Ledaig is, unashamedly, my favourite whisky. As a whisky reviewer and writer, I shouldn’t have favourites but of course everyone does. Read the Whisky Bible and you’ll soon realise that Jim Murray despises Fettercairn and Dailuaine but adores Ardbeg and Glen Grant. Read whiskyfun.com and you’ll find that Serge Valentin prefers Clynelish (or even better, Brora!) to Loch Lomond or Tullibardine.
What is Ledaig? The peated whisky from the Isle of Mull, made at Tobermory distillery. Ledaig, roughly pronounced letch-igg, means ‘safe haven,’ and for those of us that know its depths and complexity it is a haven in an increasing mad world of meaningless NAS releases and marketing ploys.
The first rule of the Ledaig fan club is that you don’t talk about Ledaig in a positive way. The second rule is much the same. You tell people that it smells of manure and tastes of wet dog. And although those things are sometimes true, Ledaig often pulls them off in a positive way.
I’m going to break the first rule now and tell you why I love this distillery so much, and why I’m not a huge fan of its alter-ego: Tobermory.
History time. Ledaig distillery (that’s right, it wasn’t renamed Tobermory until the late ’70s!) was founded in 1798, making it one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, in Tobermory village on the Isle of Mull. Only 39 years later it closed for 41 years, until 1878, at which point it was pretty much the ugly duckling of the distillery ownership world and was passed from owner to owner, eventually closing again in 1930. This time it closed until 1972, another 42 years. It changes hands again in 1978 with part of the distillery converting to accommodation and distilling taking a backseat, closing fully once again in 1982, it stays shut for another 11 years, only reopening after finally being bought by the current owners, Burn Stewart. It reopened 1993, the year I was born. Although the distillery experimented with peating levels, no ‘Ledaig’ was produced in large quantities until 1996. These days the distillery produces medium-peated Ledaig for half the year and the unpeated Tobermory the other half.
So, in total, closed for 94 years and open for 125 so far. That’s a chequered history. One of the reasons I like it is exactly this, Ledaig is the underdog, the one who fought back again and again from the brink of demolition to now, when the whiskies are finally gaining fans and recognition. The Rocky of the whisky world.
The whiskies themselves were not widely celebrated until fairly recently, though. Often they were soapy, feinty, rubbery, or just generally horrific. One blogger remarked that tasting Ledaig/Tobermory was like playing Russian Roulette, but with 50/50 odds.
Luckily things have changed for the better and Burn Stewart has made some great decisions about the whisky making and bottling. They’ve clearly improved the spirit quality since the 90’s, being much cleaner, while still being true to Ledaig’s funky style. They also decided to up the bottling strength to 46.3% abv, use no artificial colouring, and not chill filter the whisky.
Some (notably Serge) are now comparing Ledaig to Ardbeg. Ledaig has that same chequered history and smoky style but hasn’t quite gained the same reputation yet. But to me, that’s almost a disservice to Ledaig. It has so many things about it that are unique. It’s still funky. It still has really interesting barnyard like notes or meaty notes, but it pulls them off, takes them in its stride. If anything, it’s more like a marriage of old style, heavily peated Brora and Ardbeg (yes, that’s the hype plane you can hear taking off).
Matured in Sherry, it offers loads of gritty, meaty notes. Matured in Bourbon barrels, tonnes of lemon citrus and fresh minerality. Matured in Hogsheads, it’s perhaps more salty and elemental.
The reason I’m not a huge fan of Tobermory, is that, despite all of Burn Stewart’s changes, it remains that feinty, off-note riddled ugly duckling, the unpeated spirit unable or unwilling to hide any of the weird notes this distillery throws up. For me anyway. Just an opinion. And perhaps, it’s still improving. Time will tell.
Currently the distillery is silent again and will be for another 1 1/2 years, though this new closure is to refurbish the distillery. This involves replacing the stills, but not increasing production. It’s Rocky going back to training.
For now, we can be thankful for the multitude of bottlings on the market, from the basic 10 to a plethora of independent bottlings. We can also be thankful that these have remained reasonably affordable. (If you found a 21 year old single Sherry cask of Ardbeg, it wouldn’t cost you $115!) Hopefully, reasonable prices remain a theme because it’s the reason rule #1 is in place. If the reputation increases, perhaps prices will too. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, but for now here’s some recommended bottlings from Ledaig.
Ledaig 10 Years Old – Very good availability. The classic. A great balance of smoke, sea salt and clean lemon juice. $55
Ledaig 18 Years Old – Good availability – More sherried with a slight meaty note, wet tobacco and an oily texture. $100
Ledaig 19 Years Old Marsala Finish – Limited availability. On the expensive side but with lovely meaty and floral notes. $155
Ledaig 20 Years Old Moscatel Distillery Exclusive – Very limited availability. Nectar of the gods. Sublime balance and integration. Mega complex. Epic. $180
Ledaig 2005 Gordon & MacPhail Hermitage – Limited availability. An immediate buy at the price. So meaty and juicy. $70
Ledaig Signatory Cask Strength – Limited availability. Seek these out. Outstanding dark fruit, heavy smoke and a striking length. $115
Ledaig Exclusives – Keep an eye out for casks selected exclusively for people/shops. These are normally great. In the UK, some Whisky Exchange exclusives have really blown me away.