Speyside and Islay have for many years dominated the whisky tour market. It’s no surprise as each have a huge array of well-known distilleries to visit and some of the best whisky in the world to taste. It has taken a while but the rest of the country is slowly catching up, in particular the Western Isles is attempting to position itself as Scotland’s new whisky hot spot.
A new generation of independent distillers have taken up the challenge of capturing what makes the islands so special. Together with some well established brands they are embarking on the daunting endeavour, to bottle the essence of what makes the Western Isles one of the most amazing places in the world.
The start of our unofficial Western Isles whisky trail is on the isle of Mull after taking the Calmac ferry from Oban. The Tobermory Distillery, the only one on the island, was established in 1798 and is one of the oldest commercial distilleries in Scotland. It is unique not just because of its idyllic location but because it produces two different, but equally alluring, single malts: the fruity, unpeated Tobermory and the more robust and smoky Ledaig. Tours and tastings are available all year round and after stocking up at the distillery shop then the perfect place to retire for the evening is Burn Cottage. Curl up by the wood burning stove in this traditional setting and sip a dram of the island’s history.
The next port of call on our island adventure is the Isle of Barra. More famous for its beaches than its whisky – all about to change when the Isle of Barra Distillery finally opens its doors. The project has been conceived from the very beginning to be environmentally friendly and to use local ingredients. Modern strains of barley do not thrive on the islands so crofters use a centuries old strain, evolved to suit the soil and weather conditions. This will be harvested locally and prepared on site with all the power for the operation provided by wind turbines.
From Barra the small ferry north takes you to Eriskay, an essential stop for any whisky enthusiast. It was here in 1941 that the SS Politician ran aground while carrying a vast cargo of whisky. The story of how the local population liberated this booty was turned into a famous book and film, both still beloved and regarded as classics of their genre today. The pub on Eriskay is named after the ill-fated cargo ship and is worth a visit to see an original bottle of the infamous whisky on display.
A causeway from Eriskay will take you to South Uist and the comfort of the traditional thatched cottage of Cuir na Bhoir. Sit outside and watch the sun set over the beach with a wee dram, a timeless pleasure that islanders have taken for granted for centuries.
From North Uist we head back east to Skye and probably one of the most famous brands in Scotland. Talisker has been produced near Carbost since 1830 and its single malts have won accolades around the world. The distillery is open for tours all summer but, demand is so high, advance booking is essential. From the distillery it is only 4 miles to the luxury of Saltwinds and the rugged landscape of the Cuillins. You could also, if you were inspired, take a trip out to Talisker Bay, one of the finest beaches on the island for an evening stroll with your hip flask. There are exciting plans afoot for a further two independent micro-distilleries at Torabhaig in the South East of Skye and on Raasay but for now we will have to jump on the ferry again for our next whisky destination.
The 24th of September is when the Harris Distillery officially opens its doors. The project, located in the village of Tarbert was conceived as a Social Distillery, to promote this special place and its qualities and to bring it to the attention of a wider audience. Tours will be available soon after the initial launch and pre orders for its initial bottlings are being taken already. Due to it not needing as long as whisky to mature, the first batch of Gin to be distilled will be available to purchase from the end of September in the new distillery shop. This will be infused with locally harvested sugar kelp for a unique and truly Hebridean flavour.
Scotisay View Cottage on the Golden Road just south of Tarbert has an elevated position and commands panoramic views of the sea, here you can settle into ‘island time’ with a wee taste of the surrounding landscape.
Abhainn Dearg Distillery in Uig was established in 2008 and their first Single Malt was available in 2011, a three year old special release. This was launched to great acclaim at the Royal National Mod in Stornoway, also known affectionately as the "Whisky Olympics". Although the first 10 year old single malt will not be ready till 2018 there are a range of limited bottlings available for those who visit the distillery shop or take the tour. The emphasis here is on ‘field to bottle’ with all the barley and peat used in the distilling process as well as the water coming from within a few miles of Uig.
The distillery is an easy walk from Ardroil 7A & 7B, an excuse to indulge on your tour and then take an extended stroll home via Ardroil beach and the landscape that has inspired this wonderful whisky.
Photo Credit: Abhainn Dearg