by Sally Coffey, The Telegraph, February 26, 2019
We’ve all heard the stories. Skye is overrun with tourists and the infrastructure is unable to cope with the huge number of visitors who whizz over every year to clog up the roads and dampen the allure of this once prized beauty. Skye is old hat. Been there, done that, right? Well yes, and no.
Skye is a big island and it’s not hard to find yourself amid the natural landscape, where the craggy peaks of the Cuillin loom large over rushing streams, your only company the sheep that stretch out along single-track roads or mill about by boggy lochs.
Like the Hebridean Whale Trail that will launch this year, the Hebridean Whisky Trail, a 115-mile route that takes in four distilleries – two on Skye, one on Raasay and one on Lewis and Harris – aims to spread those visitors out a little and prove that it’s not that hard to travel between the isles. Surely letting your nose for whisky lead you to previously unexplored corners can only enrich or enliven your travels.
If you want to visit all four distilleries, the obvious starting point is Torabhaig on the serene Sleat peninsula of southern Skye, where the rocky shoreline is punctuated with wild, lonesome beaches, and meadows of luminous wildflowers that frame fjord-like lochs, contradicting the stark image many of us have of Skye.
When it opened in January 2017, Torabhaig was only the second-ever (legal) distillery on Skye. Housed in a 19th-century farmstead with views over a ruined castle – stones from which were hauled up by horse and cart – it’s a much smaller operation than Talisker . Walk-up tours are usually available (unlike Talisker, where in summer you need to book way ahead) and there’s a more traditional feel about the place.
There’s also a sense that you’re joining the distillery at the start of its story. So embryonic is Torabhaig that it doesn’t yet have any of its own whisky for you to try, but visitors on the 45-minute tours are offered Mossburn Island Blend, a well-tempered island-style peated whisky that’s similar to the finish and flavour the distillers are hoping for.
From Torabhaig, it’s a 35-minute drive to Sconser, from where you can get the ferry to Raasay (a crossing of just 25 minutes). Long overlooked by tourists, Raasay may not have the drama, but from the distillery, just a few minutes’ walk from the ferry slipway, you can certainly drink in the view of the Cuillin from the tasting room, without the crowds.
Raasay Distillery, also relatively young, having opened in September 2017, feels every bit like a community venture – around a tenth of the island’s population of 160 work here. It also had the foresight to think ahead, and began distilling elsewhere prior to opening, so visitors can sample the lightly peated While You Wait single malt until other expressions are ready.
There are some very nice – though quite pricey – rooms if you’d like to stay overnight . Alternatively, you could stay at nearby Raasay House. Rest assured you can take your tasting with you, bottled up for later.
However, only fools rush off: Raasay is an island worth exploring. A trek to the cleared village of Hallaig, immortalised in the poem by Raasay-born Sorley MacLean, is a haunting experience. North Bay, near the ferry slip, is a pretty pebble beach that you usually have to yourself, while Calum’s Road in the north shows just what lengths people will go to when pushed: Calum Macleod spent decades building a road linking the isolated north to the rest of the isle when his appeals to the council went ignored.
Back on Skye, it’s a 20-minute drive to Talisker, Skye’s sole distillery since opening in 1830 until being joined by Torabhaig. The whisky is renowned for its full-bodied flavour, inspired by its windswept location on the shore of Loch Harport in Carbost village.
Finally, it’s time for the Isle of Harris Distillery, reached by ferry from Uig on the Trotternish peninsula in northeast Skye. The ferry port is a 45-minute drive from Talisker, but you may want to stay the night in Portree or Uig, to break up the journey.
Ferries arrive into Tarbert on Harris, and the distillery, which offers an informal and friendly tour, is just yards away. Its Hearach single malt is still maturing, but make sure you try the distillery’s very good gin.
If you’ve made it this far, it’s worth driving south to the Caribbean-worthy powdery white sandy beaches of Seilebost and Luskentyre; visiting a Harris Tweed weaver in their own home; or heading north to the lunar-like landscape of Lewis.
Without really noticing it, you’ve ventured from the Inner Hebrides to the Outer Hebrides – and it wasn’t that hard, was it?
More distilleries to sample
Penderyn Distillery, South Wales
When Penderyn opened at the foot of the Brecon Beacons in 2004, it was the first whisky distillery to open in Wales in a century and, unlike Scottish and Irish distilleries, here they develop their whisky using a single still ( penderyn.wales ).
The Cotswolds Distillery
It may not be the obvious choice, but this distillery in the north Cotswolds makes both a decent gin and a single-malt whisky. Plus, in typical Cotswolds style, you’ll get to taste them in a cosy cottage setting, by a wood-burning fire, no less ( cotswoldsdistillery.com ).
Kilchoman Distillery, Islay
While Scotland’s Speyside has the highest concentration of single-malt distilleries, Islay is where lovers of smoky and peaty whiskies come. At Kilchoman, in the west of Islay, everything is done on site – even the barley is grown here ( kilchomandistillery.com ).