With twenty-eight distilleries to cherry-pick from, it was perhaps a surprise that David Sinclair of drinks industry giant Diageo arrived in St Andrews with the product of only one of their distilleries. Then again, given Diageo’s recent investment in single malt brands – most notably regarding their Speyside dark horse, Mortlach – the decision to showcase all that is new and interesting in the world of Talisker was understandable.
Back when I first succumbed to whisky’s compulsive charms the extent of the Talsiker ‘core’ range was the iconic 10yo, the devilishly hard-to-find but stunning 18yo and the Amoroso-finished Distiller’s Edition. However, over the last twelve months we have seen a feisty no-age statement Storm, it’s brooding cousin Dark Storm and even a Port-finished offering, the punningly-named Port Ruighe (the Gaelic name for the capital town of the Hebridean island of Skye, where Talisker is made). David – somehow or other – managed to procure two bottles of the 2009 30yo release as well, so it wasn’t just a blooding of the youngsters.
Talisker’s production process is, quite rightly, the place to start when appraising any of the whiskies from this cult distillery. Today using medium-peated barley from the Glen Ord maltings, once upon a time Talisker was triple-distilled; indeed, the still house still boasts the extra copper which would have been used to further refine the spirit back in the old days. These stills are unusual in themselves, with purifiers in the wash stills connecting the u-bend lyne arms back to the body of the stills. All condensation takes place in worm tubs. Basically, this is complex distillation, building in weight and power to the spirit.
There can be no better demonstration of this than in the 10yo: idiosyncratically peppery, with a bit of savoury seaweed on the nose, the whisky has mellowed slightly with generous vanilla and spice from the oak casks used to mature it. This was the first time in years I’d tried the core expression and, to be honest, it wiped the floor with the next two interlopers.
Talisker Storm – or ‘drizzle’ as one wag I spoke to dubbed it – is supposed to be a more potent rendering of the house style, building in extra spice and peat with the use of heavily-charred, rejuvenated American oak casks. These impart no flavour from the liquid which was originally in the cask and allow the fresh oak to penetrate the spirit. I maintain that this is actually quite a soft, floral and mild Talisker by comparison with the 10yo and while not an unpleasant dram by any means, it cannot hide its blatant limitations of depth.
I have stated elsewhere that I am a big fan of Port-finished whiskies – in fact, last night I tearfully savoured the last of my BenRiach Solstice which I bought almost a year ago at the distillery. This is a symphony of dry, aggressive peat and thick hedgerow berry sweetness from the Port. I found the Talisker Port Ruighe disjointed and flat in contrast - the house style, after between three and six months in Port casks, had been consummately butchered, a suspicion only underlined whenever I returned to that bombastic 10yo.
This is not to say that Talisker and wine casks ought always to be kept well clear of each other; the Amoroso Sherry-retouched Distiller’s Edition is and to my mind always has been a delight. The peat and spice of the spirit meld with the drier elements of the wine while overall the effect is of fullness, sweetness and decadence, but in balance.
Our final whisky was a rare treat. I last sampled a 30yo Talisker at Edinburgh Whisky Blog’s Movember tasting – again courtesy of David. I described it as a lady’s boudoir extruded through the ashes of a peat fire. This one was marginally less sophisticated and surprising but still impressive. The nose offered a pronounced creaminess with some candied zest. Behind came a perfumed smokiness and tropical fruits with a growing spice and coconut character. A trace of cedar oil ramped up the aromatics. The palate, even at cask strength of 53.1%, was leathery and amazingly rounded. I detected almond milk, menthol and eucalyptus and a more overtly herbal finish with plenty of invigorating barley sugar. Excellent.
In the past it hasn’t always been possible to go ‘vertically’ through a Diageo distillery’s range. When there are three or four to choose from the latter drams are normally prohibitively expensive and elusive. To see Talisker in its many costumes was hugely instructive for me, and I know a number of others found the flavour bridge they’d been searching for between smoke-free and heavy peat whiskies. The Storm and Port Ruighe just didn’t do it for me, but I look forward to more experimentation with this powerful and versatile spirit. Hopefully David Sinclair will be able to come by again and curate them for us.