Alfred Barnard made an epic journey with some friends in the late 1800s and visited working whisky distilleries in Scotland, Ireland and England. About his journey and distillery visits he wrote a book called ’The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom’, describing in great detail and wonderful style the distilleries of that era. It’s a fascinating book and a must have for the true whisky lover. Amongst some of the other Hebridean distilleries on the islands of Islay, Jura and Skye, Barnard visited Tobermory distillery on the Isle of Mull as well.
Nowadays the Tobermory distillery website states the following: “It takes something unique to create an Island Single Malt Scotch Whisky. There is a unique blend of location, ingredients, timing and people. Just as Mull is a special place, nestled on the West Coast of Scotland and Tobermory is a unique distillery, as the only one on the island, the people who craft our island spirit are artisans of their craft.” It’s interesting to see what Alfred Barnard wrote of his visit of the Tobermory Distillery back in the late 1800s.
THE voyage from Oban to Tobermory in fine weather is one of the pleasantest imaginable; the scenery is described in many of the guide hooks, but none of them have ever done it justice. After passing the ruins of Aros Castle, we obtained a fine view of Benmore, 3,097 feet above sea level, the highest mountain in Mull, and for the next two hours we feasted our eyes on scenery of surpassing beauty. Steaming round the island of Calve, we entered the bay, at the head of which stands Tobermory, “the well of our Lady St. Mary.”
The Island of Mull is uneven and mountainous, but nevertheless the soil is deep and fertile, therefore better adapted for pasturage than Skye, to which is land it bears great resemblance. It has, however, a very boisterous coast, a wet and stormy climate and an unpromising: and trackless surf ace, redeemed by a few sheltered spots here and there at the heads of bays or indents of the sea. In ancient times woods were so numerous in Mull as to be celebrated for their extent and beauty, but with the exception of Tobermory they have long since vanished. The mountains rise in terraces, by stages from the shore, the highest being Benmore, which we saw from the boat; the next, Benychat, 2,294 feet above sea level.
The town of Tobermory is encircled by high precipitous banks, above which the ground rises in a series of gentle sloping hills. There is a good steamboat quay, well served by Mr. MacBrayne’s swift steamers from Glasgow and Oban. Formerly the communication was once a week, now it is daily throughout the year. The Island of Mull is generally mountainous and bare, but in the vicinity of Tobermory the scenery is very beautiful and romantic. To the left of the town is Drumfin, better known by the name of St. Mary’s Lake, one of the most charming spots in the district, and Drumfin Castle, situated between two beautifully wooded hills. In close proximity is the celebrated St. Mary’s Well, a Spring of the purest water, dedicated ages ago to the Blessed Virgin, and there are many persons still living in Tobermory who not only venerate it, but still use its waters in preference to all other and. nearer sources, for domestic purposes. Tobermory Bay is protected from the winds and waves by the Island of Calve, which renders it one of the most secure havens on the coast; whilst for beauty of position and, surroundings the little picturesque town, with its richly wooded shores, will compare favourably with Oban.
Sacheveril says of Tobermory: “Its sequestered beauty and indulgent Shades resemble Italian scenery.” We have never visited that sunny land nevertheless we appreciated the glories of Tobermory, and wondered within ourselves that a place possessing such charms, fine hotel accommodation, and withal so come-at-able, should apparently be so neglected. As we steamed into the harbour the captain pointed out the spot, Just below Drumfin, where the Spanish ship “Florida,” one of the Invincible Armada, was sunk by an emissary of Queen Elizabeth. Many attempts have been mad~ to raise the ship, all of which have, been unsuccessful; but guns of brass and Iron have been brought up, two of which are still to be seen at Dunstaffnage. The Distillery is planted at the head of the bay, and stands al most underneath a lofty and perpendicular rock. This hill is relieved by masses of the greenest foliage, which here and there seem to hold some fantastically shaped rock in their soft embrace, whilst at its base shrubs and ferns grow in wild confusion. On landing we committed our luggage to the care of an attendant from the Western Isles Hotel, and then proceeded direct to the Distillery.
As usual, we commenced our observations with the water supply, which is literally inexhaustible, and comes from the burn called the” Tobermory river,” flowing past the Distillery into the sea. It has its source in the celebrated Misnish Lochs, and in its downward progress tumbles over huge rocks, forming nearly twenty cascades of from twelve to twenty feet, culminating in a grand waterfall of nearly sixty feet, close to the walls of the Distillery, as seen in our illustration. The burn runs through a thickly wooded and deep glen, and ferns of almost every description grow to the water’s edge just above the last cascade a stream from St Mary’s Well joins farces with the waters of the burn, and the addition of this water has given its present reputation to Mull Whisky.
The Distillery, which was established in 1823, covers two and a half acres of ground, and is built with stone in the form of a double triangle. There arc two en trances, both by covered archways, one on the side of the steep hill near the waterfall, the other from the main road facing the sea. The Barley used is from Ross and Inverness-shires, shipped therefrom by Mr. MacBrayne’s steamers, and carted up from the wharf by some of the finest Clydesdale horses on the island. On reaching the Works, we introduced ourselves to Mr. Robert Simpson who acts as Manager and Distiller, and was trained to the business from boyhood. He conducted us first to the Granaries and Maltings, a crescent-shaped building, measuring 163 feet long by 24 broad, divided into three flats, all of which arc entered by an old-fashioned outside stone staircase. The top flat is used for storing the barley, and holds a thousand quarters. The other two have concreted floors and are used for malting, each possesses a metal Steep capable of welling 280 bushels at one time.
At the south end of these Maltings is placed the Kiln, an elevated building 32 by 25 feet, floored with wire cloth and heated by peat, which is dug on the estate a short distance from the Works. The furnace in which the peats are fired is enclosed in sheet iron sloping to the drying floor above. Ascending a long and narrow staircase and crossing a passage, we came to the Malt deposit, which consists of two spacious floors well lighted. A wing of this building farms the Mill, which contains the usual malt rollers driven by water- power. The pulverized malt is lifted by elevators from this chamber to the grist loft, and afterwards filled into sacks ready for use. after a short walk we turned up an alley enclosed by a high building, which brings us to the Mash House on the west side of the .quadrangle, a building 72 feet by 28, where, placed on an elevated platform is the Iron Mash-tun, 17 feet in diameter and 5 feet deep. Here our guide pointed out the Mashing Machine suspended over the Tun, and informed us that the sacks of grist already referred to were tipped into a hopper which reeds this Machine. The Mash Tun contains the usual stirring gear driven by water-power, and is capable of mashing 350 bushels at one time. There are two Brewing Tanks constructed with timber placed on brick piers, they can contain 3,365 gallons and are heated by steam.
On the ground we observed an Under-back with a timber cover, holding 3,000 gallons, from which the worts are pumped up to a Miller’s Refrigerator, whence they run by gravitation to the Wash- backs. Crossing a passage we now came to the Tun Room which is on a higher level than the Mash House. This Hall is 40 feet long, 20 broad and 30 high, built with stone and well lighted. Therein, and ranged along the wall, are four Wash-backs holding 7,384, 7,427, 7,381 and 7,347 gallons respectively, all of which are switched by water power. Passing out at the northern end we came to the Wash-charger which is placed on a brick pedestal twelve feet high, so as to command the Stills. We next bent our steps to the Distilling House and were there shown two “Old Pot Stills,” the Wash Still holding 2,530 gallons, and the Spirit Still 1,710 gallons, the farmer heated by fire and the latter by steam. The Worm Tub is outside the Still House on an elevation, and red direct from the Burn. Here we observed the two Water Wheels, one of them is very large, being twenty-five feet in diameter, the other is a much smaller one and used only for the Rummagers and Switchers.
We returned to the Still House and ascended by same steps to a gallery 10ft at the east-end of the building where Mr. Simpson directed our attention to the Receivers and Chargers. They comprise a Low- wines Receiver and Charger of 1,200 gallons content, a Feint’s Receiver and Charger, 1,200 gallons, and a Spirit Receiver holding 1,259 gallons; here also there is a Refrigerator of superior make, and the Spirit safe. We descended by another war and found ourselves at, the second entrance gates having almost completed a circuit of the buildings. On the left of the gateway we entered the Spirit Store, a neat building, which contains the Spirit Vat holding 2,400 gallons and the Casking Apparatus. Next door is the Engine Department where we were shown a little five-horse power Engine for the Pumps, and a Boiler 24 feet long and 8 feet in diameter. All the grinding and mashing is clone by the Water Wheel driven by the Tobermory River. The Buildings opposite consist of two Bonded Warehouses containing at present 2,000 casks of Whisky. Over the Main Entrance are situated the Partners’ Offices, whilst those for the manager, Clerks and the Excise are in the adjoining building.
On the premises there is a large Peat Shed, Cooperage and Carpenter’s Shop. Twenty persons are employed in the Distillery and Mr. Ferguson is the chief Excise Officer. Messrs. Mackill Bros. are noted breeders of cattle, which consume a greater portion of the Burnt Ale and Draff on a large farm in the immediate neighbourhood.
The make is called “Mull Whisky”; it is pure Highland Malt, and the annual output (1885) was 62,000 gallons.