The several lives of Tobermory

The several lives of Tobermory

Tobermory distillery has made whisky for only 14 of the last 69 years- and its incarnations have included a blend and a vatted malt. Tom Bruce-Gardyne mulls over it.

Distillery Focus | 04 Aug 1999 | Issue 5 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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At times it feels just like the west of Ireland. If you visit in the spring, the vivid greens, lush pasture and dank, moss-covered walls of Mull seem straight out of Donegal. The climate is equally fickle. Seasons change by the hour with cloudless skies turning black, and then clearing again as if on a whim. Watching the weather roll in off the Atlantic one thought occurs – after 3,000 miles of sea no wonder those clouds are content to spill their load on this first piece of land since the Newfoundland coast. When it comes to making whisky there is no lack of water, and whatever the past problems of Tobermory, the island’s only distillery, drought was never one of them.As it turns out the Irish connection is far from superficial. The landscapes of Mull and large parts of County Antrim in Northern Ireland were sculpted by the same hand. Sixty million years ago there was intense volcanic activity in the area as the Atlantic Ocean began to take shape. The eruptions and outpouring of lava were like a fanfare for the departing Greenland and North America as they began to drift westwards. As the lava cooled it formed basalt, sometimes in near-perfect columns to create structures of spectacular beauty. On the island of Staffa, just off the west coast of Mull, Fingal’s Cave became the muse for Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture. Across the water the Giant’s Causeway was the foundation of a mythical bridge linking Ireland to the Western Isles. Today the stream that feeds the Bushmills distillery at Ballycastle, just a few miles from the Causeway, flows over the same basalt rock as does the water used for Tobermory. If these volcanic ructions managed to bypass Islay, which had been around for 500 million years by then, maybe the art of distillation did likewise. Perhaps the secret of the pot still came over with St Columba when he landed on Iona off the south-west tip of Mull in 563AD. After all, it was Irish monks who are credited with inventing whisky as a medicinal spirit and cure-all remedy for the brutalities of winter. But this is mere speculation as there are no records of distilling on Mull until much later. By the late eighteenth century there was concern over the shortage of grain on the island, which instead of feeding the islanders was being diverted into a burgeoning cottage industry. ‘Of every year’s production of barley, a third or fourth part is distilled into a spirit called whisky, of which the natives are immoderately fond.’ Thus wrote John Knox, the man who talked The British Society for Promoting the Fisheries into building the port of Tobermory in 1788. The bay of Tobar Mhoire, or Mary’s Well, faces the mainland across the Sound of Mull and affords one of the best natural harbours in the Hebrides.Tobermory was a model village built from scratch like Bowmore on Islay 20 years before, and like Bowmore, a distillery was soon to follow. The Society was approached by John Sinclair, a local merchant, in 1797, who rather coyly omitted to mention the word ‘distillery’ in his submission. The Society quickly saw what he was up to and refused, suggesting he might build a brewery instead. In his book Scotch and Water Neil Wilson maintains that permission was granted the following year, though even the distillery’s current owner, Burn Stewart, admits to being sceptical – not that that stopped it celebrating Tobermory’s bicentenary last year. Either way, the distillery was officially established in 1823, by which time Sinclair had retired a wealthy man. It was built in the most sheltered corner of the bay known as Ledaig – pronounced ‘lay-check’, and meaning ‘safe haven’ in Gaelic – and has remained there ever since. For Tobermory’s manager Alan MacConnochie, whose route here ran from the bottling line at White Horse via Plymouth Gin and Laphroaig, ‘Sinclair was a bit of rogue, but a rogue in the right way.’ In his first year of operation he produced 292 gallons of spirit, which was precious little considering the stills had to hold half that amount by law. Clearly whisky was of less interest than kelp, which he exported off the island in his own fleet of ships to the soap and glass factories of Glasgow and Liverpool. For reasons that remain unclear, the distillery did not survive Sinclair’s passing and closed in 1837 for the first of many long siestas. As MacConnochie says, ‘Tobermory may have suffered from being run by enthusiastic amateurs’ – something that was to plague the distillery time and again.In the mid-nineteenth century there would have been enough peat and barley on the island to make whisky, and with a population approaching its peak of 10,600, there would have been a sizeable local market. It was not until 1878, however, that the distillery was cranked back into life, and after a string of owners passed to Distillers Company Ltd in 1916. Then came recession. To quote from Brian Townsend’s fascinating book Scotch Missed, ‘For one brief point in the early 1930s there were only eight functioning distilleries left in Scotland.’ And being small and hopelessly remote, Tobermory was not among them, having shut down in June 1930. With its stills and wash-backs ripped out, the distillery lay empty and forlorn, the likelihood of ever producing again fading with each passing year. It was therefore an astonishing act of resuscitation when a consortium, backed by some well-known figures in the trade, breathed life into Tobermory in 1972. To re-open a distillery that had slept for 40 years was certainly reckless, but to do so on the verge of a recession with the whisky loch filling up, was possibly insane. Perhaps the consortium momentarily lost its head, seduced by the distillery’s dreamy setting cradled beneath a high cliff, across the water from the blues, pinks and yellows of Scotland’s most photographed waterfront. Undoubtedly there was magic in the name ‘Tobermory’, and possibly there was the size of the development grant as well. But the timing was all wrong and the distillery was back with the receivers four years later. Then, like a dying flame, it occasionally flickered into life until it was bought by Burn Stewart in 1993.‘It was a really lovely location for a distillery, there was such potential,’ says Ian MacMillan, the company’s distilleries manager, recalling his thoughts at the time. ‘But it was sad, it had been very much neglected.’ By all accounts Tobermory was in a pretty shocking state. The first priority was to clear out the cheese. A space in the distillery had been rented to a local dairy farmer for maturing his Isle of Mull cheddar, and with wild spores buzzing about there was a hygiene disaster waiting to happen. On the other hand the new owners did inherit some fine equipment. Apart from the wash-backs in Oregon pine, there are a twin pair of gleaming stills made by Grants of Dufftown in 1972. ‘Their unique shape was compelling,’ recalls Billy Walker, Burn Stewart’s managing director. All becomes clear on visiting Tobermory itself. Each of the two spirit stills has a capacity of 16,000 litres – a good size by any account. Within this small distillery, they appear massive, dominating the still room with their tall necks craning right up to the roof. Instead of the neck neatly bending to form a straight lyne arm to the condenser, those at Tobermory display a serious kink, as if somehow bent while being installed. Whether by accident or design, the effect is a noticeably heavy reflux such that all but the purest vapour condenses back into the still. Having run the foreshots for about 20 minutes, the stillman switches to the middle cut. ‘The spirit we get is extremely clean,’ claims MacConnochie, ‘without that oily character you find in many Islay whiskies.’ The two wash stills are slightly bigger and are connected to their own spirit still to produce a totally separate distillate. This gives Burn Stewart the ability to produce its two very distinct styles of whisky side by side. First there is Ledaig, a rich, peaty malt with a sweet, peppery flavour. ‘We use a heavily peated barley from the east coast with a phenolic content of 35 parts per million,’ explains MacConnochie, adding that ‘it’s among the highest you can get.’ By the end of distillation the phenols are down to around 15 parts per million, putting it in the same league as the heavier Islay malts like Caol Ila. At present you have to cross the water to France to pick up a bottle, but plans are afoot to launch Ledaig in the States and then in the UK. So far Burn Stewart has put a vintage on the label as in 1974 – one of the few years of production that decade. Over time, once the company has built up sufficient maturing stocks, a ten-year-old will probably follow.Tobermory itself is a very different beast. Previous owners succeeded in confusing their customers by selling a blended Tobermory alongside a vatted malt of the same name. The malt was vatted by necessity, because there were just too many holes in its repertoire. Tobermory finally appeared as a fully fledged single malt four years ago. Made from unpeated barley, its lighter, restorative style is more akin to Islay’s Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich, but without the oiliness. It has an understated Island character and is slightly smokey with the faint taste of peat that comes from the water from the distillery’s own private supply. The rain collects in a large peat bog up in the hills four miles from Tobermory, and then filters into a little stream picking up trace mineral elements from the basalt in the rock, especially iron. It gathers behind a dam from where it is piped direct to the distillery. From the same source comes the Ledaig burn that flows past the distillery into the bay. Its colour varies from being as dark and brackish as builder’s tea to a lighter brown tinged with red, though apparently the level of peat in the water remains fairly constant. The only casks at the distillery are kept in the courtyard, purely for display. While visitors to Islay will always be shown the filled casks of maturing Bowmore or Laphroaig and hear about the angels’ share, a guided tour of Tobermory ends abruptly with distillation. There is now no facility to warehouse whisky on Mull, thanks to a previous owner selling the building for flats. As a result Tobermory and Ledaig are unceremoniously tankered off the island like so much diesel. It may lack romance, but after half a day’s drive to Burn Stewart’s other distillery at Deanston in Perthshire, the whisky is laid to rest in quite the most perfect vaulted cellars this side of Burgundy. The building was one of those dark satanic mills built in 1785 by Richard Arkwright. The walls are a metre thick and from summer through to winter the temperature hardly varies. Both Tobermory and Ledaig are aged in refilled whisky casks, fresh bourbon barrels and the occasional butt of sherry – ‘a choice of wood that gives our blender enormous scope, says MacMillan. So is this unique island distillery that has suffered so much abuse and neglect, at last in safe hands? ‘I believe Tobermory is finally experiencing the kind of stewardship it deserves,’ declares Billy Walker, exuding a cautious sense of optimism. Ledaig has just won a silver medal at The International Spirit Challenge, and after years of patiently waiting, Tobermory is at last being launched as a 10-Year-Old – first in the States, and then in Britain. When it was taken over by Burn Stewart, the distillery had only made whisky for eight out of the previous 63 years. Before then, being a solitary distillery marooned on the Isle of Mull was a severe handicap. What sweet irony that this should become Tobermory’s great strength.
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