While the Islands are not officially designated as a Whisky Region (they are included with the Highlands), the five whisky producing islands of Arran, Jura, Mull, Orkney, and Skye are often considered the sixth region. No doubt because of their uniqueness. And they are. Not only to the other regions, but to each other.
Let’s start with Orkney, the most populous and second largest of the Islands Region. And home to a couple of great distilleries – the iconic Highland Park, and the lesser known Scapa. Both are located on the Mainland Island, which has a daily scheduled flight from Westray of 1 minute, 14 second duration. No meals or drinks served.
The history of Orkney is nothing short of fascinating. Inhabited for more than 8.000 years, including 500 years of Norse rule, the Orkney Islands are a masterpiece of history, archaeology, nature and innovation. The islands generate 100% of their energy through renewable wind and solar sources. They are home to 15% of the world’s seal population. They are also the underwater home to a fleet of 53 german warships, which sank there in the dying days of World War 1. And, of course, they are home to world class whisky.
Highland Park. Simply iconic. Made from local heather-laced peat, it has a taste as unique as its heritage. The most northerly distillery in Scotland, it has been producing world class product since 1826, when Magnus Eunson, a butcher and local church officer, turned his whisky smuggling operation into an honest living. Legend has it that, in order to evade tax collectors, he often hid his whisky under the alter of the church, and even inside coffins that were stored in the church basement. Coffins, casks. Aging is aging, I guess.
The other, and lesser known Orkney distillery is Scapa, located a few hundred yards to the south. Founded in 1885, and rebuilt after a 1919 fire, Scapa makes an unpeated style of whisky, unusual in the Islands Region. Most of its production goes into the Ballantines blend, although several Scapa releases have been made over the years.
Next on the list is the Isle of Skye, a beautiful island in the Inner Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland, and, according to folklore, home to lots and lots of faeries. There’s Fairy Glen, the Fairy Pools, and the Fairy Flag, which was used to wrap the heir to the MacLeod Clan while the fairies sang him lullabies. There are also Fairy cows that are native to Skye and to Wales, which apparently feed on seaweed rather than grass. Not to be outdone by the fairies, Skye also has Selkies, seal-maidens that turn into women when they shed their seal skins. There may be some whisky in play here, folks.
Fairy Glen, Fairy Pools, a Fairy cow, and…fairies.
Getting back to whisky, the Talisker Distillery, established in 1850 by the MacAskill brothers, used unique swan shaped stills to triple distill their product until the 1920’s when they reverted to the traditional double distilled dram. Which, I might add, was a favorite of author Robert Louis Stevenson. It was the only distillery on Skye until 2017, when Torabhaig Distillery opened on the south shore of the island. No reports yet on their product. Let’s hope that it lives up the the fine tradition provided by Talisker.
Moving right along, our next stop is Mull, and the Tobermory Distillery. Mull, located to the north of Islay and Jura, is positively rife with folklore. From Lady’s Rock, to Fingal’s Table, to Tragedy Rock, to Peter Gibbs, most of Mull’s legends are related to murder and tragedy of epic proportions. Apparently, in 1558, Doideag, a witch from Mull, cast a spell which sank some of the Spanish Armada in Tobermory Harbor. Serious business. Don’t mess with the Muileach.
Mull – Great Island. Great Distillery. Great whisky
Moving right along to Arran and its great distillery of the same name. The original distillery opened in 1995 in Lochranza. Construction was delayed by a few months after a pair of Golden Eagles, a protected species, set up a nest on the property. In 2019, a second distillery opened in Lagg.
Arran, like most of the Scottish Islands, is full of interesting things. Holy Island, bought several years ago by Tibetan Monks, has rejuvenated ancient Celtic monasteries that have been in place since the 13th century. In fact, there is evidence of a hermit cave and a holy well from the 6th century that was used by St. Molaise.
The holy water from the main island, however, during the past 30 years, comes from the Arran Distillery, which produces whisky made from rain water which passes over six waterfalls before collecting in the Loch na Davie. Add to that, the legend of the White Stag (which rescued the children of Narnia), and you have a great whisky with a rich, albeit, short history.
Arran – Rich in history and great whisky
Lastly, and perhaps the most interesting of all, is the Isle of Jura. With a population of 200, its unofficial motto is ‘ one road, one pub, one distillery’. That pretty much sums it up. But what a distillery and what a history.
Let’s start with George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair. For starters, he wrote most of his famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, while living in a cottage on Jura. He nearly lost his life when trying to navigate the Gulf of Corryvreckin in a small boat with his son, his niece and his nephew. The boat overturned and the group was rescued by a nearby lobster fisherman. Sadly, he became ill from complications of tuberculosis and had to return to England for treatment. It seems fitting that Jura Distillers later named a whisky in his honor.
The Jura distillery, located at the south end of the island, has a climate so unique, that palm trees grow on the property. Founded on 1810 and rejuvenated in 1963 to its present form, this un-get-at-able place is a jewel of the Scottish Islands.
Jura – a great whisky lineup, a proud Orwellian history, and palm tress. Delightful.
That wraps up our Islands tour. And what a taste tempting tour it was. For dessert, I urge you to try whiskies from each of these great islands. Until next time, cheers!