If you’ve never heard of Tomatin, you aren’t alone. Just like MGP here in the United States, it’s a distillery that focuses primarily on mass producing spirits for other blenders and bottlers to use and re-brand. But while some might be dismissive of a distiller focused on supplying others, we’re intrigued by their considerable experience as a result of this business model.
According to local lore, whisky had been produced on the grounds of the current Tomatin distillery (which is Scottish for “Hill of the Juniper Bush”) since as early as the 16th century when local cattle herders would purchase the spirits during breaks when herding their cattle. Whisky production was officially established in 1897 when John MacDougall, John MacLeish and Alexander Allan (along with a handful of investors) founded the Tomatin Spey Distillery Co Ltd, put in a permanent still, and went into business.
1,000 feet above sea level and 18 miles from Inverness, the distillery was located in an extremely isolated location. Perfect for distilling whisky, but less conducive to attracting a workforce to run the shop. So when the first distillery went in, the architect also included enough lodging and accommodations on-site for the workers.
Unfortunately, this didn’t last very long. Just nine years after they were founded, the company went bankrupt. They tried again in 1909, though, and this time things went remarkably better.
Originally, Tomatin had only two 120,000 gallon pot stills for their operation. Over the years, as demand for their product increased, the facility matured and improved, adding three additional pot stills between 1956 and 1964. But that still wasn’t enough and only 10 years later, in 1974, the facility was up to 23 stills and became officially the biggest distillery in Scotland at the time. The majority of their spirit went into the blended whisky market, but they did produce a number of aged single malt versions for sale under their own label as well.
All of that capacity comes at a fixed cost, though. When the demand for whiskey dropped off a cliff in the 1980’s, the company’s finances went underwater fast. By 1986, the company had been sold to a Japanese spirits company named Takara Shuzo Ltd., locally famous back in Japan for their sake production. This made Tomatin the first wholly Japanese-owned distillery in Scotland.
With the sale to Takara Shuzo, the distillery also decided to stop focusing on mass production for other brands and instead start focusing on producing their own branded products.
The process for making this scotch whisky is about as standard as you can get but, just in case, the company put out a nice animated infographic for people to follow along.
Their recipe starts with 100% malted barley. Once the barley has been properly malted, it is dried in a peat fired kiln and then ground into grist.
That ground malted barley is then cooked and fermented with yeast to create a mildly alcoholic distiller’s beer. From there, the beer is distilled twice in pot stills before being transferred to previously used American bourbon barrels for about 12 years. Once the whisky has finished aging, it is transferred to previously used sherry casks for six to nine months for “finishing” before being bottled and shipped out.
There’s a general shape of a traditional whiskey bottle here, but it seems to be a little shorter, fatter, and with more exaggerated features than normal. The bottle itself is rounded with a flared base, and with a gentle taper outwards from the base to the shoulder. There, it curves gently inwards to the relatively short neck and the whole thing is topped with a cork and wood stopper.
The label is a bit of a double edged sword.
On the one hand, I really like the fact that it is transparent. This allows you to clearly see the whiskey inside, which is something I appreciate. You aren’t just paying for the flavor — you pay for the whole experience, visual included.
But the other side to this coin is that this very modern label design gives this a… well, very modern feel. There isn’t the appeal to history and legacy that I know this spirit has; instead, it seems almost completely devoid and divorced from that lineage. Especially with an aged whisky like this, that story is part of what you are selling so making it obvious at first glance is essential.
The whiskey is a darker amber color compared to some other scotch whisky, with just a little more color than normal. It also smells a little richer than usual — the typical notes of honey and vanilla are there, but there is also a bit of darker plum (probably from the sherry casks) and apple crispness thrown in for good measure.
Taking a sip, you get exactly what was advertised on the box. There’s the honey sweetness, the apple crispness, a hint of vanilla, and a bit of rich plum tying it all together. On the finish, I get a bit of smoky flavor from the peat drying process, but instead of being overpowering it’s a complimentary and appreciated aspect.
Usually, with a bit of ice, the more delicate flavors tend to suffer. This can especially be a problem for the traditionally lighter and sweeter scotch whiskies.
That unfortunately holds true here… but, that said, I think something interesting happens. Instead of completely washing out the flavor, it actually enhances some of the bourbon aspects that have been lying dormant. The caramel and vanilla flavors that you usually associate with an American bourbon make a more solid appearance, with the more Scotch traditional honey and apple crispness playing an enjoyable supporting role. But don’t worry — the peat smoke is still there in the end to remind you that you’re sipping a scotch and not an American bourbon.
For better or worse, I compare a lot of these scotch whiskies to Glenmorangie. And in this case, if you’re a bourbon drinker that likes Glenmorangie I think you’re going to love this. It has all of the same high notes, but adds a bit of saturation and complexity that you don’t see otherwise.
It’s a damn delicious spirit in its own right, and well worth the price of admission.
|Tomatin Highland 12 Year Single Malt Scotch Whisky|
Produced By: TomatinOwned By: Takara Shuzo
Production Location: Highlands, Scotland
Classification: Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: 12 Years
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $29.99 / 750 ml
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Overall Rating: 5/5
With a product this good, it’s a shame they didn’t sell more single malt versions earlier.