Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

Distillery Visits

Tobermory and Preconceptions

Sometimes casual remarks or random opinions can lead you in the wrong direction. For example when I was a young boy I overheard my mother telling a friend that none of our family were any good at learning languages. I translated this into the idea that I had an excuse to not try in French lessons. Now, I bitterly regret my laziness but when misconceptions take hold they screw you up and take a long time to be worked out. Many other misconceptions do not run so deep and can be changed quite easily but while you are in their grip you run the risk of being a bit of an arse by parroting some half digested nonsense. Some years ago I was a bit arsey when I avoided Tobermory mainly due to something I read in the 1st edition of 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die by Ian Buxton. 

“But the kindest thing that one could say about much of the whisky marketed alternately as Tobermory and Ledaig, is that the quality was variable. Frankly, to adapt the words of the poem, when it was good it was just about OK, but when it was bad it was horrid. I have had some shockers from this distillery”

I translated this as: ‘why try something that veers between the average and the horrible? There are more than enough good whisky to taste, so why bother with something that might not be that rewarding?’ This was false logic (after all the title of the book was ‘101 Whiskies to Try before you die’) but for a period it kept me away and when I did loosen up a little I approached the distillery with suspicion. However after a time I decided that if I was to have a prejudice it ought to be my own and the result of using my own senses. I discovered that there are some very fine Tobermorys and that I am partial to a drop of Ledaig. My mind was changed.

Missing out on a couple of whiskies is a trivial thing and has no-way diminished my life but it is an example of how messages can become mangled and how there can be a disconnect between what is meant and what is understood. As I have gotten older I have become more aware of this and how easy it is to accumulate prejudices by not paying enough attention.  So I have been attempting some mental spring cleaning. I have been taking prejudices from the shelf and instead of polishing them and putting them back I have been looking at them closely to see if they are worth keeping. Mostly this is about my world view, my philosophy of life, if you will,  but it also includes other interests such as whisky. On one level,  I have always told myself that whisky is a matter of direct experience where preconceptions are invalid. When you taste and react you should always have a clear mind, only then can you analyse and explain. But I know that I am not pure and there are many shards of second-hand opinion in the clumped aggregate that passes for my brain. The Tobermory fallacy is an example.

I mention it because I have just been to the distillery and reckon that even if I had not already changed my mind, any reservations would have been shredded then scattered to the winds (and there can be a lot of wind out here).

I defy anybody not be influenced by the romance of the place. The view of the harbour with its multi-coloured buildings is famous. The whole place is compact, of a piece and lovely. Those words also describe the distillery itself as it is constrained by its location. Although there are plans to refurbish I presume the idea is to replace what has been worn out rather than a complete redesign, for which there does not seem to be a lot of scope. The feel of the building and the cramped layout will remain and the atmosphere of a distillery with one foot in the past will remain. It is a charm that makes you warm the whisky as well as the place. A charm based on things like:

1) The mash tun is the old fashioned type built of cast iron using a rake and plough to agitate the mix. Most of the industry now use stainless steel lauter, or semi-latter tuns but a few including Bruichladdich and Springbank (two of my favourite distilleries) follow the old way. Tobermory’s mash tun has an extra pleasing feature: a copper canopy, riveted and unburnished,  that looks hand crafted. I really do like it when you can see the craft – it adds to the reality.

2) The washbacks are of course wood (how could you expect anything else?) but the interesting thing is they have no switchers to mechanically control the foaming. They are there as big tubs in a stone walled room, where the ambient temperature will rise and fall. If the fermentation gets a bit boisterous soap shavings are added to control the foaming – very Nineteenth Century. Apparently the fermentation can sometimes get so active the washbacks can shake and rock. This reminds you it is a living, organic process that inevitably leads to wear and tear. As a result some of the washbacks are now a little bit leaky and need replacing.

3) The stills are weird.  They have both a boil bulb and a S shape in their lyne arm. This increases reflux quite considerably makes a lighter, fruitier spirit. The effect of this on Ledaig is fascinating. It is made from malt from Port Ellen but this underlying lightness makes it different from any Islay malt. As always with whisky similar, or the same ingredients, similar processes, similar geographical locations produce different results. Each decision within the production process, each subtle change has  a cumulative effect that makes the whisky distinct.

4) There is no room to mature the whisky in Tobermory so it is sent to Bunnahabhain, which is a satisfyingly similar location. In all ways it remains a maritime malt.

5) There is not a computer in sight. Some of the modern distilleries look more like a flight deck. Here one of the workforce could wake up from a 100 year sleep and still feel at home.

For Tobermory this would be apt because over the past 100 years it has probably spent more time asleep than awake. Its hand to mouth existence has meant it has been knocked about a bit over the years and suffered from under investment. It is not cheap to make whisky in a isolated spot where everything has to be brought in and so the economics have always been difficult. It was closed for 40 years from 1930, when it was bought in 1972 by Domecq but that only lasted 3 years. In 1979 it was bought by a Yorkshire property company, perhaps out love or perhaps because of a plan to convert the warehouses to flats. Whatever the reason they did not have the long term money to properly invest in distilling and so it was closed once more in 1982. Finally 25 years ago things changed and it was bought by Burn Stewart. Since when things have been on an upward curve.

When you go round you can feel how old the place is and its history of struggle but you also feel it is now in safe hands.

I am sure this is a story with a happy ending and when you go round the place you really want to believe it.


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