A big part of enjoying whisky lies in the stories that we tell about it: memories of a great night out with friends, a lovely outing over the weekend, a fine discovery on a dusty shelf, or disappointed expectations. Sharing stories and experiences about whisky can be lots of fun and is certainly an important part of the picture. Alas, an all-too-common story goes along the lines of “they don’t make whisky like that anymore” or of “back then, they made their whisky differently.” Of course, nostalgia and (sweet) memories matter in regards to how we enjoy our whisky, but are “back then” or “no more” really helpful in assessing and appreciating the content of our glasses? Certainly, they—whoever they may be—do not make whiskies like that anymore. Times, they are a-changing, as are the raw ingredients, the distilleries’ equipment, the casks, and people’s palates. Whisky was different “back then,” and it is different today, but if there ever were some good old days of whisky, these were when the prices were about right and the company great. Thus, whiskies were and are different—yet isn’t this part of the fun: to discover their differences, and food for further stories to tell?
In 2013, the South African Distell Group took over Burn Stewart Distilleries Company. Since then, it has been revamping the three distilleries acquired in the process: Bunnahabhain, Deanston, and Tobermory. Tobermory was last in line and was just reopened in 2019. To celebrate the event, Distell also relaunched the whisky that goes by its name. Here we are, then, with a good example of how they don’t make their whisky like that “anymore,” compared to how they made it “back then.”
We could also go further back in time, as “back then” can mean many and, for that matter, anything. The Isle of Mull, where Tobermory distillery is located, has been populated since about 6,000 BC, towards the end of the last Ice Age, when a few hunters and gatherers set up their camps on the slowly defrosting island. It is unlikely that these people knew how to make whisky, so “back then,” they did not make their whisky differently, but rather, not at all.
The Irish monks who founded a monastery on the Isle of Iona (which you can see from Mull’s shore) in the sixth century more likely knew the arts of brewing and distilling, but they definitely made their whisky differently “back then.” During the Middle Ages, when Iona and Mull where at the heart of the Kingdom of the Isles, distilling was most likely done on these islands—but certainly different from today, not to speak of the distillate’s maturation, which was unknown back then. With the industrialization on the mainland, the Highland “Clearances” (a verbal whitewashing of the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people), and the famines of the 18th and 19th century, Mull became a backwater island. The headcount of its human population fell below that of its sheep.
In 1788, though, the British Fisheries Society founded what they planned to become a major fishing port: Tobermory. Designed by an engineer, this picturesque village is nestled into a bay on Mull’s north-western shore. Next, in 1798, shortly after Tobermory’s construction from scratch, John Sinclair, a local businessman, founded the island’s sole industrial distillery in a corner of Tobermory’s harbour.
Clearly, there are many and multi-layered “back then” layers to Mull’s distillation history, and Tobermory distillery is, up to this day, the island’s sole whisky distillery. It splits production evenly into its two brands: the unpeated Tobermory and the peated Ledaig, the latter being one of the most exciting peated distillates out there—especially the young ones. The bulk of its production goes into the Scottish Leader and Black Bottle blends, while some of their new make also finds its way into the recently launched Tobermory Gin. Caught between the sea and a steep hill, there is not much space left for warehouses, so most of Tobermory’s whisky is matured at the premises of Deanston distillery. From 2017 until 2019, Tobermory was out of production and underwent massive renovations. With the distillery’s reopening, Distell also relaunched the standard Tobermory.
Tobermory had a paltry reputation among whisky drinkers before. Its newest form did not alter the casks, as the whisky remains matured in ex-bourbon, but they did increase its age from ten to twelve years and reassessed the casks used for the vatting, probably adding some older ones into the mixture. Thus, here we go, back to back, seeking to find out what “back then” and “any more” could actually stand for…
The Tobermory 10 has been discontinued and was replaced by the Tobermory 12 in 2019. Both are still widely available and have been fully matured in ex-bourbon casks. They are non-chill filtered, without added colouring, and come at 46,3% ABV, the Distell Group’s signature strength. The Tobermory 10 is available via the Whisky Exchange for £49.95 or via Amazon for £49.95. The Tobermory 12 will set you back £45.95 at Master of Malt, or the same price at the Whisky Exchange, or £45 via Amazon. I got a sample of the 10 in a local whisky bar, as I had bad memories of this whisky and did not wish to purchase an entire bottle. I had my first wee taste of the 12 at the distillery shortly after its launching and got hold of an entire bottle when it was on offer in a local store; always support your local dealers.
Tobermory 10 Years (+/-2018) – review
Colour: light white wine.
On the nose: a pleasant nose with a maritime character, fresh and zesty; oysters with a dash of lemon; pears, vanilla, cloves, and some old machine oil add another, slightly mouldy, layer to the interesting texture.
In the mouth: the palate plummets quickly into shallow waters and is altogether dull and unexciting; gone are the fresh and zesty aspects, with only a faint mouldiness that remains. This palate does not offer much to write about. The finish is medium and rather shallow, with some cloves coming through towards the end.
Tobermory 12 Years (2019) – review
Colour: Chardonnay, a darker and more intense hue.
On the nose: a full-bodied and warming nose reminding me of apple and pear orchards in late summer, when the fruits are ripe, vanilla and cloves, sultanas, brown sugar, some machine oil and a faintly zesty note. This is a very pleasant, well-rounded nose that brings ripe fruits and sweetness.
In the mouth: as in the nose, ripe fruits coated with vanilla and brown sugar, sprinkled with some sultanas and a few cloves added into the mixture, some machine oil and a zesty note round the palate off. The finish is medium, with a fruity sweetness and cloves lingering onward.
A massive improvement and a most welcome replacement of the rather boring Tobermory 10. The 10 was very pleasant on the nose, but the palate and finish were disappointing. (Admittedly, though, aren’t the stories we tell about the rather disappointing whiskies that we had in our glasses part of the fun?)
The 12 has undergone a complete makeover, and the flavour profile has drastically changed (likely due to some older casks added into the mixture). If I had these in a blind tasting, I would not have bet that they were from the same distillery. With the 12, the maritime and zesty aspects are gone or only faintly present, and fruits and sweetness have taken over. The revamped Tobermory offers more intense aromas, is more consistent throughout, and thus is definitely worth a try. So “back then,” they made their Tobermory differently—but not always are the whiskies of the good old days as good as the stories that we tell about them…
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. Photographs kindly provided by the Whisky Exchange.