 8am and it's off to Skye and Talisker we go! Along the way we get a call from Diego asking if I still wanted the Mortlach. Sadly I have only enough left in my budget for Talisker. I am devastated to decline the bottle.
We drive through the beautiful Scottish countryside, and drive and drive and drive. Until we hit the Loch Ness area. There Roy pulls off to the side of the road at a restaurant and bar that we knows with a brilliant whisky collection. He knows they make some delicious coffee and hopes to get me into the bar to see the whisky collection.
Alas the owner isn't in and the staff don't know Roy so I'm unable to see the whisky collection, however in the coffee shop there are empty bottles and boxes of single malt EVERYWHERE! Just off what I'm seeing this guy's collection has GOT to be awesome!
We continue on after some coffee and a restroom break until we arrive at Loch Ness which is MASSIVE! It just goes on forever and forever with beautiful bright green trees covering the countryside. At Loch Ness Roy knows an excellent spot for us to grab some photos (even if we're not technically supposed to be doing it) so he pulls over real quick in order for my wife and myself to grab some very nice shots and then it's right back onto the road we go!
Along the way Roy pulls off to the side of the road several times for me to grab photos and the entire time he's answering my questions about the history of the land, the surroundings. The countryside had started out as rolling farmland, fields, lovely and green and slowly moves to wooden countryside with bright green trees all along the side of the road.
However as we get closer to Skye the countryside becomes more hilly and mountainous, with massive rolling hills that slowly become more and more barren. The hills become mountains and for a good portion of the drive we've got water to our right. Scotland is such a wet land with lochs, rivers, streams, so much water.
And it's an isolated land, as we drive through small villages, some of them only a dozen houses. Throughout our stay in Speyside I've questioned Roy about the population of Scotland and it's small, very small, just a little over 5 million people, and this is spread out over an entire country, residing mainly in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The further North you go the fewer people on the ground. Up until now this fact hasn't been completely driven home, not until our drive to the Isle of Skye.
We drive through passes, me grabbing photos the entire time we drive to Skye. It's a beautiful land, in all it's forms and soon enough we'll be at our destination, Talisker!
Finally Skye is in sight, and I find myself squirming in my seat, it's Skye! Oh my god, this land has up until now been almost mythical for me. We soon are at the bridge that crosses over to the Isle of Skye, with Roy telling us the story about it being built and the toll of roughly 20 pounds for each time you crossed it. Every time the residents of Skye came to the mainland they had to pay 20 pounds and every time they wanted to go back home, they again had to pay the 20 pound fine. Eventually all of the residents got to together in protest, driving right by the toll booths. And when that didn't drive the point home, blockading the bridge.
Now it's free.
We drive over the bridge after paying no toll and then we're across and on the other side.
Oh my god I'm on Skye!
No one will ever believe this! This entire trip has been magical, finally being in Scotland and seeing the beauty of Speyside, but this has transcended everything else up to now. I'm on a place that to me was legendary, a place that I might one day hope to see in my dreams and now I'm here!
The drive along the coast, through Skye is uneventful as pass houses, shops, villages and the land goes from green to eventually stark and bare with the hillsides and I feel that somehow I've entered into a different world. A world where people really don't care about traffic jams, stress in minimal and life is taken as it comes with a mellow easy going attitude.
We pull up to the Sligachan hotel and we know that we're close to Skye. There's a creek, a little stream running down from the hills, with 3 stark, grey, huge hills surrounding the hotel. There we stop for a nice lunch as we still have plenty of time before Talisker.
It's an enjoyable lunch for a reasonable price, but I'm too excited. My mind keeps racing ahead to what's to come. We're almost to Talisker!
We set off, Talisker is so very close and Roy is indeed awesome, knowing the way by heart, telling us about the history of Skye as he had also done with the history of Speyside, and as he talks the land goes from grey and dreary to green and vibrant, still hilly, but the green is present once more, the ocean to our left and we pull up to a hillside with Talisker in view.
What's going on!? Why have we stopped?!
Roy then looks at me and grins.
"I've got something for you, come see"
So my wife and I hope out of the car and follow Roy to the back of the car. He opens the trunk and inside of it is this mini whisky barrel.
What the hell?!
He then opens the barrel, it splits down the center and in it are 5 or 6 bottles of whisky along with glencairns.
"I figured you might want a whisky! Feel free to choose any of them, however if you want I've got something special for you"
All excellent whiskies, but what's the special?!
He then pulls out a small bottle filled with Clyneish, a cask strength sample that's not even been bottled yet, but later in the month Cadenheads will be releasing it.
Yeah I'll definitely take that. He pours me a dram full and it's lovely, Almost savory. Roy asks my wife what she'd like and she says that she's going to wait until Talisker, but you can tell she's getting a giggle out of all this.
So overlooking the sea, with Talisker in sight, in the wind and air and cold I enjoy my very first taste of Clyneish which makes me go "I need to experience more of this"
It's a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Once the dram is finished it's time to head on, to finally reach Talisker. And as we drive I'm squirming in excitement. How awesome is this going to be?! Will it live up to my dreams, nay my fantasies?!
We quickly roll up to the Talisker distillery which sits right on the water, Talisker written in huge letters across the walls and I'm all a quiver. Here goes nothing!
Roy, my wife and myself walk into the distillery center which within just the last few years had been completely redone. It's beautiful!
All hard wood floors, polished wood, shining glass surrounding high end bottles, it's enough to take one's breath away. We walk up to the counter where a few women and girls wait, helping the visitors to the distillery.
"How can we help you?" they ask cheerfully.
"Hello my name is SquidgyAsh and I'm here for a ...."
I don't even finish my sentence before the pretty young lady smiles and says.
"Oh yes we've been expecting you. The manager will be down here soon. Can we get you coffee, water or tea?"
"No we're fine, thank you though. We'll just take a look around if that's all right."
"Go ahead, just call out if we can be of any help" we're informed.
Holy cow it's going to be a tour with the distillery manager?!
We wander the bottles, all the lovely bottles. Of course you have your standard Talisker 10 year old and the newly released (At least in Australia!) Talisker Storm, along with Talisker Distiller's Edition and a range of other whiskies from the Diageo portfolio, but in the center of the room there is a little glass pillar, with whiskies inside of it.
A pillar with Talisker 25 and 30 and 35 year olds. This attracts my eye immediately. I'm wandering around this pillar of whisky when Mark walks in.
Mark comes over and introduces himself and then offers us coffee, water, tea. Can they get us anything?
Nope we're fine and I'm more then in a little awe.
Mark then leads us out of the visitor center to his office in an adjacent building that sits RIGHT next to the sea. Outside his office window you can see the blue ocean, it's a clear sky and you've got to be just a wee bit envious of a man who gets to look at that every day.
His office is sparsely decorated with his desk, a large table designed to seat maybe a dozen people and a book shelf with Talisker bottles, very old Talisker bottles. Bottles from the 50's, 40's. Bottles that I've never seen before. It's beautiful and you really get a sense of history behind Talisker.
We all sit down and Mark looks at me and asks me a question.
"Who in the world are you!? I've been getting emails and phone calls for the last 3 weeks from all over the world regarding your visit"
I'm stunned. Absolutely stunned. I look at my wife and then at Roy. They look back at me and then I reply.
"I'm just an idiot who loves whisky and writes about it."
Mark laughs and then informs me that to get him to do the tour, you've got to be doing something right considering some of the people who've been calling and emailing him. It's not an easy thing to get him to do the tour, especially on his day off, but here he is.
Mark then formally introduces himself after getting Roy a cup of coffee. He tells us about how he got his start in the whisky industry, how he eventually wound up running Talisker. Then Roy and him get to chatting about the different folks in the industry they know. It REALLY drives home that in this industry, especially in Scotland, everyone knows everyone.
After chatting back and forth it's time for our tour to begin. Mark invites Roy along, but Roy says he's going to go find his hotel as we've already found ours.
As we head out for our tour, Marks informs us that even though Diageo doesn't normally allow photos to be taken during the tours, we will be able to do so. However please try and be discreet about it, as the other visitors will wonder why they can't take pictures, but we can.
Photos of our Talisker tour can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/99088760@N04/sets/72157634889675045/
Not a problem!
The tour is pretty similar to all of the other distilleries that we've visited, which isn't any surprise because it's not like whisky is made in a million different ways. However Mark is an engaging guide, going over the history of the distillery in a way that sucks you in. We visit the mill, the tun room, going through the distillery until we finally arrive in one of my most favorite of places.
The still house.
There in front of me are those lovely Talisker stills that make one of my favorite whiskies. Mark, my wife and myself are in this still house on the 2nd floor grating, with some visitors standing on the ground floor, as I just stare and stare and stare. I so badly want to go over and just caress one of those lovely copper stills.
After the still room we head outside to see the condensers, which cool the alcohol vapors. These are huge vats of water, that I haven't seen at any other distillery during our trip.
We end up at the warehouse where we look in through a window to see a cask of Talisker from the mid 1970's. God I wish I could go in, but I understand why we cant.
We then head back up to Mark's office for our tasting. When we get inside the office there's over half a dozen whisky bottles, beautiful and lovely, covering the entire Talisker range. Mark informs us that we're going to be doing the tasting that the brand ambassadors normally go through.
But when I look on the tasting mat, which has the glasses and which whisky is which, I see that we're doing more whiskies then the normal range that they would do.
We're going to be tasting Talisker new make spirit, 10 year old, Storm, Distiller's Edition, 18 year old, 25 year old, 30 year old and Port Ruighe, the newly release NAS which is aged in Port barrels.
Oh my god this is insane! I'm sitting here, getting ready to enjoy the entire Talisker range, at Talisker on the Isle of Skye in the managers office with Mark Lochhead, the manager of Talisker. To say I'm excited will have to do for the century's biggest understatement.
The only whisky in the Talisker range that we're not tasting is Talisker 57 North, the cask strength release. But that's not a problem as I have many of these at my house.
The new make Talisker is absolutely lovely, and easily my personal favorite new make that I've encountered. Smoke swirls around my mouth as I enjoy it. Talisker 10 year old is it's normal lovely self, as is the very sexy 18 year old. I've enjoyed Talisker Distiller's Edition many a time, and I'd tried Talisker Storm before which is very enjoyable.
Right as we start getting to the Talisker 25 year old and Talisker 30 year old Roy comes in and asks what we're trying. When we inform him he asks if he can take a nose of the 30 year old?
But of course!
He gives it a nose and says that it's got a very nice nose.
We enjoy our way through the tasting as Mark walks us through it, at one point he realizes that the Port Ruighe isn't actually in the room so he calls up the center and asks one of the staff to bring it up. When she does he enquirers about the time and we find out that the distillery center is actually closing in about 10 minutes.
We finish the tasting, but we've gone long. It's after 5 which means the visitor center is closed. But not a problem. The lovely staff have kept it open for us, so that we can get our toys!
Inside the visitor center I'm running around, excited like you wouldn't believe. This is what I've been waiting for. I immediately pick up a bottle of Talisker 35 year old. The oldest officially released Talisker and ask Mark if he'd sign the bottle.
Not a problem!
However he informs me that it will lower the value of the bottle. Not a problem I don't care! This baby is sitting in my house! It might drop in financial value, but it's sentimental value is going through the roof! I run around trying to figure out what else to buy! It's like I'm a kid in a candy store!! I hear one of the girls at the counter comment to my wife that they've never seen anyone get this excited about whisky before. My wife laughs and says it's not the first time she's seen this.
We chat whisky with the staff as I run around, and it makes me smile to hear one of the girls inform us that the Brora 35 which I'd recently purchased was a real cracker.
I get a Talisker 25 year old on top of the 35. I grab glencairns and jumpers. I then ask Mark if he'd be willing to take a photo with me.
But how about they bring in the entire distillery staff?
They start grabbing guys from outside to come in for the photo so that eventually it's the entire staff and me with my 35 year old Talisker getting our photo taken. To say I'm touched is a massive understatement.
Once I've purchased everything and photos are done, Mark walks us back into the still house for pictures of those beautiful copper stills. Again I'm struck with the urge to run over and just run my hands up and down them. After that he takes a couple photos of my wife and myself. I ask him if it'd be possible to do an email interview sometime in the future and he says that's not a problem (Guess what that means folks!)
And all too soon it's over. It's time to go back to our hotel for the night, nestled between the mountains A beautiful trip to Talisker has made the entire journey worthwhile.
We spend the night in Skye and then it's back on the road the next morning to head to the train station and home. Again Roy points out sights along the way, informing us of the local history and then suddenly we're at Inverness, at the train station where Roy gives us each a big hug, informs us that we're a lovely couple, and then hands me a whisky bottle. He comments that he knows how much that I love cask strength whiskies and he hopes I enjoy this. It's a GlenDronach cask strength.
Roy was a brilliant guide, worth every single penny whom we'll happily be booking with again in a couple of years when we head back to Scotland. He knew every tree and bush by name and it's history. And the fact that he was willing to drive my wife and myself to the Isle of Skye and Talisker made our trip that extra special. If you're heading to the Speyside Region, be SURE to book Roy because you'd just be silly not to.
I have so many people to thank for our trip in Scotland, but a MASSIVE thank you to the lovely folks at Diageo. Nick in Australia, Liz and Marianne in the UK and of course Mark Lochhead for coming in on his day off and the entire group at Talisker. At no point did any one of them had to go out of their way to do this tour for us but they did. And in doing so provided me and my wife with memories that we'll carry forever. The Isle of Skye was something that I've ALWAYS wanted to visit and having Diageo do that for us, well it's just something that stays with you for the rest of your life. So all of you guys at Diageo, thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You made a whisky geek and his wife so very very happy and REALLY drove home the point, once more, how much Talisker means in both of our lives.
I'd like to suggest to all those whisky geeks out there who dream of visiting Scotland to stop dreaming of it, and go do it. It wasn't something that I ever thought I'd get to do, but through a series of random events was able to make happen. It's something that I'll never regret.
And one last bit of advice for you whisky geeks out there. If Diageo ever offers you a VIP tour of any of their distilleries, don't think, just say yes.