Single malt whisky is, arguably, more tied to the land on which it is made than any other Scottish export. The point of difference in a single malt depends heavily on the environment in which it is born. The land, the water, the barley, the peat, the climate – even the people – work together to make each whisky a unique expression of time and place. Skye contains an interesting mix of old and new, with a distillery that dates back to the 1800s, and others that are almost brand new.
The two distilleries capture two entirely difference essences of the island terrain, and it is certainly worth visiting both for an immersive education on Scotland’s favourite drink.
Praban na Linne
Praban na Linne (literally, the illicit still) – where the Gaelic Whiskies are made, crafted in the style of the tax-evading crofters living on Skye centuries ago. These whiskies are all available to try in the bar, and it’s guaranteed to be a fun evening making your way through them!
Pràban na Linne, producers of The Gaelic Whiskies, is a small niche whisky company on the Isle of Skye. Focussing on quality, it remains one of the few independent businesses in the Scotch Whisky industry, and one of the few with its headquarters in the Scottish Hebrides.
The principal brands of the premium range of The Gaelic Whiskies are the Tè Bheag; an exceptional connoisseurs’ blend, with a high malt content aged in sherry casks, the MacNaMara classic; a lighter blend, also available finished in Guyanan rum casks; as well as the fine vatted malts of Poit Dhubh, bottled at 8 years and 12 years, with a 21 year old to satisfy the most epicurean tastes.
The Gaelic Whiskies continue to be awarded international medals in recognition of their outstanding quality.
The newest addition to the whisky world on Skye, Torabhaig sits on a farmstead in the south of the island. The ethos of the distillery is to remain small and traditional, focussing on quality and authenticity rather than an extensive commercial output. The steading – home of the distillery and all the equipment that goes with it – was built over 200 years ago by local crofters, who spent years hauling the heavy stones from a nearby ruin. The owners of the distillery are so keen to maintain this original stonework that they have had a removable roof designed and installed so that the pot stills may be replaced without disturbing the old building.
Torabhaig have been producing whisky in full swing since January 2017, however most of what they are making still remains locked up in casks. All single malt whiskies must be matured for a minimum of three years and one day, and at Torabhaig it seems as though most of their output is going to be stored for a minimum of ten years. Rather than discuss their top secret plans for future releases, the people of Torabhaig seem more interested in discussing what they believe makes a great whisky, and what will set their drams apart from others on the market. The tour here is an education on terroir and taste: expect to hear all about the barley, wood, peat and spring water that combined with the magic of time, will culminate in the sensory experience of Torabhaig whisky.
Skye’s original whisky distillery stands proudly on the shores of Loch Harport: the white-washed building is an inoffensive mark on the dramatic skyline and surrounding scenery is dominated by a panoramic vista of the Cuillin ridge. The village of Carbost is peaceful and charming in an old-worldly way: the one road is narrow and winding, and the harbour peppered with weathered fishing boats. For a long time this has been Skye’s only (legal) whisky distillery and has been attracting visitors since it’s establishment in 1830, when two brothers from the neighbouring isle of Eigg decided to create their own whisky to sell, rather than relying on the popular yet inconsistent moonshine-style spirit cooked up by thirsty crofters. Robert Louis Stevenson visited the island in 1880, claiming Talisker as his favourite tipple, and from then onwards the reputation of the distillery grew and grew, until it became one of the most famous and revered whiskies in Scotland.
These days, the distillery is visited by thousands of tourists every summer, and has an impressive array of buildings and cubby holes to explore on a guided tour. The stills themselves are industrial and super clean, the copper is dazzling and the many workers who operate them are highly skilled and joy to watch. The entire building was renovated in 2019 and now features a whisky bar, where one can sample different drams from different eras. The tour guides are knowledgeable and entertaining, blending the chemistry of distilling with an easy-going run-down of local history and facts about the area.
Raasay Distillery and Visitor Centre was established by two friends; Alistair Day and Bill Dobbie, who selected the island due to the purity of the land, air and water. The distillery is about a ten minute walk away from the ferry terminal and is perched on a small hill, allowing for panoramic views across the Raasay Sound and to the Cuillin peaks on Skye. Windows and glass dominate the aesthetic of the building: meaning that this incredible view is just as visible from the inside. The building itself is centred around Borodale House, a nineteenth century building which was lovingly renovated in 2017, and is a feat of innovative and striking architecture. As well as the distillery, the grounds contain luxury accommodation, a visitor centre and a bar: so one can explore, drink and sleep in the shadow of a working whisky distillery.
This holistic approach applies to the ethos of the distillery too: every drop of spirit is produced, matured, bottled and marketed from the right here on the island – with nothing being sent away to cities or bigger distilleries to be finished off. Many locals who would have had to travel off the island for work now find themselves with excellent employment opportunities right on their doorstep. Historically, the people of Raasay have always been the self-sufficient sort – usually working on crofts or out at sea (or single handedly building their own road from one end of Raasay to the other!) – and there is no lack of creative energy on this island. Creating their own whisky and tourist attraction has given the people of Raasay an opportunity to shine on a stage of their own making.