The Isle of Mull, just north of Islay and Jura, is the Inner Hebrides’ second-largest island and home to some 3,000 people, many of whom live in the island’s waterfront capital, Tobermory. The name ‘Tobermory’ means ‘Mary’s Well’ in Gaelic, so it’s fitting the town being home to the island’s only distillery.
Set on the water’s edge in the picturesque Tobermory harbour, a stone’s throw from the colourful Tobermory Main Street, the distillery’s history is a long and chequered one, filled with closures, financial woes, and more closures, but all the while held together by the constant thread of a commitment to producing great whisky.
The story starts way back in 1797, when local kelp merchant John Sinclair lodged an application to lease some 57 acres in part of the island known as Lediag (Gaelic for ‘safe haven’) on which to construct new housing and a distillery. The application was rejected, due to the 1795-1797 ban on distilling in Britain (thanks to the War of the First Coalition with France, grain stores were being reserved) though Sinclair was at least given the go-ahead to open a brewery. Plans were resubmitted in 1798 and Ledaig Distillery was good to go, the distillery becoming officially licensed some 25 years later, in 1823.
It was a short run for Ledaig Distillery though, with doors closing for the first time in 1837, not to open again for some 40 years. After being passed around like a hot potato for a few decades, Ledaig ended up as part of DCL in 1916, who kept it running through to 1930 by which time the Great Depression and the effects of prohibition in the USA took its toll, leading to the distillery’s second 40 year closure.
The Ledaig Distillery was back again in 1971, this time under the stewardship of a consortium consisting of a Liverpool shipping company, brandy and sherry makers Pedro Domecq, and ‘Panamanian interests’. It was the 70s after all… The new owners sunk a tonne of cash into the site, splurging on a much-needed renovation complete with the modernisation of equipment, increasing capacity at the same time. Seems their pockets weren’t quite deep enough though, the huge capital expenditure not able to be supported by sales, thanks to the economic troubles of the mid 70s. It wasn’t long until the distillery went bankrupt and closed its doors once again in 1975.
Thankfully this closure didn’t last another 40 years, and knowing a good buy when they saw it, Kirkleavington Property Co. purchased and reopened the distillery in 1979. It was at this time the name was changed from Ledaig to Tobermory, with the establishment of Tobermory Distillers Ltd. It’s one thing to buy and rebrand a distillery, another thing to operate one, and in the next cruel twist of fate the locks were back on the doors again in 1982, the future of the site as a distillery looking rather bleak as the builders moved in to start the conversion of the site to holiday accommodation and cheese storage facilities. As much as we love holidays and cheese, this is not what we would have considered the ideal outcome!
Burn Stewart came to the rescue in 1993, snapping up both the distillery and the warehouse full of whisky for £800,000, and they themselves were in turn bought out by South African group Distell in 2013, who’ve continued to invest in the site, leading to yet another major refurbishment that kicked off in March 2017. This led to production stopping for another two years, though the visitor centre was kept open throughout the closure, the increasing numbers of travellers to Mull still able to take a tour through the distillery.
The refurbishment was primarily focused on ‘improving the visitor experience’ and keeping up with the increasing demands of whisky tourism, so kudos for the Tobermory team for keeping the visitor centre open during this time, but there was a very serious side to the renovation too – the equipment getting a good makeover as well. The stills were replaced, including a new pot still that’s been given the name ‘Big Mary’, and a 60-litre “development” still called ‘Wee Mary’, which has already been put to work making Tobermory’s first-ever gin.
Excitement on the island is beginning to mount, with whisky production set to recommence this month, and of course the release of the long-awaited 12 Year Old Single Malt, Tobermory’s first new flagship expression in over seven years and our exclusive whisky of the month this August! Great timing!
About Tobermory 12 Year Old:
Tobermory Distillery produces both unpeated and peated whisky, each sold under their own banner, with the unpeated whisky simply called Tobermory, and the heavily peated whisky harking back to the old days, under the distillery’s old name of Ledaig. Both whiskies are produced on the same equipment, the only difference being the peated malt used for Ledaig.
Aside from the island’s strong climatic influence on the whisky, Tobermory’s unique style comes about partially from their relatively short fermentation time, but more so its unusual still design, featuring both boil bulbs and steeply inclined lyne arms that feature an S-shaped kink, giving a heavy reflux as they snake their way to the condenser. The result of this is a more refined spirit than you would get from a more conventional lyne arm.
What better way to celebrate a major distillery refurbishment and reopening than with a new whisky, and so Tobermory did just that, starting with the launch of their brand-new flagship 12 Year Old. Set the lofty task of improving on the legendary, but sadly discontinued Tobermory 10 Year Old, legendary whisky maker and motorsport fan Dr Kirstie McCallum went to work knowing full well what a massive responsibility was on her shoulders – to better a whisky with the legendary status of the Tobermory 10.
She emerged from the distillery triumphant, the all-new 12 Year Old a classic Tobermory as we know and love, but better. With layer upon layer of fresh citrus, apple and stone fruit over creamy toffee, floral honey and that iconic subtle, salty edge, it’s matured in first-fill American oak ex-Bourbon casks, non-chill filtered, natural colour and bottled at 46.3% ABV.
Tobermory’s first new flagship expression in over seven years is available to Members of The Whisky Club as a one-off release in Australia this August.