Distillery Focus

The tale of two malts

Tobermory on Mull is enjoying a place in the spotlight for a change. Dominic Roskrow visited it.
By Dominic Roskrow
The old saying you should never discuss women, religion or politics at the table is an appropriate one for the whisky industry.A potentially incendiary combination of strong alcohol, intelligent and opinionated individuals and differences on national, regional and religious grounds make a strong case for avoiding divisive subjects.It happens of course. I once spent six hours before, during and after a dinner in ‘debate’ with a fellow whisky writer who got progressively more inebriated as the night went on,until he started seeing a mouse under one of the chairs. When we finally reached some sort of consensus in the early hours, I suggested we wrap it up properly in the morning after a good nights’sleep.“In the morning!”he said,“My dear chap, I won’t remember any of this in the morning!”He didn’t.But the greatest outburst of whisky-fuelled anger I ever witnessed came not as a result of current affairs or femme fatales, but because of a cat. Or rather, cats.A small group of us had been innocuously talking about distillery cats when one of our company who had been silent to this point suddenly…well, ranted.“Don’t get me started”he raged.“Those European gnomes have been infringing on our liberties for years, and now they’ve started banning distillery cats.“It wouldn’t be so bad but while they’re condemning Ginger to the guillotine up in Scotland they’re encouraging vermin elsewhere. If you go to some of the sherry bodegas they leave out grain and a glass of sherry for their mice, put an amusing little ladder alongside the side of the glass, take pictures of it and then sell postcards in the visitor centre. Meanwhile our cats, employed to rid our distilleries of the very same vermin, are being banned by a bunch of faceless bureaucrats. It’s discrimination.We’re being picked on by Europe.” My favourite distillery cat was Toddy, who used to live at Tobermory Distillery on Mull. The first time I went there I was the only visitor, and sat down for presentation in an empty room.As soon as the film started Toddy jumped up on my shoulder, wrapped himself around my neck and purred contentedly throughout the presentation. Then just as it reached its finale, with the bit about generations of whisky makers using the natural barley and forth, he climbed down, found a seat and promptly went to sleep.He’s gone now and his replacements live at the distillery cottage and not in the distillery.They’re called Tobermory and Ledaig after the whisky and celebrate my arrival by killing a bird and then doing slow motion action replays of how they managed to catch it in the first place. Show offs.Killer kittens are only part of the charm of Mull. Rugged and mountainous, it’s like someone has carved off a piece of the Highlands and thrown it in to the sea. But the town of Tobermory is a tranquil haven and as pretty a backdrop for a distillery as anything you’ll find anywhere in Scotland or, for that matter, elsewhere. Boats of all sizes and states of repair bob in the harbour, the brightly coloured houses along the waterfront provide its character. Under the waves a Spanish Galleon reportedly laden with treasure awaits excavation and is testament to the island’s long history as a haven from the elements and up in the hills they say sea eagles have become so common they’ve become a threat to newly-born farm animals in the fields.By comparison to the town’s delicate pastel prettiness, Tobermory Distillery looks a bit dog-eared. It nestles to the right as you enter the town at one end of the beach, close to the water’s edge. It’s weather-beaten and endearingly tatty round the edges, and not even a fresh coat of paint can disguise the fact that producing whisky here has been a struggle. Tobermory more than most has battled hard to survive.Originally founded as brewery in 1798 and converted into a distillery soon after, it’s one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries but it has spent many years of its existence silent, and on more than one occasion it seemed that it would never reopen.For great parts of the 19th and 20th century it produced nothing and what assets it had were stripped and sold off. The residential flats to the left of the road opposite the distillery as you enter Tobermory reflect the distillery’s rocky past. They are built in to what were the distillery’s warehouses but were sold off by a previous owner to meet debts. At one time Mull cheese was stored there.Historically the whisky suffered, too, as financial hardship led to the use of inferior casks and inconsistency blighted Tobermory’s reputation. When Burn Stewart took it on in 1993 Ian MacMillan and his team discovered an inconsistent and variable selection of casks,many of which were substandard. More seriously from MacMillan’s point of view, the whisky itself was wrong.“People didn’t know what Tobermory was,”he says.“The previous owner had tried to make a Speyside whisky on a West coast island. It was much too light for the Western Highlands. And Tobermory was sold as a vatted malt with not very much Tobermory in the mix. I not only set about changing the liquid in to something more suited to the location but also turned it in to a single malt.” Since taking over Burn Stewart has invested as necessary. This summer, though,work at the distillery is on a different scale.Over a three month period the mash tun is being totally replaced.“It’s a big job and will cost a lot of money but it has to be done because the old mash tun had completely worn out,”says MacMillan.“We really did have to go back to the drawing board with it because there were no drawings of the drive wheels and they had to be redrawn and recast.” One thing investment won’t do is modernise the distillery. It is small and compact and has few nods to modernity and there is little in the way of technology. It has a cast iron mash tun, four Oregon pine washbacks and two pairs of stills. Most of the equipment dates back to the early 70s but since 1993 the company has replaced parts as necessary.The distillery has the capacity to produce about a million litres of spirit a year but in recent years has been producing a little below that level and is currently around 800,000 litres. Production is split almost equally between the distillery’s two spirits – the clean and unpeated Tobermory spirit and the peated Ledaig.“Depending on demand we’ll try and work it so that we make Ledaig for the last six months of one year and then for the first six months of the next to minimise the number of change-overs,”says distillery manager Graham Brown.Unpeated barley is sourced from various places on the mainland, peated barley comes from Port Ellen on Islay.The loss of the warehouses means that most of the output of the distillery is taken to the mainland to mature. Once the spirit has been made most of it is tanked and taken to Deanston and then onto Bunnahabhain to complete its maturation.Not all of it though. During the last couple of years a small part of the distillery has been converted in to a warehouse and spirit is once more maturing on the island, a small but symbolic statement on the part of owners Burn Stewart.Whisky destined for the 15 Years Old returns to the distillery for the last year of maturation. MacMillan has laid down some Ledaig on Mull, and has casks of the same batch maturing at Bunnahabhain and on the mainland.“It is an ongoing experiment,” he says.“I have been able to mature whisky on Islay to give it a west coast influence. It will be very interesting to see what the differences are.” With little room for expansion Tobermory is likely to stay small, but nevertheless you sense that with Burn Stewart’s backing it’s getting more attention than it has for many years. There’s a positivity about the distillery and you can feel the sense of purpose everywhere. In the shop they have put up a map of the world and they’re inviting visitors to mark on it where they’re from. After just one week it shows that visitors have come from Mongolia, South Korea, Senegal and St Helena.“Without doubt the launch of the 15 Years Old has helped raise the profile of the distillery,”says Graham Brown.“In turn that has got people back to tasting our other expressions. We have a very good 10 Years Old now but a lot of people haven’t tried it because they were put off some years ago.It’s a different whisky to 12 to 15 years ago. With the company backing that’s changing.” Indeed it is. Burn Stewart would argue the core expressions a 10 Years Old unpeated Tobermory and the peated 10 Years Old Ledaig are not only better, but of a consistently high quality, and the launch four years ago of a limited edition 32 Years Old has served to remind people of how special the distillery’s output can be.A new 15 Years Old expression, an assertive sherry-based Tobermory, has helped win over many to the distillery’s cause.Indeed you could argue that Tobermory is enjoying as healthy a spell at the moment as at any time in its 200 year history. MacMillan and Brown are proud of it, but there’s more to come.“I have got some wonderful old Ledaig and Tobermory which I’m looking at doing as 40 year olds in 2012,”he says.“The whisky is sublime and it has a remarkable journey. When it was first made it spent 20 years on Mull before being moved. It recasked in to quality sherry casks and because of the warehouse space we have on Mull it will spend the last five years here, back where it started.” Exciting times for the distillery and the team. Battered and beaten it may be, but no distillery deserves to bask in the limelight more than Tobermory does. And if you’ve never tasted a very old Tobermory, then do. You’re in for a treat.. TOBERMORY 10 YEARS OLD 40% Nose: Fresh barley,grassy,young. Pineapple cubes and grapefruit.Palate: Quite light with a gentle wave of peat,traces of spearmint and then spices and tangy citrus. Nice mouth feel.Finish: Quite short and spicy.TOBERMORY15YEARS OLD 46.3% Nose: Awave of sherry,with red berries,dusty cocoa. Nutty.Palate: Sherry,with full berries and wine notes and a lot of spice.Very assertive.Finish: Long,fruity and spicy.TOBERMORY 32 YEARS OLD 49.5% Nose: Lovely smell of dying wood fire embers. Berry fruit compote. Rich deep sherry notes.Palate: Full,creamy and fruity with traces of mint and cocoa.Finish: Quitelong and fruity,coats the mouth LEDAIG 10 YEARS OLD 43% Nose: Big waft of peat smoke, some citrus notes Palate: Rich,sweet and honeyed.Some liquorice and then a big wave of peat.Finish: Medium sweet and peaty