The Tomatin distillery is an eerie place, in truth. Once one of the largest distilleries in Scotland, it is a vast place from the outside; but it’s when you get inside that you realise just how big it used to be. There are empty spaces left for the old stills and mash tun which are now used for spares, leave it looking almost unfinished. And it is where a couple of these old stills would have stood that I spent most of my time (glamorous I know), in what can only be described as a portakabin-cum-tasting room. Certainly not very impressive from the outside - but open the door and you are met with wall-to-wall rows of sample bottles containing liquid from almost every cask in the warehouses! It is here that you get a good idea of just how much variation in colour there can be amongst similar single casks.
Having already had a good idea in my head of what I wanted to bottle in time for Christmas, I focussed on Oloroso. I wanted those distinct Christmas cake aromas often found from Oloroso sherry casks. But I also wanted something that was still fresh and lively, basically not too sherried. For this, you really need to be looking for something under 15 years of age, particularly if you are looking at ‘fresh’ sherry casks, i.e. those that have only been just been emptied of sherry and having contained only sherry before being filled with whisky. The 2009 that I ended up choosing had all these attributes – an undeniably Christmassy nose, bags of honey but then quite floral, particularly with a few drops of water. The balance for a whisky just shy of 10 years old was hugely impressive and, personally being much more of a bourbon cask fan in general, it certainly reminded me just how damn good sherry cask whisky can be when it’s done right. Do enjoy this over Christmas; we have many more exciting plans for 2019!
Stemming from the Gaelic “Tom Aitinn” (meaning Hill of Juniper), the story of Tomatin dates back to the 16th century when it is told that cattle drivers would pass through the area between Inverness and Aviemore, fortifying themselves with spirit from the local still. It was only in 1897, however, that the distillery was established and subsequently the village of Tomatin, where many of the distillery workers lived, sprang up. After a couple of bumpy years at the turn of the century the distillery established itself in the Highlands and rode the post-war boom rather well – at one point in the 1970s, it was the largest distillery in Scotland, distilling spirit that went largely into blending. However it fell on tough times in the mid-1980s (as all distilleries did) and was bought up by the Japanese Conglomerate Takara Shuzo in 1986, becoming the first distillery to come under Japanese ownership.
Fast forward to today and they are widely recognised as one of the most exciting distilleries in Scotland. Tomatin has finally found its calling producing high quality single malts. A bucketload of awards have followed including the highly prestigious Distiller of the Year and World’s Best Single Malt Scotch awards. Beyond this, the distillery is also in possession of an enviable cask library with vintages going back to the 1970s (more on that in 2019!) However, it was the younger casks that captured our attention this time around, all displaying a wonderful maltiness and richness, perfect for the run in to Christmas.
So onto our chosen cask:
Aged in a first-fill Oloroso sherry butt (500 litres) and bottled at cask strength (58.2%) this malt truly embodies the festive spirit. Think of the smell of wood burning on the fire, Christmas cake covered in brandy, sweet roasted almonds, whatever best characterises Christmas for you and you will find it in this bottle. Just 598 bottles were drawn from the cask and each bottle is individually numbered by hand and presented in rather fetching individual gift boxes. Not only should you have this whisky in your line up, your friends and work colleagues should too.
A well rounded sweet malt, with notes of chestnut, roasted almonds and a hint of pecan pie on the nose which give way to raisins, sultanas, toffee nougat and a touch of caramel coated hazelnut on the palate. This is beautifully balanced given the high alcohol content boasting a medium finish with hints of sweet oak. Ding Dong!
With a drop of water the liquid opens up and shows off its luscious fruit. The nutty almond notes give way to unctuous stewed apple and biscuit crumb on the nose. The palate keeps that chocolaty caramel nougat but is complemented by devilishly sweet sticky raisin with a touch of pine resin. The finish is all you would want from this Christmas malt, medium with touches of mince pie.