Distillery Focus

Tobermory the Survivor

A 'Safe Haven' for Distell International
By Gavin D. Smith
The island of Mull is situated in the Inner Hebrides, a 50 minutes ferry trip from the west coast port of Oban. Tobermory is the island capital, famous for its distinctively colourful houses, which surround the harbour and served as the inspiration for the popular children's television series Balamory.

Tobermory Distillery is located not far from the centre of the village, which was established as a fishing port by the British Fisheries Society in 1788, a decade before local kelp merchant John Sinclair founded the distillery, which he named Ledaig, the Gaelic for 'safe haven.'

When distillery chronicler Alfred Barnard visited Tobermory during the mid 1880s he wrote that 'The Distillery is planted at the head of the bay, and stands almost underneath a lofty and perpendicular rock.'

Despite being one of Scotland's oldest surviving distilleries, reviewing Tobermory's history leaves the sense that its survival has been little short of a miracle. Tobermory has actually been silent for more than half of its entire existence, first closing between 1837 and 1878. A dozen years later John Hopkins & Co acquired the distillery, and then it was taken over by the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) in 1916.

The harsh economic years between the two World Wars saw the demise of many Scottish distilleries, most of which were never revived, and Tobermory fell silent in 1930, serving as a canteen for sailors and even as a power station. Then, in 1972, the Ledaig Distillery (Tobermory Ltd) reopened under its original name, owned by a Liverpool shipping firm and the Spanish sherry producer Domecq.

Once again, however, luck was not to be on the side of the distillery, and after just three years of trading, Ledaig Distillery (Tobermory) Ltd filed for bankruptcy and the distillery closed its doors. In 1979 the Kirkleavington Property Company Ltd of Yorkshire took on Tobermory, but it fared little better, and the distillery was inactive yet again between 1982 and 1989.

In order to attempt to balance the books, Kirkleavington sold off the distillery's only warehouse for conversion into apartments, at which point the future for Tobermory seemed bleaker than ever. However, production recommenced at the distillery that refused to die in 1989, and four years later its long-term future was finally assured when it was acquired by Burn Stewart Distillers for the sum of £600,000, plus a further £200,000 of stock. Today, Burn Stewart is owned by Distell Group Ltd, with the South African company having acquired it in 2013 from the previous proprietors Trinidad-based CL Financial.

Under Burn Stewart's (now renamed Distill International) ownership, a heavily-peated variant of Tobermory was introduced using the Ledaig name in 1996 and today production is split 50/50 between the two variants. Distell International now uses Tobermory and Ledaig in its Scottish Leader and Black Bottle blends, and has worked hard to raise the profile and improve the image and quality of the single malts. A former tun room was developed into a small warehouse during 2007 so that a proportion of the spirit being made could be matured in its island home.

Along with Bunnahabhain and Deanston single malts, Tobermory and Ledaig have been offered routinely at a strength of 46.3% ABV since 2010, and are no longer subject to chill filtration, leading to more concentrated and textured aromas and flavours.

According to Alison Gibb, Global Marketing Manager - Malts Portfolio for Distell, "The single malt Scotch whisky category has shown steady growth over the last five years reaching a peak in 2013 at 7.46m cases. In total, the market has grown by 2.49m cases over the last ten years, an increase of more than 50 per cent.

"This growing global demand has led to increased pressure on our aged malt portfolio, particularly Tobermory 10 Years Old and 15 Years Old, which were produced and laid down in small batches. Tobermory is now entering a time where there will be very limited quantities of stock of any age and we can no longer sustain ongoing supply. As a result, we have had to withdraw these products from all domestic markets until we can release aged stock that will supply demand. It is expected that this will take two to three years."

Gibb concludes that, "During this time a limited amount of Tobermory 10 Years Old will be available to purchase at Tobermory Distillery. There will also be a collection of Limited Edition Tobermory products released annually through Global Travel Retail channels and some European markets. Ledaig 10 Years Old and Ledaig 18 Years Old will remain as part of our core range and will continue to be available globally."

A number of notably old bottlings of both Tobermory and Ledaig have been offered in very limited quantities, with a 32 Years Old Tobermory, distilled in 1972, being released in 2005, while 2013 saw the appearance of a 42 Years Old Ledaig, followed two years later by a 42 Years Old Tobermory. Distillery-exclusive bottlings include a 19 Years Od Tobermory and a 16 Years Old Ledaig, both having been 'finished' for more than a decade in Pedro Ximinez sherry casks.

The latest offering from the distillery is Ledaig 1996, a limited edition vintage expression from the first year when heavily peated malt whisky was produced. The 20 Years Old has been matured in ex-Oloroso sherry casks and demonstrates just how good Ledaig can be at its very best.

Getting Technical

Malt: unpeated and peated - Concerto and Optic barley varieties (Ledaig is peated to around 40ppm)

Mashing: cast iron mash tun - 5 tonne mash - every 9.5 hours

Fermentation: 4 Oregon pine washbacks - 23,000 litre capacity 50-80 hour fermentations

Distillation: 2 wash stills (22,000 litres capacity) - 2 spirit stills (17,100 litres capacity)

Distillery capacity: 1 million lpa

Tasting Notes

Tobermory 10 Years Old 46.3% ABV

Nose: Fresh and nutty, with citrus fruit and brittle toffee.

Palate: Medium-bodied, textured, quite dry, with malt and nuts.

Finish: A hint of mint and a slight citric tang.

Tobermory 15 Years Old 46.3% ABV

(Initially matured on the mainland, then finished for a year at the distillery in ex-Gonzales Byass Oloroso sherry casks).

Nose: Brine, a hint of oak, figs, sherry and spicy peat.

Palate: Orchard fruits, cocoa powder, brittle toffee and black pepper.

Finish: Spicy oak and slight brine.

Ledaig 10 Years Old 46.3% ABV

Nose: Peaty, sweet and full, with butter and smoked fish.

Palate: Bold, yet sweet, with iodine, soft peat, heather and developing rich spices.

Finish: Pepper, ginger and liquorice.

Ledaig 1996 46.3% ABV

Nose: Sweet smoke, damp earth, cedar and ginger.

Palate: Voluptuous, with citrus fruit, subtle sherry, peat and chilli.

Finish: Very long and smoky, slowly drying with brine and more citrus fruit.