The attractive village of Tobermory stretches around the north-west side of Tobermory Bay. The main village car park lies at the south end of the harbour-level Main Street, close to where the Tobermory River flows into the harbour. This end of the village is dominated by the collection of white-harled and stone buildings that together form Tobermory Distillery.
An old settlement at this end of what, from 1786, was developed into the planned fishing village of Tobermory, was called Ledaig (or Safe Harbour). What was originally known as Ledaig Distillery was built here in 1798 by John Sinclair. Many of Scotland's distilleries have histories punctuated by periods of closure when markets were difficult or changes of ownership were followed by rationalisation, but Ledaig or Tobermory Distillery has had a more than usually interrupted story.
It first closed its doors as early as 1837, before reopening under the ownership of John Hopkins & Company in 1873. This company became part of Distillers Company Limited in 1916, and production at the distillery ceased for a second time in 1930: reflecting a world-wide drop in demand for scotch whisky after a decade of prohibition in the United States. Production restarted under the auspices of the Ledaig Distillery Ltd. in 1972, but only continued until the company went out of business in 1975. In 1979 the distillery was purchased by the Kirkleavington Property Company and distilling started again, but only until 1985. Another restart of production in 1989 was followed by the distillery's acquisition by its current owners, Burn Stewart, in 1993.
Given this very patchy story, it is difficult to know what to expect when visiting Tobermory Distillery today. What you find, a little surprisingly, is a superb little craft distillery. It is built around a courtyard whose entrance is partially concealed from the harbour by white-painted buildings including the Visitor Centre, which is where your tour will start. It is worth noting that the main working areas at Tobermory Distillery reflect the age of some of the buildings they are housed in. This adds to the interest and charm of a visit, but also makes disabled access extremely difficult.
Perhaps the distillery's most unusual feature is its mash tun. This has a body built of red-painted ironwork, bolted together in a way that makes it look as if it is a left-over from the construction of the Forth Rail Bridge. The still room, which is separated by a large arched window from the road, Eas Brae, leading down to Tobermory's harbour, has a cathedral-like sense of height. This is needed to accommodate the single line of four tall stills, each accompanied by a high level condenser set among the roof supports of the still room. The stills carry plates showing they were constructed in Dufftown in 1972. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our section showing the stages in the process.
When combined with the facilities and shop in the Visitor Centre, a visit to Tobermory Distillery gives a fascinating insight into the distiller's art as practiced (intermittently, at least) in a historic setting. It also provides an interesting contrast with Mull's other visitor attractions.
Signs on the wall of the room containing the distillery's four washbacks advertise the three whiskies now produced here. Today the distillery is best known for its 10-year-old Tobermory single malt, produced using unpeated malt from north-east Scotland. The slight peatiness in the finished product comes entirely from the locally-sourced water used in the process. The second of the distillery's whiskies evokes its traditional name of Ledaig Distillery which, at different points in its life, was known for its Ledaig single malt whisky.
This is still sometimes available dating back to earlier periods of the distillery's production. But in recent years, Ledaig has again been produced at Tobermory, using peated barley from the Port Ellen maltings on Islay. The third sign on the wall of the washback room refers to Iona single malt scotch whisky. This is the most recent of the whiskies produced at Tobermory (and the least well known) and, initially at least, was only available as a young bottling sold at the distillery itself.
Today, it is a relative rarity to find a distillery with its own maltings, so it is no surprise that those here when Alfred Barnard visited the distillery in 1885 are no longer in operation. More unusually, because the nearby bonded warehouses (which in 1885 contained "2,000 casks of whisky") were sold off for development as flats during one of the distillery's periods of closure, maturation also does not take place on site.
Instead, Tobermory Distillery's output is taken to Burn Stewart's mainland distillery at Deanston, near Doune, for maturation. This does mean that you don't get to peer into a darkened warehouse on the tour, or smell the escaping "angel's share" of the spirit, but the absence of the warehouses really doesn't detract from what remains a fascinating distillery visit.