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The Talisker distillery has been producing its sweet and peaty single-malt whisky on the shore of Skye’s Loch Harport since 1830. Key to this whisky’s unique character is the distillery’s insistence on simple, traditional methods of production.
“There are only four ingredients in Talisker: water, yeast, barley and peat,” says distillery manager Mark Lochhead. “So it’s important to use the best water possible. Luckily, on Skye we’re blessed with amazingly pure spring water.” Contrary to what many people might believe, however, Talisker’s peaty flavour isn’t down to the water; it’s introduced in the form of peat smoke as the malted barley is dried in the kiln. This malt is then crushed into a coarse powder called grist and is mixed with hot water in a large copper mash tun.
The sugary water (or wort, as it’s known) is drained from the mash tun and pumped into wooden vats, where yeast is added. The wort is then left beer-like substance called wash. Next, the wash is double-distilled using the five traditional, steam-heated copper stills, resulting in a strong, clear spirit.
“Traditionally, Scots would drink this straight from the still,” says Talisker expert Donald Colville. “But they realised that after storing it in wooden casks, it tasted a hell of a lot better. And that’s why we do the same today.”
The whisky is stored for up to 30 years in the casks, some of which are recycled from the Kentucky bourbon industry. Over time, the oak imparts a mellow, buttery flavour full of toffee and vanilla notes. “I have no idea how the bourbon cask tradition started,” admits Donald. “It was probably the idea of a tight-fisted Scot who thought he’d save some money by reusing old wood. But what I do know is that you end up with hugely varying flavours depending on the time you leave the whisky to mature.”
Abridged and adapted from Waitrose Magazine