The tiny distillery on the edge of the town is one of the oldest in Scotland, dating from 1795. It has had a chequered history and has closed down and reopened several times. It closed down during the First World War when many of the men were off fighting. It also closed during the period of American Prohibition as whisky manufacturers were unable to export to America. It eventually reopened in 1970 for a few years before closing again. The distillery warehouses were sold off and converted into flats. In 1993, it was bought by Burns Stewart Distillers, who also own Deanston distillery in Perthshire, Bunnahabhain on the Isle of Islay. The distillery is again open and producing whisky.
It is now a popular tourist attraction in Tobermory with its small visitor centre and shop. It also runs tours throughout the year.
It is very much a craft product produced by traditional means. It can make up to 1 million litres of whisky a year, compared with the 14 million litres produced by that very well known brand, Glenfiddich. It produces two very different whiskies. Tobermory is unpeated and is a very approachable whisky with almost a taste of orange. Ledgaig is a typical peated and much more ‘in your face’ with a strong oily peated flavour, almost like TCP. People either love or hate it. There is a 50/50 split between them with Tobermoray produced in the summer months and Ledaig in the winter.
Three things are needed to make whisky – barley, water and yeast. The distillery has its own loch on the hillside above the town and needs 1.2 million litres of water a day to function. Shortage of water can cause a temporary shut down.
The barley is grown on the east coast near Fife and the distillery uses Concerto barley which splits easily and has a high sugar content. The barley used in Tobermoray malt whisky is malted near Berwick on Tweed. The barley for Ledaig is malted on Iona where peat is used to dry the barley after it has started to germinate. This gives it the lovely peaty aroma and taste.
The malted barley is delivered to the distillery and the barley is taken to the Mill Room where it is fed into the large Mill Machine. Huge rollers crack open the barley husks, forming ‘grist’. The grist is taken upstairs by a conveyor to the Mash House and into the Mash Tuns. here it is mixed with water heated to 60˚ to extract the sugars. After two hours the liquid, known as the ‘Worts’ is run off. More water is added and heated to 70˚ to extract more sugars. The Worts is run off and added to the first extraction. More water is added and heated to 90˚ to extract all the rest of the sugars. This is run off and stored to be used as the first 60˚ extraction with a new lot of grists. The discarded grists are sold to a local farmer for cattle food.
The Worts has to be cooled to 18˚ before being taken to the Washbacks. These are massive wooden tanks made from Oregon pine and can hold 26,000 litres of Worts. 100kg of brewers yeast is added. The strain of yeast is crucial and Tobermory use one sourced from Menstrie in Stirlingshire. This starts to ferment the sugars into alcohol producing carbon dioxide which bubbles up to the surface. When all the sugar has been fermented, the yeast dies and drops to the bottom of the tank. This has to be discarded. Fermentation can take 50-90 hours depending on the ambient temperature. The wash liquid is about 6-7% alcohol.
The wash liquid is taken to the still room which has four large copper stills. Copper is a good conductor of heat, is non-corrosive and has anti-bacterial properties. The shape of the still is crucial to the character of the whisky. The stills at Tobermory have very tall extended necks.
The wash liquid is distilled twice. The end stills called the wash stills are used for the first distillation. The middle stills or low wine stills are used for the second distillation.
The wash liquid is added to the outer stills and heated. Alcohol evaporates and is collected in a cold water condenser and forms what is called ‘Low Wine’. This is about 25% alcohol. This then goes into the inner stills and is again heated. As the alcohol evaporates it is collected in three separate batches. Only the middle distillate is used to make whisky.
The ‘Foreshot’ is the first to come off in the first 20 minutes and is about 90% alcohol. This is run back into the Low Wine tank. The middle distillate or ‘Heart of the Run’ is collected over 8hours and is about 60-78% alcohol.
The final distillate collected over the last eight hours is called the ‘Feints’ and this is also returned to the Low Wine Tank to be distilled with the next batch of Low Wine.
26,000 litres of Low Wine produces about 2000 litres of spirit.
The spirit is taken to Deanstone Distillery where it is poured into barrels. These are then transferred to Bunnahabhain for long term storage. The whisky needs to mature in the barrels for at least ten years before being taken to the head quarters of Burns Stewart Distillers in East Kilbride for bottling.
Tobermory Distillery has a few casks in a store room off the courtyard, mainly to show visitors. The whisky is matured in either sherry or bourbon barrels and picks up colour and flavour from the barrels. It loses about 2% of alcohol a year through evaporation and has to have a minimum alcohol content of 46.3% to be sold as Whisky.
The Visitor Centre and shop are open 10-5 during the week and 10-4 at weekends. They run several tours each day which last about 45 minutes. In high season booking is recommended as only limited number of people can go round the distillery at a time. Photography is not allowed around the site. The price of the tour depends on whether you wish to sample just Tobermory single malt whisky or both Tobermory and Ledaig. This includes a £5 voucher redeemable against a bottle of malt whisky in the shop. It is worth paying the extra to taste both as they are very different.
The post code is PA75 6NR and the grid reference is NM 504551. There are quite a few steep and narrow steps on the tour, so it is unsuitable for anyone with limited mobilty.