Distillery Focus

Island revival

Our man visits the rejuvenated Mull-based distillery
By Gavin D. Smith
Tobermory is the only distillery on the Hebridean island of Mull, and is one of Scotland’s oldest, with an establishment date of 1798. However, although Tobermory has had a chequered past to say the least, with long periods of closure and multiple owners, some much-needed stability was achieved when Burn Stewart Distillers acquired the town centre distillery in 1993.

Burn Stewart, later part of Trinidad-based venture capitalists CL Financial, consolidated a range of single malts expressions under the Tobermory brand and a parallel lineup of peated single malts called Ledaig, an earlier alternative name for the distillery. Both variants also became valuable components of Burn Stewart’s leading Scotch blends, Black Bottle and Scottish Leader.

2013 saw Burn Stewart Distillers sold to South African wine and spirits company Distell Group, and when Tobermory Distillery was closed four years later, rumours started to circulate that it might be surplus to Distell’s requirements, and potentially be up for sale once again.

However, nothing could be further from the truth, as Distell began a two-year programme of investment in the distillery infrastructure and visitor facilities. According to distillery manager Elaine McAdam, “During the closure, there wasn’t necessarily a massive overhaul, it’s very much still the distillery we know and love, there were just a few things that needed updating. For instance, we installed a new gin still house, four new washbacks, a new spirit still and a wash still and a new roof to withstand that wild Hebridean wind.”

Although McAdam describes undertakings during the period of closure as not being a “massive overhaul,” the installation of a set of new wooden washbacks and a pair of stills, to complement the pair replaced in 2015, along with infrastructure improvements, means that Tobermory is in fine shape for the future.

In terms of production, the distilling year is currently split between producing 52 per cent un-peated spirit and 48 per cent peated, and the distillery is running at around 75 per cent of total capacity. McAdam explains that, “The long and slow distillation process influences the character of our whisky range, but it is also the unusual lye pipe [with an ‘S’ bend at the top] which gives the spirit a slightly oily, citrusy note.”

To celebrate the distillery’s re-opening last summer, the existing 10 Years Old Tobermory expression was replaced by a 12 Years Old, which is currently the only permanent expression of the brand available, along with a pair of Ledaigs. The whisky has been matured in first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels before spending up to nine months in virgin American oak casks, and Derek Scott, brand director for Tobermory owner Distell, says, “We came to the conclusion that while the 10 Years Old Tobermory was a great whisky, it really hadn’t quite reached its full potential.

“It’s quite a big change to an old, established brand like Tobermory, but what a difference a couple of years can really make.”

'Wee Mary'

The world’s apparently inexhaustible thirst for gin means that Tobermory has followed the route of several other long-standing Scotch whisky distilleries and introduced gin-making capability during recent renovation work.

A new still room, complete with a 60-litre development still christened ‘Wee Mary’, has been created, in order to produce what Distell intriguingly calls “a collection of spirits.”

To date, it has been producing Tobermory Hebridean Gin, which contains not only locally-sourced botanicals, but also a small amount of the distillery’s new-make malt spirit for a rounded and creamy character.

Getting Technical

Water source: Privately sourced from Gearr Abhainn brook
Malt: unpeated and peated (38-40ppm)
Mashing: 5 tonne cast iron copper-domed mash tun. 9.5 hours mash cycle
Fermentation: 4 Oregon pine washbacks (each 23,000 litres capacity). 48-100 hours fermentations
Distillation: 2 x wash stills - 22,000 litres (charge 18,500 litres);
2 x spirit stills - 17,100 litres
(charge 15,500 litres)
Production capacity: 750,000 litres

The Core Range

Tobermory 12

Aged for 12 years in American oak casks, with an ABV of 46.3%. Its flavour profile is gently sweet and floral. It is made with non-peated barley and aged in ex-Bourbon casks, producing smooth notes of vibrant fruit and spice.

Ledaig 10
Aged for 10 years in ex-Bourbon casks, with an ABV of 46.3%. It is described by its producers as, “The essence of the distillery’s peated whiskies and a great example of its diverse artistry.” It has flavours of powerful peat smoke and is sweet and medicinal, with a lingering saltiness reflective of its seaside location.

Ledaig 18
Aged for 16 years in ex-Bourbon casks before being finished in sherry casks for a final two years. It has an ABV of 46.3% and its flavours of sweet and peppery smoke are balanced by the rich complexity of the sherry finish. It has hints of overripe apricots, toasted nuts and sweet sherry.

To complement the core range, a number of expressions from Tobermory distillery have appeared as part of Distell’s annual Limited Release Collection. The 2019 Collection included Tobermory (1999) Marsala Finish, and Ledaig (1997) Manzanilla Finish. Other limited editions available include a Tobermory 2007 Sherry Finish (62.4% ABV), distilled and filled into refill hogsheads on the 2 November, 2007, and ultimately finished in sherry butts for 22 months.

For the true Tobermory aficionado with £2,500 to spend there is a 42-year-old heavily-sherried Tobermory bottling, and, according to McAdam, there are more good things to come.

“The plan at the the moment is to roll out both a Ledaig and Tobermory in the next year,” she says. “We can’t say which is coming when, as we’re keeping our cards close to our chest, but we’re very excited about the releases and are sure they will be a successful addition to our range and another option for our loyal customers to add to their cabinets.

“Additionally, the distillery has a range of limited-edition expressions in the pipeline, but the details of those are under wraps at the moment. All we can say is that fans of Tobermory and Ledaig whisky are in for a treat this summer!”