It’s worth highlighting before reading this Tobermory outline that we also have a specific Ledaig article within the Scottish distillery files here at Abbey Whisky. For those unaware, Ledaig is the heavily peated spirit that was produced at Tobermory for around 6 months of the year. The key word here being is was, as from the 31st March 2017 the distillery ceased production for a 2-year refurbishment. Tours will still take place – it’s a popular attraction on the Isle of Mull – but as for the stills, washback and cask filling this will stop until early 2019.
That is if the distillery does come back online. There has been some speculation about its future as a producer and maybe switching to visitor attraction along the lines of Dallas Dhu distillery on Speyside. An annual capacity of 1 million litres at full production is not a massive hole in the Distell Group’s itinerary and Tobermory has never approached this maximum limit. It’s an interesting dynamic when you reconsider that just 50% of this will be the unpeated Tobermory spirit and the Distell Group is already investing in its other distilleries in the form of Bunnahabhain and Deanston, which will offer spare capacity. Only time will tell if Tobermory with its confined site and remoteness has an alternate future ahead of it.
The distillery is one of Scotland’s oldest harking back to 1798 if not before. Again, we can descend into tales of illicit distilling in this remote part of Scotland far from the influence of the government. Originally founded as Ledaig distillery - meaning safe haven in Gaelic - and is suggestive that its location alongside the bay of Tobermory was warmly appreciated. The distillery has enjoyed exclusivity as the only legal distilling enterprise on the Isle of Mull, but it has also been blighted by periods of closure and inept owners.
In 1837 the distillery closed its doors and was not revived again until 1878 when the demand for whisky was propelled by a change in consumer tastes and the ability to transport whisky further afield to new markets. Taking a firmer interest in Tobermory, John Hopkins & Company acquired the distillery in 1890 before they themselves were purchased by the increasingly recognisable presence of the Distillers Company Limited in 1916. This was a period of consolidation across the industry with owners of distilleries numbering 1 or a handful of concerns being bought out. These newly formed companies wielded more power and influence and their stable of distilleries provided content for their ranges of blended whisky.
By 1930 demand had fallen once again due to the economic conditions of the time with the Great Depression and Prohibition hitting Scottish distilleries hard. Many closed during these difficult times including Tobermory, which thankfully was revived but not until 1972. Oddly the firm responsible were a shipping company based in Liverpool who initially had to finance the cost of resurrecting a depleted site. By 1979 new owners were in place and had ambitions over the potential of the site rather than the distillery itself. This estate agent firm does maintain production until 1982, but after this point some external buildings are converted into flats and the remaining units are used by a local cheese company for storage.
This could have easily been the end for Tobermory as the early 80’s put an end to several distilleries across Scotland once again. The arrival of Burn Stewart Distillers in 1989 – the group that Distell would purchase in 2013 – for a fee of £600k saves the future of the site and considerable investment is undertaken to maintain a more reliable water source for production. The arrival of Distell has since brought about more capital investment and the renovation of distilleries within the group, which in the case of Tobermory and Bunnahabhain was urgently required.
Generally, there isn’t much love for Tobermory and its whisky, whilst Ledaig does enjoy an increasing presence amongst peat lovers for its affordability and vibrancy at younger ages. The quality of the Tobermory spirit has improved in recent years but for a while it was fairly mundane stuff generally. Its reputation was more along the lines of whisky from blends and single malt bottlings outside of the independent sector were difficult to source. Thankfully, the work of Burns Stewart and its Master Blender of the time – Ian Macmillan – did much to improve the quality of the new make spirit and ultimately the whisky itself. Bottling at a higher stress, utilising its natural colour and avoiding chill filtration meant that the distilleries within the group were some of the first to adopt these core principles that are so commonplace today.
A revitalisation of the Tobermory single malt range including a 42-year-old expression and various cask finishes have brought a new life and promise to this remote distillery that continues to attract new appreciation.