stats: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 46.3%, $55
It’s easy to become enamored with the single malts of the Scottish islands; many of them seem to have an almost magical allure. Islay, with its eight distilleries, commands most of the attention and recognition. As for Scotland’s six distilleries located on other islands, picking the most inconspicuous of the lot would be a tossup between Tobermory and Scapa (there’s actually a seventh, but Abhainn Dearg is so new that I’m not taking it into consideration).
But taking the obscurity a step further would be Ledaig (pronounced led-chig), the peated variant of Tobermory. From the first time I heard about Ledaig I became mildly obsessed with learning more about this mysterious malt. I’m grateful that my curiosity led me to see the distillery in person; my visit to the Isle of Mull was truly a highlight of the time I spent in Scotland.
I wrote about my first encounter with a bottle of Ledaig almost two years ago. That 16 year old bottling from Gordon & MacPhail, which was distilled in 1990, was far less heavily peated than I was expecting. I wrote briefly about the history of the Tobermory distillery in that post, but I have learned a great deal since then. Tasting notes for the 10 year Tobermory and 15year Tobermory can be found on the posts written during my visit to Mull. A more comprehensive overview of the distillery’s history will provide a fitting lead-up to a tasting of the current 10 year Ledaig.
The town of Tobermory was established on the northeastern coast of Mull as a fishing port in 1788 by the British Fisheries Society, in part because of its superior natural harbor. The village located on that harbor prior to 1788 was named Ledaig, which translates from Gaelic as “safe haven”.
Ten years later, in 1798, a local merchant named John Sinclair established the Ledaig distillery in the town of Tobermory. Some confusion has been caused by the fact that he was initially only given permission to build a brewery and a year later he got the okay for his planned distillery. But as far as I can tell the sight never operated as a brewery.
The Excise Act of 1823 set reasonable fees and tax rates on distillers with the goal of curbing illicit operations. That was in that year in which Ledaig was granted a license, and why we see both 1798 and 1823 on the bottles as the “established” date. The company seems to have embraced the earlier date in recent years, and only 1798 shows up on all of the newer labels.
The distillery closed in 1837 for reasons that have been lost to history. That closure would last more than 40 years, and maps from the 1860’s show that the site was being used as a saw mill. Finally, in 1878, distillation resumed there.
Seven years later, in 1885, Alfred Barnard toured the distillery, giving us a detailed record of the operation. By this time the distillery was named Tobermory, although it is unclear when the change from Ledaig took place. Barnard notes that raw barley was shipped to Mull by steamers from the mainland, and was then malted at the distillery and dried in a kiln fueled by peat from a nearby estate. He also describes the two water wheels that powered most of the distillery, as well as the boiler that produced steam to heat the mash water and drive a five horsepower engine which ran the pumps necessary to move liquids against gravity.
But the biggest surprise in Barnard’s description is that the Spirit Still was heated by steam while the Wash Still was heated by fire (he doesn’t note if the fuel was peat or coal). I believe steam heated pot stills were quite rare at the time. Glenmorangie was the first to use pot stills with internal steam coils when the distillery was rebuilt in 1888-1889, but no one else followed that lead until the late 1950’s. Scapa, which was newly built in 1885, had stills heated by steam jacketing, which was apparently quite unusual at the time. Barnard doesn’t give further detail, but I am assuming that jacketing was the method used on the Spirit Still at Tobermory.
The distillery closed again in 1930. This time it was likely the result of decreased demand after 10 years of Prohibition in the U.S. In the ensuing years the buildings were used as a power plant and then as a canteen for marines stationed at a nearby naval base during World War II.
This second closure lasted more than 40 years until the distillery re-opened under new ownership in 1972. Unfortunately the owners went bankrupt in 1975 and operations ceased again. Even though the distillery name was changed back to Ledaig during this brief period, many casks were still labeled as Tobermory but almost all of the whisky was peated to around 40 ppm.
Whisky making resumed with another new owner in 1979. This is when the distillery began to make two separate styles of whisky; peated Ledaig and unpeated Tobermory. Extra money was brought in by renting some of the buildings for cheese storage and selling off the only warehouse for development into apartments. But that wasn’t enough to keep the distillery from closing again in the early 1980’s (I’ve seen closure dates ranging from 1981 to 1985, but I came across a listing for a Ledaig distilled in 1983, so they must have made it at least that far).
Production resumed once again in 1989, but it’s not clear if that involved a change of ownership. From 1979 through 1993 the peat levels of Ledaig were very inconsistent, but overall much lower than they had been in the early 1970’s, probably around 15 ppm. I could find no information as to whether or not the traditional floor maltings were used during this period. If they had been, that practice would have ended by 1993, when the distillery was purchased by Burn Stewart.
With the latest owner came a period of stability which is still being enjoyed 20 years later. By the mid 90’s, the peat level of Ledaig had been raised to 37 ppm. Burn Stewart has owned the Deanston distillery since 1991 and used the extra warehouse space there to mature Tobermory and Ledaig casks. In 2003 the company acquired the Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay, giving them access to more underutilized warehouse capacity. In 2007 a micro-warehouse was built in the Tobermory distillery complex, allowing an aging experiment to be carried out. A batch of Ledaig was distilled and 1/3 of it was stored at each of the three distilleries. Samples from each site will be analyzed as they approach 10 years of age to determine the different influences of each site. During my tour, I was told that most of the Tobermory/Ledaig production is now aged at Bunnahabhain. This makes a great deal of sense; if it can’t be warehoused on Mull, it should at least age in a coastal location.
In 2010, Burn Stewart made the move of eliminating chill filtering and caramel coloring across the board for all of their single malts. The abv was raised to 46.3% at the same time. I know this provided a huge improvement for Bunnahabhain, and I suspect that it did for Tobermory and Ledaig as well.
Also of interesting note is that when Bunnahabhain was acquired, the Black Bottle brand of blended scotch came with it. Formerly composed of all seven single malts from Islay, it now has Tobermory and Ledaig in the mix as well.
Burn Stewart was purchased in 2002 by CL Financial of Trinidad who had a major liquidity crisis in 2009. Fortunately, Burn Stewart was sold on to a South African beverage company named Distell earlier this year, ensuring future stability.
It is pale straw in color, with a fresh nose of hearty peat smoke mixed with fields of hay and a gentle floral aspect.
The mouthfeel is oily, and it attacks with bold peat up front. An intense campfire comes to life on the mid-palate and then it slowly backs down allowing other flavors emerge. Grassy, floral, nutty and vanilla notes come together providing good complexity before it fades gracefully though the finish.
It’s well composed throughout and has just the right combination of youthful exuberance and aged refinement. The flavor profile lies somewhere between those of Laphroaig and Ardbeg (or perhaps closer to a vatting of the two).
I’m revisiting the 16 year Gordon & MacPhail Ledaig as well as the 10 year Tobermory for comparison sake. I wouldn’t say that the 16 year is bad, but it’s just not peaty enough and/or too floral (and in that perfumed way that I really have an aversion to). It is simply not in the same league as 10 year Ledaig. The 10 year Tobermory is very well made and does have a nice minty spice aspect and maltiness which balance the floral notes. For my personal preferences I view it is a good starting point, from which something really special happens when you add the peat level of Ledaig or the full sherry cask maturation of 15 year Tobermory. Perhaps some day the distillery will treat us to a Ledaig bottling that has been matured exclusively in sherry casks.