Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Last of the Islanders. 20th May. Tobermory

It has been more than a month since I stood on the shore of Oban and looked out towards Mull. A disgraceful time period to have lapsed without writing up my day at Tobermory, but for once I’m going to plead mitigating circumstances, in that it has been one of those months you just want to draw a line through, receipt, file and never see the like of again. Politically, but rather more pertinently, personally. All behind and dealt with now I’m pleased to say (the personal stuff, that is – politics is still a maelstrom, but not my indaba, happily.) The upshot was that besides the Special Releases article, the Whisky Books piece, my Stoke writeup and my Tasting Notes rant I didn’t devote much time to the Whisky Pilgrim. So my apologies to Tobermory for the delay in getting this done.

When last you left me I was in my wigwam on the less fun end of Kintyre, up to the gills with barrel sample Springbank and wondering whether I was going to break my record for hours of consecutive sleep on the peninsular, which at that point stood at four. Well, I’m pleased to say that the judo-mat bed must have been the cosiest Kintyre berth I’ve yet struck, because an indulgent four and a half hours of sleep later I arose from my slumbers, face sticking to the plastic mattress and knowing with sickening certainty that the time was still well south of 6am.

Cursing the day I thought visiting all the whisky distilleries in the UK would be a good use of 18 months’ worth of annual leave I
executed what can best be described as a half-arsed commando roll out of the bed. A bad idea, as it turned out when I got to my feet and discovered my nose to be bleeding like a tap. Ten minutes of assorted swearing, showering, shouting at my trousers and damning my toothbrush, all whilst clamping a wodge of tissue paper to my nose later, I trip out of the wigwam, clutching duvet, pillows and bag, hurl them into the corsa with an oath and point my bloodied snout Northwards.

Once you’re off the A83 and into the hills above Lochgilphead the roads become more winding, and the views more startlingly spectacular. I, of course, am not allowed to enjoy any of this, as I am stuck behind a truck, which, as it transpires, is also going to Oban. With barely any passing opportunities and not enough power to make the most of them anyway, by the time we reach the capital of the West Highlands you could just about boil a saucepan of water on top of my head.

But no matter!

Oban, on the strength of two very brief visits, has become one of my favourite towns in the UK. Hey – anywhere with a distillery next to an Italian restaurant is ok in my book. Whisky and Garlic Bread within ten metres of each other. The Dream. If they’d only see fit to put a KFC and some sort of salt and vinegar crisps emporium on the same block I’d never leave. Though I’d also be dead inside the year.

Abandoning my car in the long-stay car park next to Tesco I realise that my ferry to Mull is a couple of hours away yet. I wander the
streets and shoreline of Oban, take a squint at St Columba’s Cathedral and then go in search of a coffee, discovering to no small amount of chagrin that my options, so far as places that are open are concerned, are Costa, Costa or Costa. I pick the middle option, gulp down an outsized cup of necessary evil and spend the next hour in the ferry terminal reading Flashman and the Redskins. (If there’s a better series of novels than the Flashman Papers I’ve yet to find it.)

Eventually the ferry departs, and after fortifying myself with a sausage bap I stand on deck, watching the archipelagos of tiny rocks and islands go by, until freezing rain and howling winds drive me back inside the main lounge for more Flashman, and with renewed respect for Vikings. Craignure is reached in short order, by which point the weather has retreated, and all is calm and still and – dare I say it? – bright and sunny. After confirming for my father that Craignure has a car park (he’s planning on kayaking around Mull in the near future) I hop on the bus for the short drive across the North of the Island to Tobermory, which (and I don’t say this lightly) is perhaps the most beautiful coastal road I’ve driven on for the pilgrimage yet.

I arrive in the charming village of Tobermory, with its charming coloured houses made famous apparently by some programme I didn’t watch as an infant. (Which puts it essentially in the same bracket as every programme. I spent my childhood resolutely not watching television, and have spent my adulthood largely trying to make up for lost time.) It’s around about lunchtime, and in a flash of gloriously heady realisation it suddenly occurs to me that today is pay day. The almighty dollar hath landed in my account, or a modest pile of regular sterling anyway. The Hell with Standard Pilgrim Procedure, thinks I. No pasta pots today – I’m having a proper lunch, and by God I’ll have a starter too.

Happily Tobermory is furnished with a superb restaurant next to the distillery in the shape of MacGochans, which stuffs me to bursting with mussels, gives me five minutes to breathe and then does the same with Venison meatballs. (I’m a sucker for the V-word on a menu, though it always strikes me after eating it that I like the idea more than I like the taste. I guess I’m just an inveterate snob.) Thankfully I’ve an hour or so before my tour starts with which to
walk off a portion of my new-found rotundity, so after a brief sojourn to a gift shop I make my way up the hill along the very pretty path to Aros Park.

Half an hour later I’m sitting in a dark room watching the Tobermory film with fellow tourists, one of whom is an astoundingly friendly Australian (are there any other sorts?) who has flown from Australia to Mull for a three day trip. I’ve documented my thoughts on distillery videos before, but I’m a grumpy old man aged 25, so my curmudgeonly attitude may be taken with a pinch of salt.

Unfortunately Tobermory is a no-photos distillery, as our lovely guide Sharyn apologetically explains. It’s the only distillery on Mull, and it makes two distinct malt whiskies, with an equal amount of their output going towards each expression. Tobermory whisky is their unpeated dram, whilst Ledaig is fairly heavily peated by outside-of-Islay standards, and has been turning the heads of drinkers in the know for the last few years.

Production had ended for the week, so all was quiet as Sharyn took us through the rooms. A curiosity at Tobermory comes in the washback room, where their long fermentation takes place. Formerly, as in many distilleries, Tobermory had rotating blades in the top of their washbacks to prevent the foam generated by fermentation from spilling out. However some villainous rogue broke in a while back and filched the blades (God alone knows how he thought he was ever going to fence them) at which Tobermory decided that replacing them would be a great faff, and have dealt manually with the foam ever since. (Not sure what those working at the distillery thought of this particular procedural adjustment...)

Although it isn’t the largest distillery in the world, Tobermory does put a lot of weight on producing single malt, with only 5% of its spirit being packed off for blends. With two wash stills and two spirit stills it’s a fair bet to guess that they’re not working at maximum output given they create 800-900,000 litres of spirit a year by Sharyn’s reckoning. Not massive, sure, but still a good deal more than most of the kettles-in-sheds that seem to be popping up all over the place currently. (Calm down Adam, not the time or place for another rant.) For the first half of the year they produce their unpeated Tobermory, and for the second half it’s Ledaig. (Pronounced ‘Led-chick’ incidentally, though if you do so in a bar outside Scotland it’ll get you absolutely nowhere.) 

Only a few casks are kept on Mull for maturation – the buildings behind the distillery used to house casks, but were sold and converted to flats during slacker years in the 80s. These days the whisky is put into barrels at Deanston and then housed at Bunnahabhain on Islay. Some of the older and more ‘special’ casks stay on site though – I spot a couple labelled ‘1972’, which Sharyn says are destined to become a 50yo at some point down the line. The distillery’s oldest to date is 42, both for Tobermory and Ledaig, and either can be yours for a mere £3000...

We return to the main visitor centre, where drams of the 10yo Tobermory and Ledaig are standing by. With no chairs it becomes a bit of a balancing act for me to take my notes whilst sniffing and sipping, but I muddle through more or less!

Tobermory 10yo – Lemons and apples to start with, backed up by distinct sweetness. Shortbread? Maybe a touch of vanilla. Nose doesn’t burst out of the glass – emerges slowly. Less fruit-focus on palate, more of the sweet vanillin character and a smidge of spice. Warming alcohol, without being fiery, though possibly has more influence than flavour on the palate. Nice, friendly whisky, if that’s not too disparaging! Not excessively complex, but very fresh and rather clean. Light-medium body. Tiny bitterness at the end. 46.3%ABV

Ledaig 10yo – Peat arrives first. Softer and soapier than some Islay whiskies. Kind of an animal fat element which turns into something more smoky. Lemony edge in behind. Good intensity on nose. Surprising weight of wood on the palate (not too much, of course) in a charcoal sort of way. Oily and indulgent. Peat gives way to more citrus (oranges/lemons) and finally a smooth vanilla as seen in Tobermory. Flavour comfortably outmuscles booze. Cracking stuff. 46.3%ABV

Since I’ve been scribbling away all the other tourists have wandered off. I apologise to Sharyn for imposing on her time, but she very kindly says to think nothing of it, and asks whether I’d like to try a couple of others, since I’m taking notes. Obviously the answer to that is a resounding ‘yes please,’ and she hauls out Tobermory 15, Ledaig 18 and Ledaig 1996. I only write up the flagships on this blog, but all three of these extras get a page in my
little blue book, and delicious whiskies they all are too. Tobermory 15 is my particular favourite, followed closely by Ledaig 18yo. I do love the Ledaig 1996, but for my money the sherry sits on the peat a fraction heavily, creating a stunning smoky sherried expression which somehow feels a touch less ‘Ledaig-y’ than the 18. But that’s me being picky – as I say, I’d still buy it by the glass any time I saw it on a shelf. (I couldn’t afford it by the bottle!)

I thank Sharyn, leave Tobermory, and begin my long journey back. Seven hours of waiting for the bus, taking the bus, waiting for the ferry, taking the ferry, walking to the car, getting lost, finding the car and driving Southwards later I wearily bang on Will’s door in Strathaven once again. The weariness melts away somewhat as we line up the bottles for the evening of tasting, but after a Portuguese white, a mature claret and a few drams it returns with vigour, and I collapse gratefully into bed.

This wasn’t the heaviest distillery trip I’ve made on the Pilgrimage, but it was one of the most satisfying. I’d half-expected Mull to feel like an add-on to the main focus of the Campbeltown whisky festival, but I was utterly charmed by the island, the distillery, and of course its whisky. I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed what I tasted, particularly the Ledaig. I shouldn’t have been, of course, having already been pleasantly surprised by Deanston and Bunnahabhain, both of which are owned by the same company.

A significant milestone has been hit at this point though, as I’ve now ticked off every distillery on the Islands and Western Highlands which both have visitor centres and are currently bottling whisky under their own label. (Other than the small release when they hit 3 years old, Abhainn Dearg on Lewis hasn’t started bottling its whisky yet, so there’d be nothing for me to taste!) I’ve no holiday coming up over the next two months – I’ve saved it all for September and October – so it’ll be a little while before the corsa is once again fired up.

But when it is, a behemoth awaits. I’ve dodged and skirted it, picking off regions where distilleries are fewer and further between, but there’s no two ways about it now – the East Highlands will be upon me. And with them comes the region that was my first Single Malt love. Speyside.


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