A Visit to Tomatin Distillery

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Tomatin is a contradiction of modernity and history. Situated just off the A9, the main north-south artery in Scotland’s central and eastern Highlands, the distillery’s grounds look like a vacation village, with sweet little cottages and houses and a wee train track overpass. It turns out that at its founding and for some years following, the company built on-site housing for its employees—perhaps so they would never leave. (Indeed, 49 employees live there, and Tomatin has three more employees at an off-site bottling plant.) Yet the facility itself is a massive, mid-century behemoth, although nowadays many corners are tarnished and dusty with disuse.

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Not all of these stills are in use.

Tomatin (“hillock of the juniper” in Gaelic) was founded in 1897 by a group of local businessmen capitalizing on the whisky boom of the time. Since booms are so often followed by busts, they liquidated the place only nine years later. In 1909, the New Tomatin Distillers Company Ltd. reopened and proceeded to expand the facility for decades. The company reached its zenith in the 1970s with 23 stills that had some 12.5 million liters of capacity. (N.B. Charles Maclean, in Whiskypedia, states that this was capacity only and Tomatin never reached such heights of production.)

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Benefit of disuse: An amazing visual of the inside of a mash tun

The good times weren’t fated to last, however. By 1986, Tomatin Distillers plc went into liquidation and was bought by the Japanese firms Takar Shuzo Company and Okura & Company, which had both been longtime Tomatin customers, presumably for the wealth of blends. This was the first time, but certainly not the last, that a Japanese company got involved in the Scotch whisky business. Two more firms eventually joined in ownership: Marubeni replaced Okura in 2000, and Kokubu came on board in 2006.

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This is the filling store. It smells heavenly.

Historically and to this day, Tomatin’s strength has been blends—60 percent of its annual 2.5 million liters of malt goes into such brands as The Antiquary and The Talisman. I gather much of this volume is sold in Asia. I’d certainly never spotted either brand until I saw it on the shelf in the visitors’ center shop.

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Further benefit of disuse: Seeing the inside of a tube condenser!

While the company seems to have put money into a nice tasting room and visitor gift shop, upkeep of the rest of the massive facility has suffered. And yet it’s still an impressive place. There’s an on-site cooperage, and all of the blending occurs on the premises as well. Roughly 230,000 casks are stored there, including many from other distilleries (a common practice). Tomatin currently produces “only” 2.5 million liters of spirit annually—a fraction of its former glory—yet this amount is certainly nothing to sneeze at, even if it doesn’t rival the current top single malt producer, Glenfiddich (which put out 14 million liters in 2014). Despite the fact that much of Tomatin’s plant is currently not in use, the sheer scale of production that’s possible there makes a big impression.

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That rope will tell you when to turn up the heat.

Yet for all the industrial atmosphere, some things are oddly analog, highlighting the tension between the past and present that’s tangible everywhere. For example, there are 12 washbacks and 12 enormous stills to match, although only 10 stills are in use—six wash stills and four spirit stills. The other two spirit stills are broken, and it seems there’s not much incentive to repair them. There’s no easy way to peer into the neck of the still for a visual check on how the process is going and whether the heat should be increased. Instead, the distiller stands level with the bottom of the still and thumps a rope, which has a knocker attached up near the neck, on the side. The sound that it makes (I suppose if it’s particularly hollow) tells the distiller whether or not to increase the steam.

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Tour groups are taken to one of the two dunnage warehouses for a final picturesque moment before re-entering the modern visitors’ center. This part of the tour felt least believable to me. Compared to the rest of Tomatin’s facilities, it was a bit too photogenically arrayed. I’d recommend to the company that they offer visitors a chance to go into a more modern warehouse, where the barrels are racked several stories high. Outsiders rarely get a chance to see that side of whisky production, despite the fact that it’s much more common than old-timey dunnage warehouses. And it’d be a fitting cap for Tomatin’s industrial identity.

Regarding the whisky itself, I admit that I’m not much of a Tomatin fan. I find that the younger expressions tend to be unbalanced. At around 15 to 18 years and above, however, the difference is stark, and older Tomatin is some of the loveliest whisky I’ve had the pleasure of tasting.

Tomatin Legacy
A 5- to 8-year-old malt, this is light-bodied, spicy, and sweet with vanilla and honey notes.

Tomatin 12-year-old
A nose of rosewater, citrus, and vanilla gives way to flowers, more citrus, more rosewater, and almonds on the palate.

Tomatin Cù Bòcan
The distillery makes peated spirit for one week a year, and this is the result: herbal honey notes tempered with smokiness, citrus, floral aromas, and a tanginess.

Tomatin 30-year-old
The floral character of the distillery is most evident in its old age. This one has lots of roses and rosewater, oranges, and sugar cookies. Balanced and satisfying.

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