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The fishing port of Tobermory was founded in 1788 by the British Fisheries Society, who sought to utilise an excellent natural harbour on the east coast of Mull. People lived in the area for thousands of years prior to this however and in 1588, a Spanish galleon escaping the English fleet sought refuge in the bay. Stopping to take on provisions the ship’s captain had soon become embroiled in a dispute over payment with the locals. Enraged, the skipper threatened to desolate the island under a barrage of cannon-fire but The MacLean, Laird of Duart would not be broken. Legend has it he sought aid from An Doideagan Muilleach, the witches of Mull. The oldest and wisest of them was Doideag, who summoned a great storm that ripped trees from the ground and turned the calm seas into a boiling mass. The Spanish galleon and all who sailed in her were lost to the maelstrom and her wreckage still lies on the seabed today.
A decade after the arrival of the British Fisheries Society, a kelp merchant by the name of John Sinclair came to Tobermory. Having witnessed the birth of the scotch whisky industry throughout his travels, he spied an opportunity in the young, bustling port and within the year he had acquired 57 acres to the south of the harbour in an area known as Ledaig, where he planned to build a number of houses and a distillery.
Over the years, the distillery passed come under the stewardship of various owners and by 1916 the Distillers Company Ltd took over, only to be forced into halting production in 1930 as a result of the loss of export caused by US prohibition. The Ledaig distillery remained silent until 1972 when it finally returned to production, distilling for a decade before being forced once more into silence in the early 1980’s.
The distillery was eventually rescued in 1991 by Burn Stewart Distillers who were able to resume production and keep the the stills flowing ever since. In 2013, Tobermory and its Burn Stewart stablemates were bought by the Distell Group of South Africa in a deal worth around £160 million. Today the distillery produces two individual spirits, the titular Tobermory is unpeated whilst a heavily peated variation is bottled under the original name of Ledaig. Independent bottler Murray McDavid recently unveiled a 17 year old single cask version of the latter, aged first in a bourbon barrel before being finished in a Jurancon wine barrique. 274 bottles were available at a strength of 59%. Recommended retail price was £121.95.
Smell: Wonderfully fruity nose. Plum and raspberry. Blueberry. Cherry. Salted caramel. Smoky bacon and maple syrup. Ashy wood smoke.
Taste: Thick smoke and charcoal. Honey. Pepper and paprika. Raisins and sultanas. That fruity wine influence remains to the fore throughout, mingling all the while with the Ledaig smoke.
Value for Money: I’ve spoken before, both here and on The Quaich Podcast, about the increasing prices of independent bottlers but this makes for another interesting example. 6 years ago I bought a 17 year old Ledaig bottled by Gordon & MacPhail for £50, and whilst you can’t really compare the two, it does highlight the incredible rise in prices over the last few years. Even the official distillery 18 year old usually comes in around £80 / £90. As always, there are a number of factors at play in a bottle’s price: this is a single cask with less than 300 bottles in existence, which gives it rarity. It’s also at a high strength of 59%, meaning more duty would have been paid on it and the unusual cask finish would no doubt have added to the production costs as well. Taking all that into account one can accept paying a bit more but even then, £120 for a 17 year old would have me thinking twice. Not that any of this is relevant of course, because a quick look online suggests it has already sold out with all the big retailers anyway, so at least for most people, the price was justifiable.
In typical Murray McDavid style, this unusual bottling offers something unique. At 10 years (or less) Ledaig can be one of the most coastal, briney whiskies around but this one offers a very different experience. The acrid smoke is present and correct and actually doesn’t seem to have faded much despite the spirit’s 17 years of maturation, but pairs well with a wealth of winey fruits, creating a real crowd-pleaser of a dram. Indeed, if anything the wine is a little too dominant, swamping some of the dram’s island character but what it lacks in complexity, it tries very hard to make up for with flavour. Enjoyable, if a little short of magnificent.
For more on Tobermory distillery and the Ledaig single malt visit here.
For more on Murray McDavid visit here.