Ode to the outlier: Finding whisky on the Hawaii of the North

Ode to the outlier: Finding whisky on the Hawaii of the North

Liza visits the remote Scottish island of Tiree

Thoughts from... | 12 Jan 2022 | Issue 180 | By Liza Weisstuch

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To call Tiree an outlier is an understatement. While it is, indeed, an outlier by the geographical definition, what with it being the westernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, it is an outlier in other ways, too. Tiree, which measures 30.25 square miles and boasts 36 miles of coastline, is sometimes called the Hawaii of the North. There is nothing but ocean and weather between its western coast and Canada, and it’s as flat a landmass as you’ll find in the Hebrides – two things that ensure prime conditions for board surfing, windsurfing and kite sailing.

Tiree was one of my several stops on an island-hopping jaunt around the Inner Hebrides in October. I had not chosen it for its whisky, something that typically factors into my travel decisions. I decided on Tiree because, well, it’s an outlier. Its differences give it outlaw status, in my mind. (Note that it is also known as the sunniest place in Britain.)

I wanted to see the island for myself. And see I did. And see and see. On Tiree, you can’t not see anything. The sky is so limitless, it feels like the heavens are about to engulf the entire landmass. It reminded me of Big Sky, Montana, or Kansas’s infinite farmland. It is, in a word, bewitching. And when people fall under its spell, they do drastic things. Like buy property.

While biking back from the beach where I tried surfing for the first time – emphasis on ‘tried’ – I got a little turned around, so I called to a woman coming out of her house, a single building at a lonely crossroad. She was a trial lawyer on the mainland, but she and her husband had bought a place on Tiree because they loved windsurfing.

Julian Ransom, a landscape contractor who lives on the edge of the Cotswolds, put it best. I met him one morning at my hotel. He and his wife had been bringing their young girls to the island for years and had just bought a half-acre of land.

“We feel really strong connection to the place that we just can’t shake,” he said. “It’s a little dot, so far away from other places, and the horizon is so massive. You’re just able to
ground yourself. It’s really a spirituality thing.”

As I noted earlier, whisky hadn’t been a reason for my going there. Until it was. I had arranged to meet Ian Smith, who opened the Isle of Tiree Distillery in 2019 with Alain Campbell, bandmates in the popular folk band Trail West.

The distillery is a scrappy operation. Its mash tun is an insulated barrel. There are four squat, dimpled, direct-fired copper pot stills from Portugal positioned in front of a window that provides gob-smacking views of the ferocious waves. The distillery is built in Ian’s late father’s workshop, just across the way from the shore. The walls of the industrial space rattle as the gale-force winds hammer away.

I expected we’d talk about the gins they’re making. The classic Tyree Gin (a nod to the island’s historical spelling) is made using island-forged botanicals and local kelp, once a cash crop for the island’s residents. There is also a pink gin. But conversation quickly turned to whisky. In 1768, Tiree had about 50 distilleries, Ian explained. Most of them were illicit, and between 1790–91, 157 people were busted by the authorities. Many were evicted from their crofts. Then, in 1802, the Duke of Argyll banned distilling on the island, citing locals’ lack of morals and all-round idleness. Ian’s is the first legal distillery there in 217 years.

Ian is a Tirisdeach (a person from Tiree), a Gaelic speaker and professional folk accordion player, so it’s little surprise his effort to honour his island’s history had to be detail-orientated and accurate. That’s just to say, he and Alain operate as the Tiree Whisky Company, and they’re making whisky. Two, in fact: a single malt, and a single grain that’s 70 per cent rye and 30 per cent barley. I tasted the new-make spirit for the latter, which offered sweet cream and caramel notes on the nose. It was incomprehensibly sweet for a rye, but I suppose there’s some element of enchantment on an island whose old name, Tir an Eòrna, means ‘land of barley’. It’s only as unfeasible as, well, a surfer’s Shangri-La with white sandy beaches in the chilly North Atlantic.
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