Distilling arrived in Scotland through the western isles, carried there by monks preaching the good word and the magic of the pot still. From the 14th century onward, the Hebrides became the cradle of whisky as we know it. When distilling was made effectively illegal in the Highlands, the islanders continued to hone and improve their craft, safe in the knowledge that if government agents came calling, they’d be able to see them coming from a long way off. Even today, whisky from the islands carries a certain rugged glamour and a reputation for quality. On this page you’ll find information about Scotland’s key island distilleries and the fine drams they produce.
About 10 miles north of Caithness lies the Orkney archipelago. On this collection of jagged islands you’ll find standing stones older than the Pyramids of Giza, vantages to watch the Northern Lights on long winter evenings, and two of Scotland’s great distilleries. Highland Park is a giant of the whisky world, famous for producing a perfectly balanced single malt with notes of heather honey, sea spray and a light smokiness. Scapa, just south of the Orcadian capital of Kirkwall, is an altogether lighter make – poised and delicate with hallmark aromas of citrus and orchard fruit.
The Scottish isles are well furnished with peat for fuel and whisky making, but that doesn’t mean that all the whiskies found there are smoky. Jura’s sole distillery – the straightforwardly named Isle of Jura – offers a great example of how diverse Island whisky can be. While it produces some peated malt, the majority of its output is unpeated, bright and fruity in character, and often with layers of complexity gleaned from maturation in a combination of cask types. These include various sherry and other wine casks as well as new oak and ex-bourbon barrels. Simply put, Jura is one of Scotch whisky’s great all-rounders.
Talisker– for many years Skye’s only distillery – was famous as early as the 19th century, long before single malt as a concept had even caught on. Today, it's beloved around the world for its robust, peppery profile and rich peatiness. In 2017, Skye’s first new distillery since the 19th century opened in the island’s southern reaches. Torabhaig has since won acclaim in the whisky world for its characterful whiskies filled with fine smoke and fresh coastal notes.
Scotland is not short of distilleries in beautiful locales, but few are quite so picturesque as the Tobermory waterfront. Tobermory distillery mostly produces a light and elegant make with citrus and soft fruit foregrounded by notes of fresh sea air, while for a few weeks each year, its small stillhouse also produces heavily peated spirit under the name Ledaig. The reputation of this powerfully smoky single malt has grown significantly in recent years, buoyed by the success of a number of highly regarded independent bottlings. An excellent choice for fans of Islay whisky looking to try something new.
A forerunner of the whisky revival of the 21st century, Arran distillery came online in 1995. Rather than pursuing a coastal profile like many of its fellow islanders, the small site at Lochranza produces grassy, honeyed single malts that performs well in a variety of cask types. In 2019 it was joined by Lagg distillery, a sister site on the south of the island intended to produce a totally different style of whisky. Earthy and smoky with a wild aspect achieved through long fermentation, Lagg’s single malts are quickly establishing the distillery as a rising star in the Scottish islands.
Of more than 900 islands off the Scottish coast, around 70 of which are inhabited. Among them are 11 established whisky producing isles, including Islay – which is considered a separate region unto itself. Recent openings have seen stills fired and warehouses filling up on Raasay, Unst, Shetland and Barra, meaning that we have many more whiskies to look forward to in the future, with a raft of new styles, new flavours and new islands to discover.