Ethics creeps into quite a lot of Malt writing. Whether that be in relation to flipping whisky for profit; receiving payment for internet content or post-rebrand price hikes. Another strand in the moral fibre of the industry I would like to test is in relation to environmental stewardship.
At a recent tour of Tomatin distillery our guide, Neil was explaining how sustainable the process was, from the reuse of the draff as cattle fodder to the pot ale being spread on the hillside as fertiliser. Other changes such as steam heating the stills are also lauded as being energy efficient although I would argue the changes have occurred over the last 50 years were driven by cost efficiencies long before the environmental crisis was widely understood. This, of course, is nothing new in the whisky process, but for me, the ‘branding’ of this as sustainable and environmentally considerate is a new take.
A recent article in the magazine of the Energy Institute highlighted some other interesting changes. The Orkney Distillery is considering the feasibility of locally produced hydrogen to replace LPG or kerosene for heating stills. Brewers are finding profit in anaerobic digestion of waste to create bio-methane; not just to power facilities but also feed into the national grid.
Most notable is the new distillery at Macallan that includes a biomass heat and power plant that also provides power to around 20,000 homes. Of course, the steam produced in the plant fires the stills and saves significant costs to the whisky manufacturer.
The Energy Institute article starts and finishes focussing on the consumer, firstly noting that consumers shopping habits, increasingly motivated by environmental issues and finishing with the suggestion we will be able to add ‘sustainable whisky’ to our list of special versions along with the Local and the Organic that are currently popular. Considering the road miles involved in sourcing barley from the continent, or the peated barley shipped all over the globe for the world whisky industry a truly carbon-neutral bottle of whisky seems a long way off.
This brings me back to Tomatin, and the end of my ‘sustainability’ focussed tour of their facilities. Tomatin has one of the largest ranges of bottle-your-own options of the distilleries offering 5 different casks. The 5-year-old Virgin Oak was a bold pick and very delicious, but I played it safe with a middle of the range Oloroso Cask full maturation at 12 years old. I filled it myself and it was placed into an elaborate presentation box complete with non-recyclable plastic insert. I challenged Tomatin at the time about the sustainability of the packaging but regret simply refusing the box altogether which would have been more appropriate.
Many retailers are favouring recycled packing for postage of orders but plenty still favour plastic bubble wrap or the inflatable sleeves that, as I understand, are non-recyclable.
It’s laudable that businesses are considering the environment and improving efficiencies; obviously, these improvements will be driven by multiple factors including overall profit. However, if the system is not considered as a whole the positive message is devalued and appears more like trumped-up marketing than a concerted effort to be more green.
It seems only a matter of time before one of these distilleries can run their entire process on the waste hot air generated by the marketing team.
Tomatin Distillery Exclusive Single Cask, 2007 – Review
This is cask #3514, Oloroso Full Maturation, 60.9%
Colour: Waxed antique pine.
On the nose: Winey then rich deep sweetness; Omani Halawa, Christmas pudding, flamed orange peel and Moffat toffee.
In the mouth: Decent body that holds up well to water, initial minty burst with prominent wood, then Oloroso sherry and some alcohol heat and back to sherry again; fruity, richly sweet, with a slight whiff of sulphur. This is not massively complex; the sherry has blasted it all. The finish is classically drying with some wood too but missing the tobacco or cigar notes you might expect from a full maturation.
I’ve no affiliation with Tomatin distillery (despite 2 of 2 reviews on the distillery); its output means that it’s widely available both independently and core range. The team at Tomatin seem to do cask finishing well and the spirit stands up to all sorts of casks from tawny port to red wine. Oloroso is such a powerful flavour that it can really smash a whisky after 2 years let alone 12. As such it’s difficult to score an oloroso finish too highly as some of the nuances of the spirit are lost. That’s not to say it’s not very tasty but I think the success of an oloroso whisky is a function of the quality of the sherry more than the distillate. I should have bought the 5-year-old virgin oak.