The sign on the distillery’s gift shop door read, “Be back in 20 minutes,” and the heavy rain continued to pour off my hood and erase the multi-colored town of Tobermory.
I grimaced. But the distillery had been here, tucked in the south side of Tobermory bay, since 1798; Occam’s Razor suggested it wouldn’t be going anywhere.
I splashed back to my car and pondered the drams I would taste. I was enduring distillery withdrawal after the week-long bender on Islay where every day involved visiting at least one distillery. Tobermory would likely be my last distillery on this trip to Scotland. Sad face.
My history with Tobermory’s whisky doesn’t go back far. I remember tasting the Tobermory 15 as part of a whisky platter at the Scotch Whisky Experience when I was there with my family in 2009. I remember being impressed. This memory of a dram I shared with five other people was enough to ensure I made a stop at the distillery whenever I happened to visit Mull. Then, through the downpour, I made out a group of bedraggled visitors slogging through the rain to the gift shop. That stop was about to start.
I can move with impressive quickness when whisky is at stake, so it wasn’t long before I was inside shaking hands with Graham Brown, Tobermory’s distillery manager. Graham was born and bred on Mull and, after only four and a half years in the industry, took over the distillery when his father retired. For as large a business as Scotch whisky is (£2.8bn in 2010 exports), many of the distilleries feel like small-town family businesses, like hardware stores or farms. Graham’s wife also works at the distillery and they live on the premises. See what I mean? Graham’s a genial guy and he seems genuinely happy to show me around his “farm.”
Tobermory Distillery is owned by the same parent company as Bunnahabhain, and like Bunnahabhain they’re producing whisky by hand largely without the aid of computer systems. We climb some steps and wind our way among equipment, past a malt mill, to a big, copper-crowned mash tun. I’m not sure about the Feng Shui, but then again there isn’t much room along Tobermory Bay for an expansive distillery.
Upstairs we get a look at their four washbacks in action. The dark insides of the giant, wooden barrels are bubbling as yeasts chow on the sugars in the wort and pay for the meal with alcohol. When we enter the stillhouse, I’m shocked to see such tremendous stills. With only four washbacks, I anticipated smallish stills, but these puppies are enormous. The swan necks have distinctive S-shapes that I haven’t seen in my previous 30 distillery visits. Graham points out that the stills create a lot of reflux, which exposes the alcohol vapors to more copper contact and results in a lighter-bodied spirit.
Back out in the rain, Graham leads me to Tobermory’s warehouse. It’s a generous term for a room that’s little larger than a two-car garage. The majority of Tobermory’s whisky is aged in the warehouses of Deanston Distillery near Doune in Perthshire, though some barrels come back to Tobermory for aging in their final years. Graham points out that much of their production goes into their Scottish Leader blend. We shut the gate to the warehouse and walk through the rain back to the visitor’s center. I can’t complain – rain is whisky.
Graham pours me a taste of the Tobermory 10. Eighteen months ago they stopped chill-filtering their whiskies and it tastes like a brilliant decision. The 10 Year is soft and sweet with delicate spice and fruit notes. Though we are on an island, the Tobermory brand contains all unpeated whiskies. While light in texture, the 10 Year has a nice finish and a mouthfeel with some guts.
The next level up is Tobermory 15, and this one spends time in Sherry casks back here at the distillery. The whisky is a gorgeous orange syrup color with figs, marmalade, and polished wood on the nose. Graham calls this one “Christmas in a bottle” (are you done Christmas shopping yet?) and he’s right: it’s cakey with dried fruits and spices like cloves and cinnamon on the palate. There’s substantial body with the 15 Year and a lingering finish that might have a touch of salt in it.
My chill is wearing off when Graham pulls out a bottle of Tobermory 32. That’s old. The whisky is the color of Coca-Cola and actually has a similar flavor note along with a root beer essence. It’s a deep, complex whisky that delivers new flavors with each second of enjoyment. There’s syrupy canned strawberries and coffee and something meaty like smoked ham. There’s lots of valid talk about young whisky being just as good as old whisky, but this stunning malt reminds me to respect my elders.
Graham finishes with a pour of their Ledaig 10 (pronounced LAY-chick). This is Tobermory’s peated offering and also the original name of the distillery. They get their peated malt from Port Ellen over on Islay, and much of their Ledaig newmake is sold to blenders. The Ledaig is bright gold with a bouquet of aromas ranging from brine and smoke to candle wax and mint chocolate. It’s deliciously creamy and sweet with a definite wing of smoke bringing in pepper and vanilla. This is excellent stuff, and you can even find it here in the States.
Tobermory is a small distillery making a big splash. The introduction of non-chillfiltration and the impending expansion of the product line to include Ledaig 15 and distillery bottlings has ratcheted up their profile. Their whiskies are excellent examples of what a team of eight people can accomplish with some elbow grease and a desire to follow the old ways of whisky making. As I walked along the streets of Tobermory, I pondered the drams I had tasted. Good things come to those who wait.
Disclosure: I arranged the meeting at Tobermory Distillery. The tour and drams were complimentary courtesy of Graham and his staff. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.