Tomatin Distillery celebrates 125 years. Founded in 1897, it’s not one of the oldest distilleries that hail from the origins of legal distilling between the 1820s and 1830s, nor those that claim dates prior such at Balblair (over 100 years earlier).
Tomatin has had a rich and interesting history. It was built in a subsequent wave of distillery construction during which 39 new distilleries were constructed in a single decade, including Aberfeldy, Dufftown, Tamdhu, Dalwhinnie, Glenesk, Glen Moray, Imperial, and Benromach. This period of rapid growth is known as the Whisky Bubble. In the year that Tomatin was founded Pattinson’s whisky company spent the equivalent of £2m in advertising and £6m the following year (in today’s money). Pattinson’s advertising stunts included providing 500 African Grey parrots to pubs and grocers which were taught to squawk “Buy Pattinson’s Whisky!” The Whisky Bubble was burst by the collapse of Pattinson’s and other whisky companies in 1898. The crash was so severe that no further distillery construction occurred for 49 years.
On June 12, 1897, it was reported in the Highland News that the Tomatin Spey Distillery had been registered in Edinburgh as a joint stock company – with capital of £12,000 in £10 shares – by John Macleish, John Macdougall, and Alexander Allen. The original construction was designed by Alexander Mackenzie, architect of Kingussie distillery (Speyside) and Dalwhinnie. The site was remote, and to the most Western edge of the Great Distillery District of Scotland (the yellow arrow near no. 18, above). The development of an Aviemore to Inverness railway line being key to the logistics for the site was noted in Distillers, Brewers and Sprit Merchants Magazine at the time. The water is taken from the Alt-na-Frith or Free Burn, and cooling water from the River Findhorn.
In 1901 The Distillers, Brewers and Spirit Merchants’ Magazine reported that the price of “new whisky” from Tomatin was 3 shillings and 6 pence per bulk gallon, or approximately £14 in today’s money. The table is recreated below, as the comparative pricing between different distilleries should be of interest to many today:
The first financial woes of the distillery were reported in 1906, with a petition to the Second Division of the Court in Session Edinburgh for the winding up of the Tomatin Spey District Distillery and application for a Supervision Order. The cause was the non-payment of debts to their coal merchants, the distillery having ceased production the previous year. By June 1906 the distillery house was offered for rent, with the bonus of free fishing and golf for any tenant. By October the whole distillery was for sale by Auction. It seems it went unsold until later.
It’s recorded in January 1909 the distillery was back in full production under the auspices of the New Tomatin Distillery Company Ltd, a business set up by successful local grocers and merchant company based in Inverness. The distillery was operating with just two stills and producing roughly 50,000 proof gallons a year.
Tomatin is largely quiet in the press for 40 odd years, with the occasional crime, civic meeting, and divorce passing without much note. Although, the distillery locale was regularly reported as significant source of strong lambs and ewes during the period. Two World Wars passed with seldom a mention. When production started again after World War II the production was only 120,000 proof gallons per annum on the same two stills.
By the late 1950s the distillery is again in fair fettle, with future production completely presold until the end of the decade and significant investment in growing their output. Tomatin Distillers went public in 1958. The sustained growth continued into the early 1960s, at which time the production from Tomatin was close to that of Glenlivet distillery. Tomatin expanded throughout the 1960s with new stills and warehousing across the site to reach an annual output of 2,000,000 proof gallons from eleven stills. By the end of the 1960s Tomatin was the largest malt distillery in Scotland.
In 1970 a surprise takeover bid was made by Distillers Co Ltd. The takeover was resisted by Tomatin, who pointed out that DCL had oversold spirit from their 42 distilleries and were 5,000,000 proof gallons of new malt whisky short in 1970. Tomatin successful fended off the attempted acquisition, but it was not long before a supply deal with Takara Shuzo Co. of Kyoto, Japan laid the foundations for the direction of Tomatin Distillery today.
Profits remained strong for Tomatin throughout the early 1970s, with a strong drive for international growth at a time when domestic sales were stagnating. The early 1970s saw the distillery output expand to 4,750,000 gallons in November 1974, bringing the total number of stills on site to 23. At the time the company was aiming for a total production of 10,000,000 gallons, only limited by the capacity of the local burn (the Alt-na-Frith) that provided the water for the mashing. It would have required a further 23 stills to reach 10,000,000 gallons.
Towards the end of the 1970s there was a significant slowing in the profits of Tomatin Distillers. Production was down to as little as 2,000,000 proof gallons by the end of the financial year ended March 1977. By 1978 the press discussed the involvement of Japanese businesses in the Scotch industry, noting that companies such as Suntory had shown interest in several Scottish distilleries but had not purchased any. The Aberdeen Press and Journal noted in 1978 that Japanese consumers would be shocked to find out just how much of their “Japanese” whisky was, in fact, Scotch. It would take almost 50 years for rule changes to halt the sale of Scotch sold as Japanese Malt Whisky.
In the winter of 1978 there was considerable snowfall, causing some of the warehouse roofs to collapse. It was also reported that the experimental eel farm using waste heat from the distillery had been impacted by the cold. Approximately 10 tons of eels died when the distillery heating failed. Despite the setback, the experiment was successful and the waste heat from the distillery would be used in the second stage of development, with 100 tons of eels shipped live or frozen to markets in Europe, America, and New Zealand each year.
The 1980s were not a good time for any Scotch producers and by 1981 Tomatin was making significant losses. The company had taken a government rescue loan and sold off 20% of their shares to Heineken group. A lack of orders forced a 50% cut in production, which had already been well below capacity, the 1981 production having been just 700,000 gallons.
The losses continued year on year until company shares were suspended in December 1984 and the business went into voluntary liquidation, the first distilling company to do so since World War II (although many had mothballed distilleries at this time). The Aberdeen Press and Journal noted that the Hogmanay bells will have a “hollow ring” for those workers at Tomatin.
In practice, production was only halted for a handful of weeks before the liquidator restarted production pending sale of the distillery. In February 1986 it was confirmed that Takara Shuzo Co. and partner Okura and Co. had created a company to buy Tomatin, both Japanese companies having a longstanding relationship with the Tomatin distillery.
The acquisition marked the first distillery in Scotland to be purchased by Japanese interests. Not everyone was delighted; one correspondent, a Mr Smith of Kerymor Tavern, Kirriemuir felt that the Scotch Whisky Association should have bought Tomatin and “levelled it to the ground” as a way of addressing the oversupply problem in the industry. Another, G. Borthwick of Alexandria, decried the “pick of our industry being pirated by rich predators furth of Scotland yet again.” Liberal MPs spoke with grave concern about the impact bulk export of Scotch was having on the national industry. In 1986 the deal was approved by the UK Government. Nikka bought Ben Nevis in 1989. Suntory purchased Bowmore, Auchentoshan, and Glen Garioch distilleries in 1994.
In 1987 the distillery visitor centre was advertised, and has proved a successful development ever since. Conveniently located off the A9 on the route North towards Inverness and the Northern Highlands, the facilities were renovated in 1992 with a target of attracting 50,000 visitors a year. They were opened by smashing a bottle of 25 year old Tomatin single malt with a Cooper’s hammer.
During the early 1990s production continued to decline at Tomatin as the balance between supply and demand was dialled in more effectively. The overall target was to avoid the wild variations that had seen the boom and bust cycles over the previous century. Nevertheless, Tomatin was still producing 10% of all malt whisky in Scotland.
In 1996 Tomatin Distillery Company was in sufficiently fine health to acquire the Antiquary Deluxe whisky brand. In 1996 the blend retailed for £21.49 per bottle; today the NAS version can be found for just £19.94 on Master of Malt, very much bucking the trend of single malt over the same period.
The remainder of the 1990s saw steady but low production from the distillery until 2002, when the decision was made to reduce the number of stills from 23 back to the 12 which are still used for production today. It is understood that the Japanese owners have taken a largely hands-off approach to the distillery, perhaps providing more restraint than previous incumbents, with very few other changes made this side of the millennium (bar the annual distillation of peated malt for the Cu Bocan range).
In 2022 – the 125th Anniversary year – the celebrations began in rather muted fashion. A newly designed box for the signature 12 year old single malt came first. Then – more flamboyantly – a 1993 single Oloroso sherry cask was released at an eye-watering £695. This was clearly priced to ensure availability right up to the end of the year. Gordon and MacPhail have a 1989 32 year old for a similar price; Douglas Laing have a 25 year old bottled a few years ago. still sitting on a few shelves for £250.
Tomatin also recently announced the oldest Tomatin ever released at 50 years old. This, too, is an oloroso cask, and will set you back £17,500 plus shipping. Unlike all the other Tomatin bottles which you can “buy,” their prestige range can only be “acquired.”
The biggest curveball was the release by the Tomatin Distillery Company of a Shirakawa 1958 Japanese whisky – from an almost unknown and now closed Japanese distillery – the earliest known vintage of any Japanese whisky bottled. Information is very limited about the parcel of whisky which produced 1,500 bottles, but it appears to have spent some time in steel containers and some time maturing in 350 Japanese oak casks. This bottle will set you back £25,000 plus shipping and insurance.
Both (quite frankly vulgar) releases will be available to taste exclusively at the London Whisky Show for just an extra £350 over-and-above your main show ticket price. That’s great for anyone who can’t understand what the “cost of living crisis” is all about. Let’s hope the £37,500,000 that will be made from this whisky will be used to help keep the core range affordable for the rest of us!
By way of concluding this piece, and in line with my commitment to review more core-range products and work my way through those core range whiskies at Tomatin, such at the Legacy and 12 year old, I have a review of the Tomatin Cask Strength along with three other similarly aged, affordable Tomatin casks from independent bottlers.
Tomatin Cask Strength – Review
Bourbon and sherry casks. 57.5% ABV. £50.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Smooth, soft, rich toasted sugar, fig, giving way to more fruity Tomatin sprit character with juicy apples, ripe pears. A slight char note giving BBQ pineapple and Brûlée tops.
In the mouth: Rich toffee, ground dates, milk chocolate dipped orange peel, toffee popcorn, fresh mint, Moffat toffee, nutmeg. With water the experience is more rounded and balanced.
I was slightly nervous for this expression. I assumed that the sherry casks would be the same for the 12 year old, with this bottled younger, perhaps 8 years, and at fuller strength. However, I really don’t get any of the off-notes I found with the 12 year old. This is a smooth and rounded but yet also big, rich, and bold, delivering loads of flavour from the sherry casks whilst also offering balanced spirit. This is a cracking dram.
Cadenhead’s Authentic Collection Tomatin 2009 – Review
Single bourbon cask 2009 to 2022. 54.1% ABV. £50.
Colour: Weathered straw.
On the nose: Malty with a fresh zing of green apple and a strong herbal note with mint and candied tarragon. Grist and dusty gravel, caramel or toffee penny, orange marmalade, buttery. Water brings richer oilier and more aromatic characteristics; a little more orange and malt and a little less herbal.
In the mouth: Malty and bright, apple sauce, mineral dust, vanilla and toffee, water brings out all of the core flavours with more vanilla and oak spices, a dry finish of medium length.
This is what Cadenhead’s are best at: unadulterated quality bourbon cask whisky at a natural strength. It’s such a shame that stocks and management are forcing them towards cask finishes, but it’s also fair to say this style of whisky is not a quick seller. Most likely it will still be available along with other Tomatin releases on the website. Overlooking a Cadenhead’s Tomatin is usually a mistake.
Thompson Brothers Tomatin 2008 – Review
2008 vintage, 14 years old. Refill bourbon hogshead followed by a cognac barrique finish. 50% ABV. £60.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Rich toasted sugar, yeasty funk, hoppy, baked pastry, toffee apple, cinnamon, baking spices, very typical Tomatin and spirit forward but with layers of richness over the fruity base.
In the mouth: Light, almost thin, apricot Danish, buttered toast with brown sugar, brioche, sharp and bitter lemon rind, with water there are more baking spices, baked apple, steamed syrup sponge pudding, golden raisins, custard creams.
Charmingly illustrated by Katie Guthrie with those eels of which tens of thousands of tons were presumably produced next to the distillery. Now I hear many millions of bees reside next door. I wanted this to be a demonstration of everything that the Tomatin French Collection Cognac Finish was lacking, and also a demonstration that a few more percentage points in ABV would have helped. In the end it does not deliver as expected. It’s super yeasty; I’d have guessed a beer cask blind, and a little sour. It’s interesting; challenging, but not delicious.
The Whisky Barrel Originals Tomatin Apollo 12 “SCE to AUX” – Review
Released as part of the Space series of independent bottlings, “SCE to AUX” tells the story of when they had to switch off Apollo 12 and back on again. 10 years old, 2011 vintage. 56.4% ABV. £45
On the nose: Raisins, crushed red grapes, furniture polish, old antique oak, treacle toffee, hard butter toffees, mint, dark chocolate, warm apple pie.
In the mouth: Chocolate ganache, baked fig with manuka honey, chocolate digestive biscuit, dark chocolate Florentines, raisins, espresso coffee, water brings the disparate notes together in a warm bubbling vat of chocolatey fruitiness and coffee, with a long spicy finish.
Well, this whisky has nothing to do with space. It’s certainly not stellar, nor does it resemble Tomatin much, with the cask bombarding the spirit and taking over. It is a very modern whisky style, certainly a sherry bomb, and fortunately the sherry cask is delivering very tasty flavours and none of the off notes they are prone to. Many will love this very well priced whisky, but for me it’s a…