Tout est dans la finition.
Finishing whisky in an active cask is often maligned; it’s one area some Malt writers have been very vocal about! Of course, some of the criticism is valid, such as in cases where short term finishes are added to jazz up boring inventories. But, what about when finishes are done well? What should the consumer be keeping an eye out for?
When the Tomatin French Collection was announced last month, I was excited. £65 each seems a fair price in the market, and the outturn of 6,000 resulted in good availability; nevertheless, it’s expensive to purchase all three in one go. It’s also worth bearing in mind you can find excellent single cask Tomatin at cask strength for the same price if you shop around. For example: the excellent Aberdeen Whisky Shop exclusive Tomatin Verdejo cask trilogy reduced to £65 at the time of writing. Fortunately, Simon Burgess of my whisky club split a set, and I bought in to bring this review. Now, the keen eyed will notice that this is a release of 4 whiskies with another coming in September… a wee bit more on that later.
Full Malt disclosure: I have to admit that I am a fan of Tomatin. I visited the distillery in 2019 and picked up a full maturation Oloroso, but I should have bought the more unusual virgin oak. I just recently purchased some more of the Whisky Meets Sherry I reviewed previously. In the meantime, I enjoyed a number of the Cuatro series, which sought to showcase sherry types and were sub-£50 when released. These were fantastically drinkable whiskies, too. Within whisky circles, the general feeling is that Tomatin does finishes well.
I’m really setting myself up for a fall here! But, let’s get into it.
Prior to tasting the latest releases, I reached out to the team at Tomatin for some further information and ended up exchanging emails with Global Brand Ambassador Scott Adamson. Scott is a born and bred Highlander. He has been closely involved with Tomatin almost exclusively since joining the team with an internship in 2012. Scott’s work now involves spending “half his time making whisky and half his time taking about it.”
Malt: It’s been a tough 18 months for Scotch whisky with tariffs, the COVID collapse of tourism, bars closed; how has it been at Tomatin?
Scott: To say it has been a tricky year for the Scotch Whisky industry would be a massive understatement, but – given the circumstance – we are very happy with how the business has performed. We’ve always talked about how flexible we are at Tomatin, and our response to the issues over the past year or so is testament to this. Across the company, people are performing their roles in different ways than they have in the past, but there is a very positive attitude about the place. Globally, it has been incredible to see how adaptable our distribution partners have been to the unique circumstances faced in each market.
Malt: What COVID changes do you anticipate becoming the norm?
Scott: It’s still early days and it’s hard to know what the attitude towards COVID measures will be when we return to normal. We are already seeing demand for in-person events rise again, but at the same time online and virtual tastings will undoubtedly remain. Consumers in less central areas of the country are now able to participate, and bars and retailers can extend their customer reach through doing so. I suspect we’ll see a hybrid approach going forward.
If a whisky club is hosting a Tomatin night and they want someone from the distillery to join in, we know we can do that now, but for the most part I am very much looking forward to returning to in-person tastings.
The virtual approach has been a brilliant step forward behind the scenes for education and training; I can have a call with retailers in China in the morning, a bartender in Germany at lunchtime, and a distributor in Canada in the evening. Embracing the virtual has given us a much wider reach and I also see in-person events becoming more interactive. For example, I could be in a room with the group and we could dial in our Master Distiller for a couple of drams.
I’d like to be attending events in the UK from late summer, but, in terms of foreign travel, I have pretty much written 2021 off. My passport has actually expired! If things do begin to open up soon, I’d like to do a couple of events in Europe before the end of the year, but I’m not banking on it.
Malt: Tomatin have a great track record in finishing casks. Could you explain how a series like this gets planned from conception to release?
Scott: When it comes to limited editions there is no single, hard-and-fast approach. Sometimes we get offered a parcel of casks that we just can’t turn down; we fill them with an appropriate spirit either for a full maturation or a finish, and we develop a concept for a release when we feel the whisky is ready. On other occasions, someone in the team will have an idea that they think could be interesting and we will try to execute it.
The French Collection was developed in light of the popularity of the Cuatro series. We’ve always been proud of our ability to release interesting expressions in their own right but, with Cuatro, we realised there was a real demand from enthusiasts to be able to compare and contrast different types of cask within a series.
Developing something like the French Collection isn’t a quick process. First of all, we had to decide what the underlying theme was going to be. With Cuatro the theme was sherry, but within that we were able to introduce consumers to casks, like Fino and Manzanilla, which were incredibly rare at the time. With the French Collection we have been able to replicate this; Sauternes and Cognac are fairly well known but, for most drinkers, this will be the first time they may have ever tried Monbazillac or Rivesaltes casks. It may be the first time they have heard of these wines.
We knew that we wanted the series to be bottled at around 12 years old, as it means that we have a well-aged whisky but still at a very accessible price point. We also know from years of experience that Tomatin does well with a finish of over two years. In this instance we opted for 3 years.
Then, it’s a waiting game. Most of the casks used in this series are a first for Tomatin, so we took regular samples to make sure they weren’t doing anything unexpected. There would be nothing worse than going to all this effort to source these rare casks to find that they have overpowered the distillery character. So, it’s all about sampling.
Approximately a year ahead of release, the New Product Development team get to work. The team is comprised of sales, marketing, packaging, logistics, and bottling colleagues; I represent the maturing stock position. This group is responsible for taking what we have in the cask and turning it into a product. It’s where we really get to grips with what the product story is and how to tell that in a compelling way. Part of this is through the packaging, but it also considers the release plan. For the French Collection we have developed a series of clips which feature stunning visuals of France and Scotland, with ambisonic audio to deliver a fully immersive experience that pulls on all the senses. That might sound awfully convoluted, but at its core we are all whisky drinkers in the team and products need to pass the “Would I buy this?” test.
Malt: Do you have a particular source for ex-bourbon barrels and how does that influence your new make?
Scott: We have two main suppliers of bourbon barrels: Kelvin Cooperage over in Louisville and Speyside Cooperage in Craigellachie. Our preference is for air-seasoned oak that has held bourbon for 3 to 4 years at most. In a world where we talk about how long our sherry butts have held sherry and our port pipes have held port, it might be surprising that we aren’t looking for barrels that have held bourbon for decades… but when it comes to bourbon barrels we are looking for the flavour to come from the wood, not the previous contents. For us, the less time the bourbon spends in the cask the better, as there will be more flavour left for us.
Our new make is light but full of character. It’s fruit forward: apple, pear, and rhubarb with a malty backbone. Bourbon barrels add their characteristic vanillas, coconuts, and caramels to create a simply wonderful whisky.
Malt: Are these bourbon barrels usually first fill, second fill, third fill? A mixture?
Scott: If bourbon barrels are listed as part of the recipe on our packaging, then that component will have been fully matured in first fill barrels unless stated otherwise. For example: Tomatin Legacy states “Bourbon and Virgin Oak Casks;” 85% of the whisky has been fully matured in first fill bourbon barrels with the final 15% fully matured in virgin American oak.
Our finishes actually start off in refill hogsheads; these are second and third fill mostly, but we will fill a fourth time so long as the cask is still showing an active characteristic. Tired casks are rejuvenated and reused. I often refer to these casks as either the unsung heroes or the workhorses of whisky maturation. If we say that 70% of the flavour of a whisky from a first fill cask is from the maturation, then maybe the number here is 50%. I know that “70%” statement has come under a bit of criticism recently, but it helps paint a picture here. Refill casks have all the subtractive and interactive maturation properties of a first fill cask but less of the additive properties, so after around 10 years we have all of the flavours associated with the Tomatin house style, but [the whisky] has a bit of maturity and it is ready to accept a finish.It’s these refill casks that, when left to mature for 25+ years, give us the wonderful tropical fruit driven vintages that Tomatin has become known for. Here the flavours driven by oxidation are to the fore.
Malt: In terms of the selection of wine casks: did you have existing arrangements for these, go through brokerages, or make special arrangements for wines that would complement the spirit?
Scott: We’re very lucky at Tomatin to have our own in-house cooperage, which often gives us the ability to build relationships directly with wineries around the world. For example, our core range 14-Year-Old is finished in Tawny Port casks directly from Symington Family Estates or our 15-Year-Old limited edition from a couple of years ago used Moscatel barriques from Bacalhôa.
However, when we are working on a series like this that requires four different casks, we like to work with a broker. We can bring the concept to them and they will suggest casks that will achieve what we are setting out to do. Crucially, they can ensure that the different cask types will be available at the same time, or very close to the others as possible. We have relationships with a handful of brokers that all have their own specialist area.
Malt: How closely do you find the whisky matches the finishing period you estimate?
Scott: Ultimately the maturing whisky doesn’t care about our plans, so there is always flexibility. That said, having a plan in place is crucial to our business. We have an incredible understanding of our spirit and how it behaves. We know that it’s ready to be finished after 8 to 12 years in a refill hogshead. We know that a finish of less than two years tends to be a bit too spirit driven, and over six years tends to be a bit too cask driven. There are occasional exceptions, but we are able to build fairly accurate plans from this.
Even when we are using casks that we have never used at Tomatin before, we have an understanding of how they should perform. Our Master Distiller, Graham Eunson was distillery manager at Glenmorangie from 1998 to 2008, so he knows how a Sauternes cask performs. With something like Rivesaltes, the wine itself is a fortified wine so we can approach it in the same way we would a Sherry, Port, or Marsala cask.
There have been a few occasions where we have sampled a cask and thought “this is perfect,” but have had no plans to release it. When that happens, we don’t fill it into plastic but will fill it into exhausted casks. That way the whisky is still oxidising and maturing but the wood has no influence over it.
Malt: Have you had projects just not work out? Were we due to have a Tequila cask Tomatin to match a Mescal Cu Bocan that had go down the sink?
Scott: Who told you about #Tequilagate? Just kidding; we haven’t experimented with either of those cask types yet.
In the time that I have been involved in maturation and cask selection there hasn’t been anything that has simply not worked. From what I have heard, it has always been incredibly rare. At Tomatin we have a very versatile spirit which allows us to mature in a wide variety of casks. There are occasions where casks go in a different direction to what we initially expected, but as long as the whisky is good, we are willing to embrace that.
Malt: I note that the Cognac finish is coming later in the year. When is that expected and what was the driver in leaving the fourth in the series until later?
Scott: The Cognac edition will be released in September. It’s already bottled and tastes great, but we wanted to spread the series across the year like we did with the Five Virtues series. As to why we have left the Cognac edition for later in the year specifically: the Monbazillac, Sauterenes, and Rivesaltes editions are all sweet wine casks. So, there is a natural comparison here in the same way that Cuatro offered a comparison of four different sherry casks. The Cognac edition is a bit of a standalone expression within the series and its flavour profile makes for an excellent autumnal dram.
Malt: Do you see increasing demand for special editions?
Scott: The appetite for this sort of product continues to grow. This series was launched a week ago and already we are telling retailers that we don’t have any more to offer them. In the coming years we will look to increase the outturn of each release rather than increase the number of releases. We’d rather have one captivating release and enough stock of that product to go around than multiple releases with small volumes. Of course, that means more casks but that doesn’t seem to be a problem now.
We are in the fortunate position that we have a great portfolio of stock spanning the last 50 years which has been managed incredibly well, and this allows us to release single malts for all levels of consumer. We do release incredibly rare expressions like the Tomatin 50-Year -Old and the Warehouse 6 Collection. These aren’t rare through manipulation, they’re rare because of the fact that these are some of the last parcels of stock from this era. Single Malt Scotch Whisky is the most revered spirits – perhaps even drinks – category in the world, and there is a huge demand for this sort of product. I have been surprised at how few of these bottled have made it to the secondary market. It gives me great comfort that so much of this whisky is being enjoyed.
Across our range, the volume we release reflects the stock we have. So, on things like the French Collection, we want to make it available to as many enthusiasts as possible. I can’t comment on the release strategies of other producers, but I genuinely believe that the vast majority have the same approach as us, but very often the stock that they have does not satisfy the demand. The reaction of the secondary market is outwith our control.
Hypothetically, if a producer is able to purchase a small parcel of rare or experimental casks that, after years of maturation, produce an incredible whisky but only have an outturn of, say, 1,000 bottles: should they release it and accept that there will not be enough to go around, or should they hold onto it? If they do release it and the price explodes at auction: are they to blame? They certainly don’t get a share of the profits.
Malt: Finishing as a practice in general has picked up a bit of a bad name. It’s often seen as a way of jazzing up knackered old casks or, more now than ever, adding deep colour to an otherwise unloved distillery. What are the characteristics of a good finish to look out for?
Scott: I don’t really think it has. I think a small number of commentators have tried to challenge the industry and have drawn the “lipstick on a pig” analogy. As Graham Eunson often says: finishing is another tool in the box that, if employed properly, can create excellent whiskies full of complexity. I think the vast majority of whisky drinkers are in this camp. On the whole, whisky enthusiasts are very open minded and reductive statements like “finishing is bad” just don’t hold water. Sure, you probably won’t enjoy every finished whisky, but do you really enjoy every fully sherry matured whisky? It doesn’t point to a bad practice; it highlights the thing that we love about single malt: the diversity. As an ambassador and enthusiast, I can’t think of anything more boring than a range of whiskies all matured in the same cask for varying levels of time. Finishing allows us to get creative.
As to what makes a good finish, it’s about the interaction of the distillate character and the previous contents of the cask. The first part of this is the spirit that you are going to put into the cask. Finishing isn’t necessarily about making a whisky “better,” it’s about adding to it and pulling its flavours in different directions. So, if you want a good whisky at the end of the process you have to start with one.
The second element is the previous contents of the cask. I know there is some discussion as to whether the wood itself or the previous contents of the cask is the most important factor in maturation and, again, a one size fits all rule doesn’t work. It largely depends on how you are using the cask but will also be different for one distillate than it is for another.
At Tomatin, we have found that when it comes to full maturation, then the wood definitely has more influence. But when it comes to finishing, it’s all about what was previously in the cask. That’s why we spend so much time and money on sourcing casks that have held wines of the highest quality.
I think we have to encourage drinkers to be open minded. I try to encourage people to remember the first whisky that got them hooked, in that moment it was the best whisky you had ever tried but what if you never tried anything new after that? You would be robbing yourself of a world of flavour. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “I didn’t like peated whisky until I tried…” So maybe you haven’t had great experiences with finishes but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one out there for you.
The wonderful thing about single malt is its diversity both in terms of the whiskies produced and the people who drink them, and we should do everything we can to embrace and encourage that.
Malt: Can you give us a teaser of any other unusual and interesting casks that may be sitting around in dunnage warehouses?
Scott: Where to begin?! We are continually brining in new cask types; we call them “the weird and wonderful.” All of our whisky is matured on site but, due to their often-unique sizing, many of these casks cannot be stowed in our racked warehouses so they are laid down in our dunnage warehouses. Since the start of this year alone we have filled a parcel of Palo Cortado butts from a retired solera, some incredibly rare White Port casks, and we have just received a load of Andean Oak casks from Colombia that we have been working on since 2018. This really is just scratching the surface.
Now, before I get into the official bottlings, let’s have a quick review of a purely bourbon matured Tomatin:
Cadenhead’s Small Batch Tomatin 10 Years Old – Review
Matured from 2009 to 2019 in 2x bourbon hogsheads. Bottled at 57.7%. At the time of writing, this was still available in the Cadenhead’s online shop for £52. For the tasting I reduced it back to 46% to give a fair comparison.
On the nose: Yeasty and malty, a little butter toffee, fresh juicy apples, pear skins, vanilla rice pudding with apricot jam and a dusting of nutmeg and brown sugar
In the mouth: Half a teaspoon of marmite swirled through an apple crumble, tinned pineapple; slight waxiness, blossom honey, the finish offers a bright effervescence on the tongue.
The great thing about bourbon barrel-matured whiskies like these is that they tease with the future development of the tropical fruit flavours; what would these casks bring at 25 years old? But, even at this age the balance between the spirit and the mellowing of the wood is a real sweet spot for both value and pleasure. This is a rare whisky where I would say I enjoyed every sip and was excited to pour it every time.
To illustrate the pitfalls of cask finishing, I’ll now taste another Cadenhed’s bottling of Tomatin. When this popped up in the tasting pack for Campbell Town Online Tasting Week I was already in the process of drafting this article. Cameron and Jenna (who were hosting the tasting) suggested this was a very lacklustre bourbon cask that rang alarm bells to them in 2019, and which was quickly re-racked into an active cask.
Cadenhead’s Tomatin 10 Years Old PX Sherry Cask – Review
Bourbon Hogshead re-racked into a PX sherry cask in 2019 and bottled for the 2021 Online Tasting Week. 53.7% ABV
Colour: Roasted Chestnuts.
On the nose: Pralines, treacle toffee, Mont Blanc aux marrons, Medjool dates, PX, PX, PX, with water V60 pour-over coffee.
In the mouth: Milk chocolate, freshly ground whole bean coffee, Moffat toffee, water brings our fruitness with some baked apples, rum soaked raisins, French polish, a bit cloying.
This is precisely the sort of heavy-handed finishing that gives the practice a bad name. There is barely any character of Tomatin to detect. I know there are some who love these dark sherry bombs but for me it does a disservice to the spirit and the distillery itself.
Now, to get into the French Collection; these are all bottled at 46% ABV. All these were samples provided by Tomatin; per Malt policy, this does not affect my notes or scores.
Tomatin French Collection Sauternes Casks – Review
Colour: Generic Sweet French Wine.
On the nose: Familiar warmth, deep fruity richness moving to polished furniture, snuffed candle, crushed apples, a mustiness of dunnage warehouse, vanilla, malted barley, perry, then the Tomatin character wrestles through at the end of the nose.
In the mouth: a continuation of the nose, warmth, fruity richness, the oak spices tingling on the tongue and a fresh fruity finish of cloudy apple juice, brown sugar, medium roast artisan Kenyan Coffee.
Tomatin French Collection Rivesaltes Casks – Review
Colour: Generic Sweet French Wine.
On the nose: Autumnal baked fruit and pastry maybe a streusel, malty and yeasty with a little salt, caramelised white chocolate, plenty of Tomatin character coming through here too.
In the mouth: marginally thin, some wine, toffee, autumnal spices, a bit tight and difficult to discern, a few drops of water bring a much richer bolder caramel apple tart tatin
Tomatin French Collection Monbazillac Casks – Review
Colour: Generic Sweet French Wine.
On the nose: Rich caramelised sugar-coated almonds, toffee, definitively Tomatin, with that same mixture of yeasty malt and toffee followed by fruity-cheap-sweet sparkling wine
In the mouth: Interestingly oaky and spicey up front with a sweet oily texture and a faint nutty finish. The fruitiness has dropped away and the French oak has certainly come across in the finish.
Tomatin French Collection Cognac Casks – Review
(unfortunately we could not get a sample to try from the team at Tomatin)
Score: Zut Alors/10
For the three wine finished Tomatins, there is little to differentiate this by colour once in the glass; in fact, be careful when doing a vertical, as they would be easy to mix up! However, the different finishes do showcase the variations between the wine types.
These expressions take quite some time to open up, so please give them time; you can even decant some of the bottle when you open it to give it more air. I tasted these over a couple of hours and the nose just got better and better. These are so close to what I look for in a finish: lots of distillery character and the gentle push in an interesting direction from the finishing cask. But, for me, the palate left each one a little lacking. None of them were lip-smacking, they were all just pleasant… which is a bit of a shame. These are all firmly 5/10, with the Sauternes edging into the lead and the Monbazillac falling to the rear.
Who knows what the Cognac cask will bring later in the year?