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Tomatin Is Whisky, and Whisky Is Tomatin

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Tomatin Is Whisky, and Whisky Is Tomatin
Die Single Malts von hervorragender Qualität haben auf dem nationalen wie internationalen Markt schon so manche Medaille abgeräumt. (© Tomatin Spey District Distillery Co Ltd.)
The single malts of excellent quality have often been awarded with highly decorated medals. (© Tomatin Spey District Distillery Co Ltd.)

SCOTLAND (Tomatin) – Tomatin is the name of an age-old Gaelic village located at an altitude of 1,000 meters above sea-level on the eastern edge of the Monadhiliath Mountains in the Scottish Highlands. The closest big city is Inverness, about 22 kilometers away. Today, this region attracts tourists from all over the world – for hiking in the Hihglands, to search Nessie in Loch ness. However, during the 15th century, the region was a problem region as there was nothing except for “pure nature”, with farmers in the middle who drove their cattle from the North to the central cattle markets. This took pretty much time, it was often cold and windy, so they tried to help themselves by burning a spirit out of grain and the clear water of the Alt-na-Frith source. It warmed and helped against misery, homesickness, and all the other booboos that could affect one on that long lonely path.

 

This first illegal whisky distillery in that region worked half secretly for centuries, until in 1897, on the zenith of the Victorian whisky boom, three men – John MacDougall, John MacLeish und Alexander Allan – legalized the distillery by founding, together with several investors, the "Tomatin Spey District Distillery Co Ltd.” The location was perfect. There was a source with very smooth water, and short before, a railway was opened quite closely, which allowed to transport the whisky to Inverness without any problems. What was missing, were people. But without them, nothing was possible, so, an architect was commissioned to construct houses for the future employees. By now, about 80 percent of the employees live in the company’s own apartments; this has two advantages: they are closely linked to the company, and they build a strong inner relationship to the product.

It is still noticeable when you visit the Tomatin whisky distillery today. The people here identify themselves with their job – Tomatin is the distillery, and the distillery is Tomatin, the village where everything is about whisky. Again! Because the company, which is today advertising with the slogan “The softer side of the Highlands”, and is doing good business at international level, had to go through many bitter valleys during the past 100 years. As early as 10 years after the company was founded, it went bankrupt, but it was re-opened as early as in 1909. Until 1956, when two more stills were bought, Tomatin with its formerly only two stills was counted among the small distilleries. The number of stills was extended by seven until 1964. In 1974, three more stills were bought. 

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Hochs und Tiefs kennzeichnen die Geschichte der Whisky-Destillerie, die heute gute Geschäfte macht, auch weil ein Kunde aus Japan in den 1980er investierte und die Brennerei schließlich übernahm. (© Tomatin Spey District Distillery Co Ltd.)
Ups and downs characterize the history of the whiskey distillery that makes good business today, also because a customer from Japan invested in the 1980s and the distillery finally took over. (© Tomatin Spey District Distillery Co Ltd.)
Icon: Lupe

By the middle of the 1970ies, Tomatin had developed as the largest Scottish distillery with an annual production of twelve million liters of alcohol, the large part of which was used for blends. Despite the huge amount – or even because of the concept quality rather than quantity – the company got into dire straits had to file for bankruptcy in 1985. One essential reason for this disaster certainly was the fact that, during the 1980ies, turnovers of blended whiskies decreased essentially. In this complicated situation, Takara Shuzo Ltd., Japan’s largest beverage producer and one of Tomatin’s most important export customers, who had been faithful to the company for 20 years, became its savior. Together with the Okura trading company, he bought the bankrupt company in 1986. Today, Tomatin is the first Scottish distillery completely in Japanese ownership.

It was not only the property situation which changed, but above all its strategy. The new owners invested a lot of money in the company and in the most modern equipment but above all, they made a radical cut concerning the quality. Today, “only” five million liters of alcohol are being produced, the large part of which is still being used for blended whiskies like "Antiquary", "The Talisman", or "Big T", but meanwhile they also produce tope quality Single Malts, which have won many awards already at national as well as at international level. Some of the highly awarded whiskies are sold in 50 countries, as well in Germany. It was not for nothing that, in 2015, the Tomatin Distillery was awarded as "Scottish Distiller of the Year" by the "Icons of Wisky Awards 2016" magazine, Edinburgh.

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Blick in die Schatzkammer alter Jahrgänge. (© Heidi Diehl)
Looking into the treasury of old vintages. (© Heidi Diehl)
Icon: Lupe

Since some years ago, Tomatin also has established a visitors’ center, where guests can observe very lively how barley, water, and yeast are converted into whisky. They are always especially impressed when they walk through the cellars where whisky is ripening in tightly packed old sherry, bourbon, port, rum, oak, or red wine barrels. Towards the end of the tour, the guests traverse the “treasury”, where (full) barrels of each vintage from 1967 on are stored, before they taste some of the distillery’s top products. In this situation, many passionate whisky drinkers get tears in their eyes, and he moans in pain when he is told that about one percent per barrel evaporates as “angels’ share”. “What a waste”, one says, before he lets himself comfort quite quickly when he finally is allowed to taste the whisky.

There is first a smooth 12 year-old “Legacy”, which in the nose unifies vanilla, fresh pineapple, and sweet limes, on the tongue appears slightly caramelly and peppery, somewhat tastes of exotic fruits, and has a slight touch of sherry. In contrast to the five year-old “Legacy”, which on one hand tastes fruity but which (at least in my opinion) is still somewhat edgy. The 18 year-old Tomatin Single Malt is totally different. In the nose, it dazzles with a wonderful touch of sweet sherry with aromas of apples, cinnamon, and vanilla. In the mouth, he spreads as sweet as honey, then citrus fruits can be noticed, and a hint of dark chocolate, before it takes a long, sweet, and dry finish. First, it was allowed to ripen in bourbon barrels, and the last three years in sherry barrels. A really fine drop!

The same can be said about "Cù Bòcan", provided one likes smoky whiskies. The almost honey yellow single malt, which is limited to 13,000 bottles, was given a Gaelic name meaning “ghost dog”. As according to the legend, the inhabitants of the region around Tomatin were haunted by a ghost dog, which, however, some day ended up in blue smoke and dispersed over the Highland swamps. The ten year-old whisky shows exotic spices, coco, some anise, nuts, citrus fruits, and smoke in the nose. On the palate, it is noticeably smoky and velvety, its aromas of cloves, cinnamon, and anise remind a bit of Christmas. The finish is smooth, smoky, with a hint of sweetness. This one was also first ripened in bourbon barrels, then in sherry barrels. (heidi.diehl)

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