There are nearly 800 islands scattered off Scotland’s crenellated coastline, of which only a few are inhabited – and fewer still have a distillery. Excluding the whisky hotspot of Islay, the islands of Arran, Mull, Jura, Skye, Lewis and Orkney are home to an eclectic mix of styles, from light citrus to full-on peat smoke.
Scotland’s labyrinthine archipelago of islands were obvious locations for distilleries, especially at a time when illegal operations were the norm. Just a scattered handful of these far-flung facilities remain now (excluding Islay) – although a few newcomers hint at an island distilling renaissance.
The Islands classification of single malt whiskies is a category of convenience since these distilleries officially fall under the Highland denomination. They’re also the most scattered collection of distillery locations, from Arran in the south to Lewis in the north-west and Orkney (plus soon Shetland) in the north.
If such a disparate collection of distilleries has a heart, it is the Inner Hebrides, which apart from Islay includes Skye, home to Talisker’s mix of peat and pepper; Jura’s eponymous malty slow burner; and on Mull, gale-lashed Tobermory’s fruity malt, alongside it’s smoky alter ego, Ledaig.
Moving north and east and crossing the Pentland Firth, we hit Orkney and a contrasting pair of malts: Highland Park’s richly sweet peatiness and Scapa’s gentle fruit. Further north still, the Shetland Distillery Company plans to start making whisky in 2015 at Saxa Vord, on Unst.
The plans for Shetland hint at a broader trend in these far-flung island locations: new beginnings. As long as the history of island distilling is (Highland Park was established in 1798), the current Jura plant was only built in the 1960s, and distilling returned to Arran in 1995 after an absence of 160 years.
More recently still, the Outer Hebrides have got in on the act with the opening of the small Abhainn Dearg operation on Lewis in 2008, and there are plans for new distilleries on Harris and Barra, too, in the years ahead.
Highland Park was the world’s most northerly whisky distillery until Sweden’s Box distillery opened in 2010
Talisker is currently the largest Island distillery, with a capacity of 2.6m litres
Abhainn Dearg on Lewis is well over 100 times smaller than Talisker, with a production of just 20,000 litres