For a world that’s been locked down and largely unable to travel for the past two years, the Scottish village of Tobermory couldn’t look more charmingly idyllic. You’ll get no disagreement on that from Julieann Fernandez, who once planned on becoming a forensic scientist, but instead parlayed her degree into a job as master distiller in an industry that’s long been dominated by men.
A good chunk of her time is spent at the Tobermory Distillery, located in Tobermory (population 1,000) on the Isle of Mull in Northern Scotland. The postcard-perfect main feature of the tiny town is its brightly coloured waterfront buildings—think sunshine-yellow, bubblegum-pink, tangerine-orange, and powder-blue—which are situated on the main-street waterfront.
Those buildings are rendered in illustrated form on the label of Tobermory’s newly-launched-in-Canada Isle of Mull gin. That makes sense—when you’ve got a waterfront that cute and quaint, it makes sense to share it with the world.
In a video call, Fernandez says Tobermory is every bit as magical as it looks.
“It’s very, very coastal, beautifully green, and has wonderful landscapes,” she says with an instantly-enchanting, mellifluous Scottish lilt. “That’s what I took the inspiration from for Tobermory gin. You can obviously see here [on the label] the beautiful colourful houses that we have. I suppose that I applied that when making the gin. The gin starts off as a blank canvas. But that allows it to take on a beautiful, colourful array of flavours, which is like our beautiful, colourful houses.”
While Scotland is most famous for its whiskies on the liquor front, there’s also been something of a gin boom over the past couple of decades. An estimated 100 brands are now on the juniper-berry bandwagon, accounting for 70 percent of all the gin made in the U.K. That includes not only heavy-hitting multinational offerings like Hendrick’s, Tanqueray, and Gordon’s, but close to 90 independently-produced spirits.
Whisky distilleries—nearly 20 of them, including Tobermory—have slowly joined the party. While whisky remains their main focus, gin is now something perfected on the side. The appeal of that side hustle is simple: where whiskies can take years, or even decades to mature, gin doesn’t.
Tobermory, which dates back to the 1790s, jumped into the gin game after reopening in 2019 following a renovation.
Like the town it operates in, the distillery is tiny.
“Tobermory is a beautiful distillery, so if anyone ever makes the journey over to Scotland, you have to go and visit,” she says. “But you know yourself that the Scottish are known for being quite tight—we don’t really like to spend much money. So I laugh because Tobermory Distillery tours have got to be one of the worst. You can literally see the end as you’ve started it because the distillery is tiny. With us being so tight and not wanting to spend money, I’m surprised we actually get visitors.”
Because the community is small, involving it in the gin-making process was important to the master blender and her team. The local vicar, for example, grew the Hebridean tea leaves and heather used in the distillation process. Beyond the juniper, adding complexity are elderflower, herbal thyme, citrusy orange peel, and a creamy splash of spirit from the whisky side of things.
“Everything that’s going into the gin is basically hand-foraged,” she says. “We found all the botanicals by wandering the beautiful landscapes of Mull. And we included local people, like our lovely vicar Liz. That really brings everyone together. We brought the community together in the way that we’ve brought all these lovely botanicals together.”
Initial batches were made in a small still dubbed Wee Mary. When Tobermory gin began winning awards, that success convinced the distillery to up production by investing in a larger still named Big Mary.
“The reason we were using such a small still is we didn’t know if this was really going to take off,” Fernandez says. “Over here we see a lot of gins on the market, and we didn’t know how this would go.”
As for how to best enjoy Tobermory, she rightly suggests that while it obviously works well in cocktails, Isle of Mull is layered enough to shine as the base for a classic martini, on the rocks, or even neat.
Each bottle is also, Fernandez opines, something of a work of art, with the Tobermory waterfront not only on the back label, but rendered so it’s visible when looking at the bottle on the shelf.
“When you look through the bottle it’s like you’re looking over the water to the beautiful coloured houses of Tobermory,” she says. “That not only makes the bottle stand out, but it remains true to the heart and soul of Tobermory.”
As part of the launch, Tobermory hired award-winning bartender Jeff Savage of the Botanist Restaurant to create custom drinks for Vancouver cocktail enthusiasts, including your resident Liquor Nerd. Here’s his recipe for the Slow Club, inspired by my love of tiki bars, beach vacations, and the films of the fabulously weird David Lynch.
The Slow Club
2 oz Tobermory gin
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz orgeat syrup
3/4 oz lavender black tea syrup
1/2 oz blue Curaçao.
1 dash orange blossom water
Combine all ingredients with ice in a shaker and shake. Double strain into a Collins glass with fresh ice, and garnish with a lime wheel and mint sprig.