It’s good to be back in Tobermory again. As I take an early morning stroll down the main street with the brightly painted houses on one side and the harbour with its row of fishing boats, the place is coming alive.
This morning I am off to the Tobermory Distillery, one of the oldest in Scotland and the producers of two of the best Malts I have had the pleasure of getting acquainted with! The distillery dates back to the 1700s and still uses the original techniques to produce ‘Uisge beatha’ or the Water of Life!
First, though, I need some breakfast and the smell coming from the Tobermory Bakery and Coffee shop is fantastic. This little deli has been around for a while now and prides itself in sourcing a huge amount of its produce from the Island.
This morning I decide to have freshly baked bread filled with Isle of Mull cheese from Sgriob-ruadh (SKI BROO AH) Cheese farm just outside Tobermory. The name means the red earth in Gaelic and the grasslands around the farm are rich and green.
Over the past few years, Mull and Iona have really started to showcase the amazing food and drink that is produced locally with the Mull & Iona Food Trail. From Shellfish to Whisky, Lamb to delicious biscuits, this amazingly green island produces some of the best artisan products anywhere. A food lovers paradise.
So with a huge mug of coffee and hot bread dripping with beautifully strong Isle of Mull cheese, I work my way through the newspaper.
On my short walk to the distillery, I seem to meet half the population of North Mull, all of who want to stop and speak and see what I have been up too since departing off to the ‘mainland’. Friendliness is a characteristic of the locals, as is their genuine and cheerful interest.
Established in 1798, this is the only distillery on Mull and one of the oldest commercial distilleries in Scotland. It is unique, not just because of its idyllic location, but because it produces two different, but equally alluring, single malts; the fruity, unpeated Tobermory and the more robust and smoky Ledaig. I have spent many an evening sampling both and sorting out the world’s problems!
The Distillery itself has an interesting history.
In 1797 John Sinclair, a local kelp merchant, applied for the lease of 57 acres of land on the area known as Ledaig to build housing and a distillery.
Distilling was, however, banned in Britain between 1795 and 1797 to conserve grain stores for the War of the First Coalition with France. As a result, his application was rejected, and he was only granted permission to build a brewery.
However, Sinclair was not a man to give up that easily. He remained true to his original plan and a year later Ledaig Distillery was established.
Over the next hundred years, the distillery made its mark on the island, creating jobs, expertise, and valuable revenue. Nevertheless, the Great Depression of the 1930s, coupled with a decade of prohibition in the USA, saw demand for whisky plummet. The distillery would cease to operate for 41 long years.
Fortunately for the Distillery, the Island and we lovers of Malt Whisky, the Ledaig Distillery (Tobermory Ltd.) reopened in June 1971 and this momentous year was marked by a limited edition release, but by the 1970s they were to bring their own economic troubles.
The 1980s saw the distillery warehouses being converted into flats and showed signs that this was the beginning of the end. However, it seemed the tenacity of its founder was in the very foundations of the distillery and it took on new life in 1993 when it was purchased by Burns Stewart Distillers. I am delighted to say that it is still going strong today.
Exactly like 1790, Tobermory whiskies owe their character to the tumbling waters that cascade down from the Mishnish lochs and bubble and surge all the way to the stills. The flavour of the water is created from the rocks, limestone and peat it travels through on its way to Tobermory.
Today I get a guided tour from Simon, a good old Island boy, rally driver and distiller, who has worked at Ledaig for years. Between wisecracks, he takes me through the amazing process of turning barley, yeast and water into a drink treasured the world over.
As I wander with Simon through the ancient stills and washbacks, which have barely changed in 200 years, I smile at the terms he uses, especially “The Angels Share”. This delightful term which comes from the maturation process of great whisky, where up to 2% of the alcohol permeates through the ancient oak barrels and is lost to “The Angels”.
When we come to the end of the tour, Simon tells us of the tradition that all guests to the distillery gets a free dram at the end and the chance to buy a bottle to take home, a perfect end to a great tour!
As I come blinking into the sunlight after the darkness of the distillery, I decided to take up Simon’s offer of a lift, as is the way with Mulleach’s, always helpful and obliging to everyone! We’re off to Dervaig, a tiny picturesque village 9 miles from Tobermory.
Join me soon on my trip to hear about the Glen of the Adders, the finest views on the West Coast and home of the Dervaig Bears!