Today I look back to an unforgettable backstage tour of the ‘warts n all’ distillery giant Tomatin, a must-see for any whisky enthusiast. Organised by Whisky Lounge, our all-inclusive tour [on 12th July 2016] was presented by distillery manager Graham Eunson.
Graham Eunson started his career at Scapa before stints at Glenglassaugh and Glenmorangie [maybe not that way round]. He’s been the distillery manager at Tomatin since 2011.
As I’ve commented previously [WLP], Tomatin has had the capacity to produce more barley spirit per year than any other Scottish distillery – 12.5 million litres [July 2016] – a record they had held since 1974. This record has now been surpassed by recent expansions at Glenlivet and Macallan. Still, that’s a long record to hold and I believe Tomatin still remain 4th on that particular list after Glenfiddich [Whisky Yearbook 2020: 13.7 million].
In reality, Tomatin never produced to full capacity, even in 1974 when it had 23 working stills. It currently produces around 2 million litres a year.
Until fairly recently, Tomatin’s malt was seen as a filler for blends like Antiquary [acquired by Tomatin in 1997] and The Talisman, but in recent years Tomatin has concentrated more of its production on its single malt range in keeping with current market trends.
To the tour. Here are just some snippets from the swathes of information and insights bestowed on us.
You’d be excused for thinking you were on the set of an old James Bond movie. Within the bowels of Tomatin lies the remains of a previous incarnation, an entire distillery lying dormant behind the walls & submarine-style doors of the current distillery and its equipment.
The antithesis of the futuristic shiny ‘Maclivet’ distilleries, Tomatin hasn’t been polished, white-washed or shaped into a distillery come tourist attraction. Proud of its heritage, when the distillery modernised in the 1970s, they simply built and expanded alongside the now redundant equipment which has remained untouched ever since. This makes Tomatin a unique and awe-inspiring working distillery & museum.
Evidence of the then & now theme starts in the mill house. Both the earlier [Leeds-made] and later [Hull-made] Porteus mills sit side-by-side.
Some distilleries still malt their own barley using the traditional kilning process [i.e. Highland Park, Laphroaig, Springbank], but most of the ‘big boys’ use blowers, says Graham. He admits there is arguably a character/quality trade-off, but that you can’t overlook the importance of consistency when producing at such large volumes.
Converted in 1963/64, “until anyone can prove otherwise” says Graham, he reckons Tomatin had Scotland’s first full-laughter mash tun. We all get inside. It’s one fabulous echo chamber.
Still in situ from the pre-1970s is the old kiln, the old oil tankers that supplied the distillery’s power and the corten steel washbacks. They began breaking up these old fermenting beasts a number of years ago only to discover it was costing them more [in oxy-acetylene gas] to dismantle them than their scrap value,…. “which I’m quite glad about”, says Eunson who is keen to show us everything that has been left as it was when the distillery was upgraded.
Tomatin’s fermentation time is anywhere between 54-120 hours. Graham believes anything between 50 and above [to 120 max] won’t have a jot of effect on the final flavour of the spirit, but that there’s a big difference between 46-50 hours. [I was unable to write down/comprehend the reason, but it was yeast/science-based].
The decision to go for stainless steel washbacks centred around the cleaning advantages. Graham concedes that wooden washbacks harbour bacteria that may well have an effect on the final spirit but it’s so uncontrollable/random, you wouldn’t know if it would be a desirable or negative effect. Furthermore, the whole thing is a pain to clean and tricky to ensure sterilization. Basically, stainless steel is easy-peasy.
As to the idea that wooden washbacks maintain their heat better, Graham says the stainless steel washbacks heat up and cool down in keeping with the wash so quickly, it’s not worth worrying about. The story here is practicality over aesthetics, very much in keeping with the Tomatin ethos.
Tomatin’s still house also sports a more regular museum. Here, Graham shows us the insides of an old Shell & Tube condenser, opened up to show the 167 copper pipes that the cold water runs through to cool vapour into spirit.
Further reading: How shell & tube condensers work:
We visit the racks before entering the VIP warehouse. Graham picks out all manner of casks for us to try, exaggerated examples that demonstrate clearly what styles of whisky Tomatin use in their core expressions. Notes are brief.
Tomatin 2006/2016 10yo Un-Ob. ex-bourbon cask sample
- N: Youthful notes from a spirit that has seen plenty of active oak. Water brings out confectionary coconut and candy fruits.
- T: More fruity candy. Oily/creamy with water.
- F: Resinous vanillins.
- C: The spirit took well to the desirably bold cask.
Tomatin 2005/2016 Un-Ob. Peated cask sample
Having spent 11 years in virgin oak, this is an example of the peated style of whisky that will end up going into Cu Bocan. Cu Bocan means peated.
- N&T: ‘Vegetal-sweet’ is all I noted.
- F: The candy-bourbon character drawn from the cask shows most strongly at the finish.
- C: Again, like the first cask, Tomatin’s spirit seems hardy enough against some seriously active oak. Let’s test that hypothesis with a muscatel finished example.
Tomatin 2003/2016 Un-Ob. Muscatel finish cask sample
C: This saw nearly 2 years and 5 months in a muscatel cask. The result is,….odd/funky – not unlike some SMWS Auchentoshan’s of late , I write. Initially, it’s very rubbery – burned rubbery charred grapes – but a few minutes later the underlying bourbon cask character brightens whilst the muscatel influence softens – helping to level up the picture.
Tomatin  Un-Ob. PX cask sample
- C: In this example, the seemingly versatile and robust spirit has been swamped. This is just like sherry, albeit a tasty one from a tasty singular cask, but remember that these are exaggerated demonstration casks.
Once Graham has demonstrated four of the main whisky styles that go into making Tomatin’s core and experimental releases, he treats us to what he [Graham] considers to be not only the best Tomatin he has in the warehouse but the best Tomatin he has ever tried.
Tomatin 1976 39yo Un-Ob. cask sample #32 47.5%
This was distilled on November 22nd 1976 and matured in a refill sherry hogshead. “Let’s remember”, says Graham “that not every hogshead is a bourbon cask”.
- N: As a whole, the nose is oily rich and voluminous yet with a dry calmness. The sherry hoggie contributes to a strawberry jam=liqueur-like quality.
- T: Liquorice, a little spice and more of that elegant dryness after a fully integrated full-bodied yet relaxed arrival. Perfect strength. I wonder when they shall bottle this?
- F: Behaves impeccably before moving to a desirable precision bitter-sour, perfectly balanced against the subtle sweetness on the palate. Some sips bring a vegetal [pea]-nutty-dry wave.
- C: Woweee, and I managed to blag a take-home sample too. I shall return with further insights in due course.
Scores 91+ points
And there’s more! There’s always more. We enter the distillery shop to try some of Tomatin’s current single malt range.
- C: Unofficially around 9-10 years of age, this is a decent straight-shooter of a malt that shows off just as much of the spirit as the cask. Additionally, a good price at £40 [in 2016].
Scores 85 points
- N,T,F: A watery smoky dram resembling toasted popcorn. After what’s gone before, this seems so basic. [No other notes].
- C: It’s difficult to come back to NAS malts after CS cask samples and one of Tomatin’s best ever. Some members of our group like peat and the packaging, but my money would be on the Cask Strength expression out of the two.
Scores 76 points
This whisky sat in a cask [an inert cask from memory] in the distillery shop for a number of years [very possibly because of the hefty price tag]. Both Whiskybase entries list the number of bottles from this cask as 258. I guess that number could only have been ascertained by the person/persons who were there when the cask was finally drained.
- N: More than 25 years in a cask and there’s no sign of woodiness or a tannic attack. Lovely stuff.
- T: This might be an old boy in numbers terms but it’s still fully loaded, check the abv! It didn’t seem to like water too much but I didn’t have the opportunity to experiment fully.
- F: Peanut-y again, like with the 1976 vintage. No peanuts in my diet atm so maybe it’s a Tomatin trait?
- C: Another good showcase for the spirit and the distillery profile. We all wanted to take home a special souvenir but at £250, I’m more than satisfied with my 1976 vintage sample.
Scores 87 points
With thanks to Graham, Whisky Lounge, and the Foz for footage & photos.