The relief when a dual carriageway opportunity reveals itself on the A9, heading north navigating the slower inert obstacles. Now finally you can overtake the caravan and goods lorry without jeopardising your health. We’re almost at Inverness and the desire is to push on. Tomatin lies just after this particular stretch of road, but I’ve decided to make haste and will drop in another time.
I‘ve been saying this for the best part of a year when heading towards Sutherland. Recently several trips have been necessary and I’ve dismissed the opportunity to turn off. Actually, once I did pull over whilst heading south to check out the bottle your own options at the distillery. Nothing caught my imagination so I left empty-handed. Now I’m faced with another reminder as we have a sample of a recent Oloroso cask bottled at the visitor centre.
When I first visited Tomatin, which is longer ago than I care to remember. It’s the sheer size of the place that strikes you. Away from the A9, a small country road soon wanders past a cliff face of warehouses. Huge and impressive but not Macallan in scale with their death star ambition. I still wonder how Edrington was granted permission to build those tomb like brown structures on the side of a picturesque Speyside hill – visible to all. Yet someone trying to put a small fence around their property will be shot down by the local council. Money talks, especially in whisky.
The sense of scale at Tomatin really dates from a bespoke period. Yes, this Highland outpost has been in existence since 1897 if not before given the prominence of all the vital ingredients residing nearby to make whisky. Alt na Frith provided the water, farming was widespread and transportation links also included a nearby train line. Specifically, the 1950’s and into the 1970’s Tomatin was thriving. This size and scale were based on its ability to support a variety of blends. Some of its own making such as the Big T blend. No, not Tetley’s, but rather an inoffensive dram that offers some style with a touch of fruit and richness. Mental note to write a review for Malt. It’s still available today as a bargain-priced blend around £16 but lacking distribution. The style of its 1970’s equivalent has been somewhat lost since my last tasting, however, this is true of most blends that have endured the test of time. The Big T also came in a variety of age statements with the 5 and 12 year olds being most prominent. There was also a fun sideline in bottle shapes with some being stuck in replica miniature barrels.
The success of the Big T isn’t enough to explain the explosion in Tomatin’s size. Rather the distillery was a resource for all blenders including Johnnie Walker and Chivas. Part of Tomatin’s appeal was the scale of the operation. It’s rugged and dense characteristics made it a suitable candidate for several blends. The growth really kickstarted in 1956 when the original 2 stills were supplemented by another set. These were soon joined in 1958 by another pair – rapid growth and it didn’t stop there. Blended scotch was back on the tables of the nation after the ending of rationing in 1954. Yes, officially alcohol was never rationed as such, but with distilleries being closed or limited to quotas it was another form of. The staple ingredients were used for other more meaningful outcomes and some distilleries themselves were used as forces accommodation. Also, disposable income had become apparent and what else is there in life that’s worthwhile apart from enjoying yourself in whatever form you determine?
Clearly, the nation was having a very good time. By 1961 another 2 sets of stills were required on site and this was swelled again with another set in 1964. Even with 6 sets in total, demand continued to grow and by 1974 the total enterprise numbered 23 stills. This is the Glenfiddich and Glenlivet scale we see today, with the aforementioned Macallan about to up its number considerably with its new Teletubby facility. The sun is setting in the sky; Teletubbies say good-bye.
Well, during this period Tomatin was the largest distillery in Scotland but far from a household name despite bottling its own single malt. When the crash of the 1980’s rolled out across the industry, Tomatin like so many others was affected. By 1984 it was in liquidation but thankfully the distillery survived. Whilst several of the stills from the boom time were stripped out at the turn of the millennium. Tomatin today has a more modest output, with a new focus on its own single malt.
This Tomatin was one of the bottle your own options at the distillery so it might have been replaced with another cask now. It’s worth highlighting that we’ve reviewed a couple of distillery exclusive sherry casks previously. Distilled on 11th November 2005 before being bottled in 2017, this resided in an Oloroso cask #5221 for 11 years, at a strength of 56.9%. Thanks to the ever fantastic Noortje for the sample and photographs – you can check out her thoughts on this Tomatin whisky as well.
Tomatin 2005 Distillery Exclusive – review
On the nose: this isn’t shy with cherries, varnish, raspberries and dark chocolate. Cinnamon bark, cranberries and some strawberries as well – struggling to get out from the ferocity of the cask. Interestingly there’s some beefsteak tomato in here as well as blackberries, fennel and basil. Water loosens up that density revealing more currants and raisins oh I’m not allowed to say those maybe some figs and plum jam then.
In the mouth: interestingly not as pungent on the palate as I was anticipating from the nose. The sherry influence is there with its blood orange, bookbinding, red grapes and a tannic finish. Yet its also juicy with more of the savoury tomato, figs and cloves. Water just lightens some of the emphasis whereas in its natural form is more rugged and satisfying.
I really enjoyed this one without water being added. It just felt that it was caught at the right time. Any longer and the cask would have quashed what subtle aspects remained. This sample underlines next time I’m going past Tomatin to actually pull over and bottle something for myself and friends. Maybe even for our Patreon supporters – unless there’s a lorry or caravan that I don’t want sit behind again for miles and miles.