"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 21 February 2011

Tobermory Distillery, Isle of Mull

From Oban, Barnard travelled by steamer up the Sound of Mull to Tobermory, enjoying fine weather and beautiful scenery that he claims no guide book has ever done justice to.  That said, some of his descriptions seem a little strange and don’t match the detail on the old maps and when I dug further I realised where they have come from.  I mentioned in my post on Loch Finlaggan on Islay that Barnard likely carried a copy of Anderson’s Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and here Barnard seems to quote or paraphrase from it quite liberally, and as before sometimes embellishing the story, often misleadingly.

He records a journey of two hours after passing the ruins of Aros Castle on the east coast of Mull but this is more likely the total journey time from Oban, the ruin standing two thirds along the way to Tobermory.  He paraphrases here that Mull is “uneven and mountainous, but nevertheless the soil is deep and fertile, therefore better adapted for pasturage than Skye, to which island it bears great resemblance.”  The original is similar except for the ending “to which island it otherwise bears a strong resemblance”, neither of which I find particularly convincing having driven extensively on both.  Perhaps I need to see more of them from the sea?

Flood basalt layers create the terraced summit of Bearraich on the west coast of Mull
Of the mountains he again paraphrases “the mountains rise in terraces, by stages from the shore, the highest being Benmore, which we saw from the boat; the next, Benychat, 2,294 feet above sea level”.  I was unsure which mountain was referred to as Benychat as the name is not similar to any other there, and the way he records them as “the highest…the next” makes it sound like it is the next highest on Mull.  However, the original line in Anderson stated “Ben More, the highest mountain, being 3097 feet; and the next to it, Benychat, 2294 feet by barometrical measurement” which therefore could be an anglicised name for the summit along the ridge beside Ben More which is called A’ Chioch (sounding like Y Chat perhaps?).  Barnard omits to mention that these heights were taken by barometrical measurement many years earlier and Ben More, the only Munro (Scottish Mountains over 3,000 feet) on Mull, was resurveyed to 3,169 feet no later than 1860 and A’ Chioch is actually 2,844 feet so I’m still unsure about that one!  The second highest on Mull is Dun da Ghaoithe at 2,513 feet.

He next mentions the area called Drumfin to the left of Tobermory, better known as “St Mary’s Lake”, again taken from Anderson, although he changes the words ‘mansion-house’ here to “Drumfin Castle”.   The house had in fact been renamed to Aros House around the 1840s (since demolished in the 1960s).  Barnard’s copy of Anderson’s Guide appears to be either an old edition (first published in 1834, three years before he was born) or is a more recent edition that has not been updated (link above is to 1850 edition).  Either way we now need to take care with some of his descriptions of scenery and location, much of which he likely never visited.

Tobermory with distillery on left
Barnard also places St Mary’s Well in close proximity to Drumfin, perhaps assuming it’s position from the name of the lake, yet it was in fact on the slopes above Tobermory on the other side of the bay.  Tobermory is the modern name for Tobar Mhoire which means Well of Mary in English, named after the well which Martin Martin had recorded around 1700 as having medicinal water.  A medieval chapel had been built beside it but that has now gone; the well itself is now overgrown and lost, replaced with a modern drinking fountain of the same name.

Western Isles Hotel, Tobermory
On arrival in Tobermory Barnard’s party visited the distillery straight away, having first left their luggage with a porter from the Western Isles Hotel where they stayed perhaps for just one night.  He would have been glad of the porter as the hotel stands on a rocky cliff above the north end of town.  It was purpose built just three years earlier in 1882 and has now just recently been renovated by new owners to bring it back to its former glory.  Tobermory is built on the harbour front and on the terraced slopes behind and in the 1960s the front of the harbour buildings were first painted in a stunning range of bright colours that make the harbour one of the most photographed views in Scotland.

Tobermory harbour
They first visited the distillery water supply, the Tobermory River, which flows from the Mishnish Lochs into the bay just beside the distillery, dropping over numerous falls along the way.  The suffix nish appears all over Mull, its English meaning is from the old Norse word ness that is also common in Scotland, meaning a point or headland.  Around Mull we find names like Mishnish, Treshnish and Fishnish.

Ledaig end of harbour with Calve island on left
The distillery stands at the south end of the harbour, an area of town known as Ledaig which is Gaelic for safe haven, the harbour here being sheltered by the low lying Calve Island.  Barnard records the distillery as being established in 1823 but this was the date they were licensed, the established date being as far back as 1798 when it converted from a brewery and was first known as Ledaig Distillery.  When he visited it had only been reopened from around 1878 having closed in 1837 for reasons now lost.  Maps from around the 1860s record the buildings as a saw mill.
Distillery sign, painted by Mashman and artist Stewart O'Donnell
The barley was brought in from Ross and Inverness-shires, as it is today, but malted on site back then in the usual manner.  The kiln, once heated by peat dug nearby, is now gone.  Tobermory whisky is very lightly peated now at 2-3ppm but the barley for Ledaig whisky, at 37ppm, is brought in from Port Ellen maltings on Islay.  The mashing and fermenting process was all very standard, Barnard giving the precise sizes of four washbacks all around 7,400 gallons (33,600 litres).  Today there are still four backs, although around 60 years old, made from Oregon pine and holding around 27,000 litres each.

Still House from town approach road
The still house had two old pot stills, a fire heated wash still at 2,530 gallons (11,500 litres) and a steam heated spirit still at 1,710 g (7,770), and both condensed in an outside worm tub fed direct from the river.  There are now four tall stills dating from 1972, two wash at 18,000 litres and two spirit at 15,000 litres, all steam heated and, quite literally, with an interesting twist.  The short Lyne Arms continue to rise slightly from the neck of the still and then go through a 90 degree turn before reaching the condensers which are high up on a platform. This helps provide a lighter spirit, those heavier oils falling back from the challenges set before them.  Tobermory is a ‘no photos inside’ distillery but there are some pictures of these unique stills available on the web.

Two water wheels once stood behind the distillery and were powered by the river, one for grinding and mashing and one to power the switchers and rummagers.  These are now gone and the warehouses on the opposite side of the river have been converted into flats.  The whisky produced here is now matured at Deanston in Doune, the distillery there also owned by Burn Stewart Distillers (as well as Bunnahabhain on Islay) although a small warehouse behind the distillery is still used.  Producing 62,000 gallons (282,000 litres) of “pure Highland Malt called “Mull Whisky” in 1885, the distillery now has a capacity of 1m litres p.a.

Warehouses opposite distillery now converted to flats
Although established over 200 years ago, the distillery has been closed for almost half its life.  Following that earlier 40 year gap in the 1800s the distillery continued on until 1916 when it was acquired by DCL.  It lasted through the troublesome 1920s but closed again from 1930 to 1972.  The stills and much of the equipment were stripped out during this closure and the new stills were commissioned in 1972 when it reopened as Ledaig Distillery for just 3 years.  After some further opening and closing during the equally troublesome 1980s it was eventually bought by Burn Stewart in 1993 and has gone from strength to strength since then.

At the end of last year all the single malts in the Burn Stewart range were changed to un-chillfiltered and are now bottled at 46.3%, a welcome change for us whisky enthusiasts.  I mentioned the improvement in the new version of the Bunnahabhain 12yo at Whisky Fringe last summer and I now need to hunt down the new version of that peaty Ledaig to see how it has changed.  The oldest whisky in the warehouse is 38yo from that 1972 restart, so perhaps a 40yo bottling to look forward to next year.