Whilst there is no specific Island region in Scotch whisky, there is an appetite to talk about distilleries that are set off the mainland of Scotland. Technically, the islands themselves fall within the Highland category which is the largest geographical area in whisky terms.
Whilst there is no specific Island region in Scotch whisky, there is an appetite to talk about distilleries that are set off the mainland of Scotland. Technically, the islands themselves fall within the Highland category which is the largest geographical area in whisky terms. However, it is the least populated when it comes to distilleries in existence today with many closing over the last century.
Scotland’s most famous Island for whisky is Islay and this bedrock of distilling is situated off the west coast of Scotland. As it harbours several distilleries it warrants its own Islay region and whilst the nearby Isle of Jura tends to piggyback onto festivities and Islay themes, it is technically within the Highland region. This leads us onto an interesting question as to how many distilleries does it take to become a region? Campbeltown has a rich heritage of distilling but today only a small fraction of its distilleries still remain operational. Given the current whisky boom, distilleries are popping up everywhere across Scotland including several islands. One could argue that the regions today count for little except to help tourism and are a legacy of taxation laws, but there are subtle differences in the styles of whisky that may have been eroded of late yet can be appreciated.
Visiting all the islands Scotland has to offer would be a momentous task with nearly 800 to claim such a feat. Thankfully, the number of distilleries spread across these often isolated and inaccessible outposts is far less numerous. Whilst tales of illicit distilling often prompt memories of Scottish Glen’s and illegal activities on Islay, the practice was commonplace across Scotland. The key ingredients were plentiful with many islands being able to support farmers in difficult conditions who relied upon rugged and ancient grains such as the Bere barley strain. A source of fuel was also plentiful thanks to the existence of peat and even today on many islands including Orkney it remains in use. The other key component was water and thanks to Scotland’s climate, the rivers and springs flowed favourably across the land.
An overlooked feature is the appetite for whisky. Life on many islands was purely about survival and a wee drop of alcohol was a rich reward and escape from the daily routine. These outposts were so far removed from government and the taxman that illicit stills were widespread. This is particularly true of the larger islands where distilleries exist today. Arran has returned to distilling but was known for its illegal whisky and celebrates this via its Smuggler’s series. Abhainn Dearg on the Isle of Lewis is of importance as a distinctive illegal still sits outside the distillery and its own stills are modelled upon this ancient design. In many ways set in the wild wilderness of Lewis, this farm distillery offers us a glimpse of the past and inventiveness required to distil spirit in a setting. Established in 2008 by Mark Tay on the site of a former fish farm, its name means Red River and the whisky so far has been a rugged style fitting of its environment. To the south, the Isle of Harris features its own modern and promising distillery that has already made its mark thanks to its distinctive gin.
Scotland’s largest island is that of Skye which is now easily accessible from the mainland due to a convenient bridge. Prior to this, the journey to Skye was especially long and unsurprisingly locals did engage in illicit stills, which were commonplace despite at least 7 officially registered distilleries. The enduring presence of Talisker that was established in 1830 is the only remnant from this wild west heritage. Even during its early life workers thought very little of helping themselves to its whisky and the customs and excise representatives struggled to gain control. In 2017, Talisker lost its status as Skye’s only distillery with the establishment of Torabhaig that is situated with a converted farm steading to the south of the island. Not content with this, Raasay a small island off the coast of Skye celebrated its own distillery in the very same year. A short 10-minute ferry crossing from Skye to Raasay, allows you to take in the visual splendour of both islands and experience the remarkable history that Raasay offers.
The Orkney islands to the North East of Scotland arguably warrant an Orcadian region of their very own. Today, they are represented by the iconic Highland Park distillery as well as the overlooked Scapa nearby. Whilst Scapa was only founded as recently as 1885, Highland Park can trace its roots back to 1798 if not more. Illicit distilling was once again widespread, but Orkney did have a third distillery known as Stromness that closed in 1928 and was demolished in 1940 although it does endure in the rarest of bottle forms. This very small coastal distillery was established in 1817 in the town of the same name and had a solid reputation for good whisky whether under the brand Old Orkney or its other name Man O’ Hoy.
Last but not least is the Isle of Mull that sits above Islay and Jura on the map and is just off the Morvern peninsula. It’s home to a single distillery called Tobermory that produces 2 styles of whisky. The traditional Tobermory whisky is lightly peated whereas Ledaig is the heavier in style and the latter is well regarded. Currently at the time of writing, this small distillery has stopped production for a 2-year refurbishment but remains open for visitors as it’s a major tourist draw on the island. As you can now appreciate each island has a strong association and identity with its distilleries thus strongly suggesting that the islands of Scotland warrant their own appreciation with a dram or two.