With a new year upon us, and the chill of winter firmly in place, I find my thoughts spirits wiseturning once again to Scotland. Nothing quite helps warm a body and mind on a chilly evening like a nice warming dram of a heady, classic, single malt Scotch whisky. I'm thinking, in fact, of what I consider the quintessential classic single-malt Scotch whisky: Talisker.
Not only is the mighty Talisker one of my (admittedly very many) personal perennial favorites, it is also one of the "Classic Malts of Scotland" the marketing campaign introduced in 1987 (here in the U.S. in 1988) by the United Distillers and Vintners company (UDV), now owned by international drinks giant Diageo. These "Classic Malts" are a selection of six single-malt Scotch whiskies that were, and occasionally still are, handsomely displayed together in bars and liquor stores.
They are very occasionally still seen presented on a trophy-style, polished-wood display rack with brass handles and nameplates. The six "classic" single malts are: Dalwhinnie 15 (43 percent abv) from the Highland region; Talisker 10 (45.8 percent abv) from the "Isle of Skye" region; Cragganmore 12 (40 percent abv) from the Speyside region; Oban 14 (43 percent abv) from the "West Highland" region; Lagavulin 16 (43 percent abv) from the Islay region; and Glenkinchie 12 (43 percent abv) from the Lowland region.
Despite the fact that the Isle of Skye is simply an island, not a region, and that "West Highland" was not previously ever a separate region, and the collection has nothing to represent the Campbeltown region (since UDV didn't own any Campbeltown distilleries), the campaign was a huge success. Indeed the "Classic Malts" marketing clearly helped foster greater interest in single malts in the United States, and likely contributed to much of the most unfortunate snob appeal. While not all of these whiskies are equally exceptional, they are all very drinkable and two Talisker and Lagavulin are among Scotland's greatest contributions to the world of whisky.
Talisker in particular has always held a certain place of honor. For one, it is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye (which is why it can hardly be said to be a "region"). For another, it was also the favorite whisky of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of such classic works as Treasure Island and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson even enshrined this in his poem "The Scotsman's Return From Abroad" when he wrote "The king o' drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Islay, or Glenlivet." (At this time Glenlivet was the popular name for a part of Speyside, so this reference was likely to the region, like Islay, rather than to the distillery of the same name.)
Incidentally, the "Classic Malts" campaign also helped establish the largely false notion that "age = better" in whisky. An idea that Diageo and others have been forced to steadily challenge with new marketing appeals these last few years. Nobody had properly imagined that global demand of Scotch malt whisky would so quickly outstrip the supply. Bringing fresh stock of 10 and 16 year old whiskies, meanwhile, requires at least that many years of those whiskies maturing in oak casks in bonded warehouses, generating no revenue. Hence the rise of "non-age statement" (NAS) whiskies.
The practice of releasing NAS single-malt Scotch whiskies is pervasive, if still slightly controversial. By removing the age statement, producers can get more creative in setting and fulfilling consumer demand, as NAS whiskies allow producers tremendous flexibility to release products that are true to their distillery character or brand without the limitations of the trade regulation's minimum age rules (stipulating that any declared age must reflect the youngest constituent whisky used in production). Some whisky geeks, having grown accustomed to the simplistic formula that old = better = expensive, and so consider NAS whiskies as some great hoodwink that passes off horrible, too young whisky on loyal fans or unsuspecting drinkers. Personally, I think such monsters-under-the-bed types have simply too much time on their hands; all that matters to me is whether the whisky is any good, and whether it's worth the price. In the case of Talisker's NAS, the answer is resoundingly YES on both counts.
The Talisker Distillery was founded in 1830 and built in 1831 on the Isle of Skye, the largest and most northerly island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. It was completely rebuilt in 1962 following a devastating fire in 1960. The name Talisker is derived from Scots Gaelic "talamh sgeir" or "talaisgeir" meaning "land of the cliff/sloping rock" a reference, presumably, to rocky cliffs near the distillery on the edge of Loch Harport in Carbost.
The name also points to the Norse roots of the Isle of Skye, the Norse "T-hallr skjaer" means "loping rock/land of stones." Skye's history is replete with Norse invasions, struggles between the various Scottish monarchs and the various local Lairds, and regular clan battles as the MacLeods, MacDonalds and Mackinnons routinely chafed at each other's holdings. The MacLeod clan, of mixed Norse and Gaelic descent, is dominant today. Talisker whisky, for at least the last 80 years, has also been a major component of the Johnnie Walker family of blends (also owned by Diageo).
Here then are two easy to find expressions, the original "classic" 10 year old, and theit NAs release, Talisker Storm.
Talisker Storm Single Malt Whisky (45.8 percent abv; $66-$76, so shop around): this hugely enjoyable whisky is a younger, somewhat feistier Talisker, offering dramatic oomph, character and some robust flavor with aromas of honey, apricot, citrus, banana, tropical sweet fruits, pear, sweet malt, fresh biscuit and honeysuckle, all nicely balanced by light peat and smoke, brine and pepper. To these aromas, the flavors follow sympathetically, but with more peat, smoke and brine than usual, and also with some prickly black pepper, and clove and a little burnt caramel. Rich and creamy with a balancing tang and a touch of alcoholic heat, the slightly one-dimensional, clipped finish is the only underperforming component of this decidedly delicious whisky.
Talisker 10 year old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (45.8 percent abv; $50-$66, so shop around): This is an energetic, vigorous, thunderous whisky, with billows of peat smoke, brine, iodine, mothballs and sweet citrus fruits on the nose, followed by oak-softened, though still edgy, black pepper, rich dried fruits, malted barley, toffee, another waft of peat smoke, and traces of licorice and honey, all of which powers through towards the balanced, warming, mildly smoky, slightly spicy and absorbingly unvanquished finish. Bold, vibrant, unique and complex with a little undertone of sweetness this may very well be the essence of Scotland in a bottle.