Tobermory Distillery: a brand history22nd February, 2016 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne
Tobermory Distillery has something of a biblical air; dying and then rising from the ashes more than once in its 200-year history.
*This feature was initially published in the August 2015 issue of The Spirits Business magazine
In 1972 the abandoned distillery of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull was brought back to life. For somewhere that had not produced a drop of whisky for over 40 years and had been empty but for a brief stint as a World War II naval base, it was an extraordinary act of resuscitation. And probably one of folly, given the state of the whisky industry back then.
It was founded by John Sinclair in 1798 as the Ledaig distillery (pronounced led-chigg), Gaelic for “safe haven”, and spent much of the 19th century lying idle, until it was eventually passed to DCL (now Diageo) who closed it in 1930. It was rescued by a consortium who appear to have been seduced by the distillery’s dreamy setting across the bay from the blues, pinks and yellows of Scotland’s most photographed waterfront. There was also a hefty development grant to help pay for a new pair of stills.
The stills were critical, because even though the new venture went belly-up within five years and other owners came and went, it was enough to create a proper distillery. In 1993, having previously acquired Bunnahabhain on Islay, Burn Stewart Distillers bought Tobermory for £600,000, plus £200,000 for its threadbare stock.
The first priority was to remove all trace of Isle of Mull cheddar that had been maturing in the distillery and whose wild yeast spores were a hygiene disaster waiting to happen. Next was the issue of what style of whisky to produce. In the past, “the distillery had gone through phases of making peated and un-peated whiskies,” says brand ambassador Dr Kirstie McCallum. It was decided to make Tobermory a smoke-free 10-year-old like Bunnahabhain for half the year, and Ledaig as a peated 10-year-old for the other six months.
The malt comes from Port Ellen on Islay and has a phenolic content of 35-40 ppm in the case of Ledaig. “So, it’s around the level of some of the other Islay malts, probably slightly more than Bowmore but not as much as Ardbeg,” says McCallum, who used to work alongside master distiller, Ian Macmillan, as head blender for the company. As with Bunnahabhain and Tobermory, Ledaig is not chill-filtered, which means bottling at 46.3% abv to avoid it turning hazy which, in the UK, currently attracts an extra £1.26 in duty. “We believe it gives so much more mouth-feel and flavour,” says McCallum. “It just suits our malts better.
Being the only distillery on Mull obviously adds cachet, but for many years its malts have had a low profile compared to those from Islay. “The whole thing for me about Tobermory and its two liquids,” she continues, “is the beauty of the island and the town and the distillery itself.” Of course Burn Stewart has tried to play on the whisky’s unique provenance, but with a distilling capacity of just one million litres per year, Tobermory doesn’t have the scale of a Talisker or Lagavulin. Nor do its owners have the marketing muscle of Diageo. That said, Burn Stewart is now in a much stronger position than it was under CL World Brands, having been bought by South Africa’s Distell Group for R2.2 billion (£160 million) in 2013.
“Tobermory has certainly had its times of being mothballed and shut down, but since we’ve owned the distillery, it’s been producing consistently,” says McCallum. “Hopefully its glory days are here, or just about here.” This is being put to the test with the release of a rare expression this year. For £3,000, whisky aficionados and collectors with deep pockets can acquire one of just 500 bottles of cask-strength, 42-year-old Ledaig Dùsgadh. “It means ‘awakening’ in Gaelic,” McCallum explains. “It was some of the first spirit to come off the stills when the distillery was reopened in 1972.”
The ex-Bourbon casks were transferred from Tobermory to the dunnage warehouses of Deanston – an 18th century mill in Perthshire that was converted into a distillery in the 1960s. In 2001 the whisky was filled into ex-oloroso Sherry casks and then shipped back to Mull. “I know there are a lot of people who say you don’t get any change with where it’s matured, but for me the location does matter,” says McCallum. “Whisky maturation is all about the casks breathing in the atmosphere, so there’s got to be some influence.” She believes the years on Mull account “for that little bit of salt at the back of the tongue. It may not be the salt you put on your chips, but there’s definitely something coastal in the whisky.”
“It’s amazing that there’s a 42-year-old peated whisky that has retained so much of its smokiness,” McCallum continues. “It’s a stunning dram and blew me away when I first tasted it.” As for the price? “That’s not my remit!” she laughs. “That’s down to the commercial team.” If they have got it right and there is strong demand it will help cast a halo over Ledaig and help raise its profile. The price may not quite match Balvenie with its £26,000 50-year-old released last year, but it is still an important rite of passage for the brand.
As McCallum points out, the Ledaig 42-year-old does have a compelling story, since the year of distillation really was a life-changing moment for the distillery. A few more years without those stills and it would have most likely been bulldozed into history to be buried beneath housing, or a small supermarket. After constant use, at least since 1993, the copper finally wore out and the stills are being replaced with a new pair modelled on the exact same shape. “As part of the pack for the Dùsgadh you get a piece of the old still as a small copper plate,” says McCallum. “We’re putting aside the first couple of casks from the new stills, and whoever buys the 42-year-old will get one of the first bottles of the new 10-year-old.
Click through the following pages to see the timeline of Tobermory distillery’s brand history.