Tomatin is one of those happy middle fingers to the folk who try to define scotch whisky’s flavour by region. Reading the condescending shoehornery of so many “introduction-to” books, back labels and so-called “flavour maps” you’d expect the burly, chunky robustness of allegedly “typical” Highland malt; a rumbling baritone of a whisky for dark, wild autumn nights.
Instead, tucked in their nook by the Monadhliaths, just off the A9 before the road plunges towards Inverness, Tomatin plough a lighter, fruitier furrow with their single malt. Less the rough and rugged fare of tempestuous late November; more a malt for harvest time; plump, bloated orchard trees, fat grains; slow, bucolic afternoons and the swan-song of the sun.
Good for them. Down with hand-holding generalisations and timid, simplified mushiness. Down – dare I say it – with the notion of regionality altogether. If you can’t trust consumers to get their head round the concept of “single”, then what’s the point of single malt at all?
The Cù Bòcan range, however, is a slightly different animal, and Tomatin’s nod towards that more visceral style. Made from the peated malt they distil for two weeks of the year, and named for a black beast that supposedly “stalks the Highland village”. The fluff on the marketing tells the tale of a distillery worker pursued by said Bòcan on a stygian winter’s night; eyes aflame (the Bòcan’s, not the distillery worker’s) and nostrils steaming.
Frankly, if it couldn’t chase down a knackered stillman across unlit heather then it was a pretty puny, clawless, hobbling, insubstantial sort of beast to begin with. By now I imagine it’s been potted by some gun-toting London banker up in the Highlands for a week of vicious, bloody amusement. Its stuffed head probably daubs the wall of a Strathdearn lodge, next to a zillion luckless stags and a gamekeeper who got in the way.
But I’ve had some moderate fun with Cù Bòcan in the past, so we’ll let the story slip by with an indulging smile. What I really want to focus on is the cask type that today’s particular lightly-peated beast has been lurking in, which is virgin oak.
It sometimes seems that you can’t move for debate about virgin oak’s place in scotch whisky. Scotchwhisky.com approached the issue in one of their signature fence-sitteries, and you’ll find no shortage of less-mediated opinion elsewhere. The majority vote leans towards the position that “it’s too heavy handed”; an opinion possibly informed by online terror of disagreeing with anything Serge Valentin says.
The argument – he puts it forward in that scotchwhisky.com piece if you want to read it – is that use of virgin oak results in a more simplified palette (not palate!) of flavour; a predictable, turgid, over-sweet, puddingy blancmange of vanilla-and-not-much-else. Effectively it’s the same argument that some malt-snobs spurt about bourbon.
I’m not so sure. And not just because I also write for these folk, who would take righteous umbrage with the suggestion that the bourbon palette is simple.
I’m not saying that virgin oak doesn’t have the capacity to give whisky a whack. Certainly if you store liquid in it for over 20 years or so, you’re more than likely to end up with a cupful of splinter juice. (Though the Glemorangie Ealanta lasted 19 years and emerged in rather tasty shape.)
But, realistically, what percentage of scotch whisky stays in barrel for that long? A pretty tiny one if we’re honest; a rarefied bunch of exceptions, rather than rules. “Aha”, quips the detractor, “so you’re advocating virgin oak as a fast-track to pseudo-developed flavour; a ham-fisted shortcut that will suffocate the subtleties and nuances of the malt”.
Firstly, virgin oak is not some insta-swamp of a distillery’s individuality. Look at America: Heaven Hill’s whisky does not taste like Buffalo Trace’s, does not taste like Balcones’s, does not taste like MGPI’s, does not taste like F.E.W’s. And that isn’t down to differing degrees of char, it’s down to distillery character; to cut and shape and mashbill and fermentation and climate of maturation.
Surely if corn and rye and – saints preserve us – wheat can reveal their individual and age-transfigured characters after time in new oak, then barley – the most complex of grains – shouldn’t have a problem. Perhaps it comes down to how well-made the spirit was to begin with. To whether good barley has been used, and then treated with respect throughout the process. Certainly those distilleries putting in the yards to create spirit of substance and character shouldn’t be worried about fresh oak overwhelming their make. If efficiency and yield have been the name of the game … well, you know where this is going.
Secondly, if we’re going to talk about swamping of character: hands up who loves a sherry bomb? I know I do, from time to time. I’m pretty sure I can speak for Mark, too. And I’m certain I can speak for the vast majority of online whisky shoppers and festival-goers. Just look at the rate that the darkest bottles sell out. And you can’t tell me that viscous, inky, drizzle-on-ice-cream Pedro Ximenez is any easier for distillery character to muscle past than charred vanillin and lignin.
Which reminds me: “virgin oak” is too simple. Just as “sherry cask” tells you the cubed root of sod all, so “virgin oak” paints barely a fraction of the picture. Is the oak American? Is it French? Is it Irish, like the Midleton Dair Ghaelachs? There’s a veritable forest of Quercii out there; each one quirkier than the last. Alba, Robur, Petraea, each different; requiring different methods of coopering; imparting different flavours to liquid. We haven’t even mentioned Mizunara, the very whisper of whose name causes all hipsters within earshot to subtly shift their trousers, and companies to triple their RRPs.
Whisky left too long in any sort of cask turns into over-tannic, overworked, over-wooden gloop. It doesn’t matter whether it’s ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, virgin oak or ex-ginger beer. And no, virgin oak isn’t for everything. It ought to be used sparingly; often vatted with casks of other types. And yes, without care it could be all-too-easy to smother it over distillery character like so much sludgy nutella. The Bladnoch Talia was a particularly notable weirdness that hinted at sledgehammer-finishing, as Mark pointed out.
But suggesting that virgin oak all ends in the same flavour – that it has no place in single malt scotch – smacks of wiser-than-thou smugness; of unwillingness to consider another point of view. (See also: people’s opinion on terroir in whisky…) The reason that all bourbon must be aged in new oak is that coopers successfully lobbied for it to be put into law to save their jobs in the 1930s. Would the scotch whisky industry have been so anti-new-oak if there were more Scottish cooperages making new oak casks? Seems unlikely. After all, it certainly wouldn’t be the first myth-disguised-as-truism with which marketers have woven the nebula whisky wears as a cloak.
Virgin oak is simply a cask type. Nothing more, nothing less. Another arrow in the blender’s quiver. It is subject to good stock management, as are all casks that sit on a distillery’s spreadsheet. If whisky is allowed to become too wooden, too tannic, too one-note, that isn’t the cask’s problem. If the malt is so shorn of character that a few years in new oak clubs it to death, that isn’t the cask’s problem. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d rather my whisky sat in a cask with something to say for itself, than in a used-up 4th-fill husk.
Which concludes the diatribe du jour. Back to this Cù Bòcan. Bottled at 46%; yours for about fifty notes. They haven’t specified what sort of virgin oak this has been in, by the way. Best guess is American, but if anyone knows differently the comments section is below…
Tomatin Cù Bòcan Virgin Oak – Review
Colour: Surprisingly light for virgin oak maturation.
On the nose: Sweet, but not cloyingly so. The skins of light red apples come through first, then heather – and heather honey – beside a touch of tar. Woodsmoke; there’s no saltiness or smoked meat here. It’s all rather faint. A touch of peardrop is an ever-present giveaway of considerable youth. Borderline immature.
On the palate: Ah. Rather bitter I’m afraid. A tussle between smoke, malt, and virgin oak. The smoke has become acrid, the malt is juvenile; clunky and clumsy, and the virgin oak is embarrassed and skulking. Barely doing anything really; certainly not anything bold or noteworthy. In terms of actual flavours it’s all rather light and plain. Ashy honey, pine, white pepper. Toast, pear, honeydew melon. Ho hum.
Not the best advert for Tomatin or Cù Bòcan. Come to that, not the best advert for virgin oak. Not really an advert for virgin oak at all, actually. I’m all for a delicate, sensitive touch, but this is a nervous fingertip brush. It’s like dipping a toe in the sea before running off squealing “too cold, too cold”. (My friend Rob did that once.)
£50, you’ll have guessed, is rather too much of the hard-earned for this. I do like the idea of deconstructing the standard Cù Bòcan – showing how it sits in its constituent casks of sherry, virgin oak and bourbon. But if the cask isn’t really turning up to the party it’s a little beside the point. Quercus Nihil-ad-rem.
I’d go for one of the vintage editions if I fancied spending £50 on Cù Bòcan. Or ditch the peat and make for Tomatin itself. All of which reminds me that I’ve not actually had any in a good few months, and I probably ought to.
But I won’t be writing off virgin oak casks in the meantime. And nor, I humbly beg to suggest, should you.
Image from our friends at Abbey Whisky.