A bottle of whisky is never far from a tale of adventure, and no less is expected from a spirit created on the historic isles of Scotland. While many of the expressions we see on shelves today are coloured by origin stories of yore, Talisker 43-Year-Old Xpedition Oak: The Atlantic Challenge was born out of a solo, 24-day crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by one man in a boat carrying whisky staves secured to the deck.
British adventurer and sailor James Aiken, who worked with the distillery on a film project in 2019, tackled the 6,000km expedition. “During this project, it was clear that we share similar values, including our love and affinity of the sea. I believe that venturing into the outdoor realm is healthy and expansive, mentally and physically. There is always something fresh to experience, and Talisker shares this ethos,” he explained.
Talisker sought to capture the essence of the ocean in the final product and its oldest expression to date. During Aiken’s journey, all the staves were exposed to ocean spray, sun, salt and storms, creating and building layers of flavour that would eventually go into the finishing of the special release single malt. The motivation behind the journey was not arbitrary. Talisker is located in the Isle of Skye, exceedingly remote for a distillery even by modern standards. Its genesis occurred when brothers Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill rowed by boat from the smaller, neighbouring Isle of Eigg to settle on Skye in 1830. While they intended to bring agriculture to the isle, it was the founding of Talisker that inked their names in the annals of Scottish history. Aiken’s journey is meant to be a modern-day parallel.
Aiken himself seems like a figure transplanted from antiquity. Growing up in the south coast of England, he cultivated a passion for sailing that has carried him through expeditions to the Caribbean, the Norwegian fjords and beyond. “Having grown up around boats and the water, this is the environment I am most comfortable in and have the most natural understanding of. Therefore, I can push my boundaries of comprehension and immersion. In modern societies, we often live lives separated from real forces. So I choose to actively pursue a closeness to the natural world.”
As romantic as this seafaring sounds, the actual journey of traversing the Atlantic – especially alone and with precious cargo on deck – required extensive preparation. The boat Aiken sailed in was one he’d owned for five years, so he knew every nut and bolt intimately enough to ensure he was technically prepared for the trip. He also primed himself physically, exercising regularly to make sure he was extremely fit before departure since all problems, if any, would fall on his shoulders alone.
Over the 24 days, sleep deprivation was the most pressing challenge, but Aiken took that in stride. When the waters were calm, he got as much sleep as he could, so he would be alert when problems arose. At sea, when one thing goes wrong, several others will follow closely, he joked.
The journey was meditative, and he recounts the elements of natural beauty he saw along the way as sights that made the lonely journey fuller. Solitary islands framed by sunrise, the cries of dolphins as he sailed through the night – “these rare joys and simple pleasures feed the soul as much as the larger objective.”
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Objective achieved, the staves arrived safely at their destination to complete the final maturation of the whisky in 10 casks. The maritime exposure infused each pour with the flavour of wood and salt spray, softened by touches of fruit. Bottled at 49.7 per cent ABV, drinking this single malt introduces a sunny warmth to the palate, chased by a long, spiced finish reminiscent of chilli peppers.
In a tribute to the distillery’s founding year, just 1,830 of these bottles will be released as part of the Diageo Rare & Exceptional portfolio. The first bottle will be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to Parley For The Oceans, a charity dedicated to preserving and protecting 100 million sqm of marine ecosystems around the world by 2023.
Aiken backs the charitable initiative with first-hand experiences. “As a sailor, the state of the oceans are clear to me each day. Our modern lives affect our surroundings in profound ways. The more that those of us who have regular access to these situations communicate that, the greater chance there is of us as a society making the right choices.”
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