Thursday, 30 January 2014

Tomatin–The Other Bottlings Part 1

I just love Tomatin whisky – from the unbelievable bargain of the Legacy expression (their young spirit in wood is a fantastic experience on the nose and carries the trademark soft fruit and oak backbone – 94.5 Jim Murray and only £25) to the 30 year old, which was a real game changer for me.  I tried the whole core range at a tasting recently, and have been seeking out interesting other (non-core or independent) bottlings since.

Tomatin Logo

One of the things that fascinates me about whisky is the one-offs, the single casks, the independent bottlings from casks that might have changed hands a few times, and the journey the casks or bottles take through brokers and retailers.  The archivist in me feels the need to try them all, even just a little bit, and learn something about them, their character, and write it down before they’re gone.  Trying these different bottlings gives you a real insight into the soul of the spirit that comes from a distillery – very different to drinking the core range, blends of many casks intended to generate a consistent profile over time.

For example, take the Decades expression.  This is a vatting by the distillery to celebrate Master Distiller Douglas Campbell’s 50th year with Tomatin, and contains a spread of 5 decades worth of casks.  This was a one time blend of the casks (which are gone now), sold out from the distillery but still available from a few places (there’s some at Nickolls and Perks).  So its an expression that can never be repeated.

Another example is this – a single cask Tomatin 20 year old released by the distillery (cask #31497).  This was the most recent (2012) distillery single cask bottling, with 328 bottles in total and only 102 bottles for the UK.  Single cask whiskies can really accentuate specific character from a whisky, and is why the output of the SMWS is so fascinating.

A bit more down to earth is this, a 16 year old Tomatin released by Duthies. It’s a cask sold to Cadenhead’s (an ancient company that buys casks for bottling, owned by the same people who own Springbank).  These may have been  casks swapped by Tomatin for blending (Tomatin and Springbank have swapped casks for use in their blends), and just held onto them until finally deciding to release them as bottles.

So, there’s enormous complexity and no real rules to where the next interesting expression from a distillery might appear (how about a TBWC bottling next?), and I find this so interesting to explore and taste.  Tomatin have about 180,000 barrels of whisky maturing in their warehouses at the moment (its a massive distillery which sells the majority of its whisky for blending) in a range of cask types, finishes, peated and non-peated.  The whisky in the casks sometimes has an interesting journey to your glass, especially whisky that was created up to 50 years ago.

Tomatin produces about 2.5 million litres of new make spirit in a year, all of that production stops in the silent season, where the distillery is closed, flushed, cleaned and repaired.  Just before that the peated whisky is made (about 60,000 litres) so as to not contaminate the flavour of the non-peated whisky.  Tomatin was traditionally a non-peated distillery, but started to produce its own peated whisky to supply its blend (Antiquary) and now also uses it in the Cu Bocan.  Like most distilleries, the barley (peated or not) is bought from barley wholesalers who provide Scottish barley to specification.  The core range (the new NAS Legacy and Cu Bocan, the 12, 15, 18, etc.) are batch products in the same way the whisky is.  The distillery manager selects casks of the required age to blend together to produce a batch of an expression.  These are mixed together in large stainless steel vats and compared against previous batches to provide some consistency. 

Tomatin is a distillery that has been sleeping for many years but is now on the up and very much in the forefront of many enthusiast’s minds.  A change of management in 2006 provided a change of direction moving from a bulk supplier for blending to a distillery that has finally realised the value of their liquids.  They’re laying down more and more for the future and selling less to the blenders.  As a late comer to bottling their own malt, and hence less well known, the whisky is very good value.  The 30 year old, an award winning single malt, is extremely good value and absolutely stunning.  The Cu Bocan is a very modern NAS single malt with beautiful character, loads of waxy fruit and good drying, subtle peat structure.  I’m expecting a lot from Tomatin in 2014, with some interesting cask types, and extension of the Cu Bocan line, and some shakeups in the core range.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 12 year old increase in strength (to match the Legacy) and remove the chill filtration and some similar modernisation of the 15

I’ve collected a few of my thoughts on some of the non-core releases that I’ve tried and will continue to add more posts to the Tomatin line-up as I pick up new expressions.

You can read my review of the Tomatin Legacy (and the rest of the core range) here, and the new (very) lightly peated NAS Cu Bocan here. Both of these NAS single malts are excellent.

Tomatin Decades, 46%, A⊕+

One of my favourite whiskies of all time, this is the blend made to celebrate Douglas Campbell’s 5th decade with Tomatin (master distiller since 2008).  “In his current role, he spends much of his time assessing the thousands of casks that lie maturing in the vast warehouses of Tomatin” – what an amazing job!  There are five decades worth of whisky in here (5 sets of casks from different years).  Each year hands over from the other on the nose and the palate, and so gives a massively complicated nose and finish, with a really beautiful, elegant and balanced flavour.  The casks are:

  • 17/05/1967 – A refill sherry hogshead (wonder when it was first filled!).  So this blend contains a cask of 45 year old whisky!  I asked Douglas about the ancient stock at Tomatin and he said there’s hardly anything left but that it will probably be held for a 50 year old release. 
  • 07/12/1976 – Oloroso sherry butts.  The fruit monster present in the incredible 30 year old expression (which is American and European oak) in the core range.
  • 21/06/1984 – Refill sherry hogsheads.  “It is definitely worth looking out for a 1984 single cask bottling in the future!”
  • 24/09/1990 – First fill bourbon barrels.  Much younger, very different character whisky, which starts to pick up the more youthful, structured side and contributes to the whisky’s complexity.
  • 07/12/2005 - First fill bourbon barrels.  Young and lightly peated, adding yet more complexity.

tomatin decades

Nose – Fresh, bright clean fruit.  Light brush of marzipan, light sherry and toffee.  Back note of beeswax layered with honey.  Fresh peaches and cream, fruit salad chews.  Very complex and layered malt – loads of fruit, wax, floral notes and mango..

Body – Strong, clear spirit with pronounced wood spice, beautiful integration of deep fruit, strong wood bitterness, young wood and rich malt.  Yet still quite delicate and very refreshing – lightly sweet and fruity.

Finish – Long, rolling, some bitterness and lemon sherbet from the younger wood but this is backed up by older flavours and eventually peels back to more fruit and deeper malt. 

What's not good about it:  Nothing really – there is a short moment of unbalanced bitterness in delivery but this is quickly overtaken by waxy fruit and long forgotten by the next sip.

What’s good about it: Complexity, balance, loads of fruit, deep malt and a great nose.  Even in its sold out state, still good value – half the price it could be really.

Tomatin Old Particular, 20 years old (Douglas Laing), 51.5% A+

This is a cask selected by Douglas Laing, bought from the distillery, and independently bottled.  Unlike the Whisky Broker liquid (below), you’re paying quite a lot for marketing here, although this is balanced by the lower popularity of the distillery (if this was an Ardbeg, the price differential would be far larger).  Strangely this received almost no fanfare compared to the other Old Particulars released in the same range (that had elaborate tweet tastings and blogger reviews lavished upon them).  Asking after this bottling at the DL stand at the Whisky Show, nobody knew anything about it.  Then suddenly, a couple of months later, it appeared on the web, and consequently, on my doorstep.  211 bottles from a single cask (refill hogshead), distilled January 1993, bottled August 2013. 


Nose – Sweet, cereal malt with fresh, herbal honey.  A hit of sour cherries, green banana and freshly cut pine boards.  Dark back note of candle wax and a hint of swimming pool. Quite restrained, loads of malt extract in front of everything else.

Body – Spicy, fruity, classic Tomatin, then waves of toasted malt.  A very elegant, smooth and structured, very savoury Tomatin to balance the soft fruit.  Moreish.

Finish – Increasingly malty, raw malt like chewing on some home brew supplies (which I was doing 3 days ago).  Medium finish and quite salty.

What's not good about it:  The nose is a little austere frankly.  While it does have a lot of character, it’s on the sour side for me and I was led to believe there would be more decadence.

What’s good about it:  Its a deep, rich, sweet malt monster, and actually quite different to the others.  It’s extremely drinkable, smooth, balanced, structured and one of the maltiest malts I’ve had.  Delicious.

Tomatin 15 year old Tempranillo Finish, 52% A⊖

This special release bottling was matured for 15 years in Bourbon barrels and Tempranillo wine casks.  Tempranillo is a red wine but apparently the thin grape skins ensure that this isn’t a pink drink.


Nose – Plum, a little cucumber, marker pen (old, permanent), classic creamy, waxy fruit and cherry.  Mellow fruit and edge of washing up liquid.  Real primary school parquet floor feel to it.

Body – Malted, toasty, loads of structure but spicy and well balanced.  Wooded fruit, but oddly austere. 

Finish – Light, savoury, but quite long and toasted – quite oily.  There is a sulphur back note to it that’s very drying and not quite a fault, but nearly.  Or if it was peated I’d blame the smoke.  Balanced, definitely, and well made, but something is pressing the wrong buttons for me here.

What's not good about it:  It’s a bit stern.  And the finish has a punishing quality to it.  That’s not why I turn to a bottle of Tomatin.

What’s good about it:  The wine note is subtle, and works beautifully on the nose, where the Tomatin fruit and the sour structure of the wine play nicely together.  The initial delivery is delicious and the malt and cereal note plays well until close to the end where it all falls apart a bit.  Interesting though.

Whisky Barrel Burns Malt / Whisky Broker Tomatin 12 years old, 58.1% A⊕

First fill sherry hogshead at a staggering 58.1% and a an absolute corker of a sherry monster with beautiful depth, colour and intensity, and not a duff note played.  This was the ex-Whisky Broker Tomatin that I wrote about here, and is now available from Whisky Barrel under their Burns Malt label.  Look at that colour!


Nose – Intense sherry perfection.  Dark but subtle raisin, some rum but not overt, PVA glue and just the most intense, unflawed sherry.  The Tomatin DNA is there in fruit but not in malt immediately – that comes with further digging but makes itself felt once you’ve found it.

Body – Spicy, richly sweet and candied, dark sherry, very bright spice, caramel, a faint note of drying sulphur and the ghost of hospital vegetables (fat green beans and diced swede).  This is not a flaw, its balanced and works.

Finish – Develops well and is in perfect lock-step with the wood and malt sweetness.  Long, drying sulphur and wood spice, gripping tannins near the end.  Very good.

What's not .good about it:  Only that it’s so overt and intense that it’s not something you turn to every day. 

What’s good about it:  Stunning sherried Tomatin, this could be in a posher bottle, 5x the price and sell well.  Faultlessly executed, good use of sulphur, fantastic integration and extremely bold.  My precious…

Tomatin 25 years old (half bottle), 43% A⊕


Nose – Zesty malt, with a good hit of crayons, waxed tropical fruit but without some of the deep complexity of the 30.  Still – lovely and light floral nose with the feel of a turkish delight bar and the same chocolaty richness.  Fresh, but rich and waxy.  Lovely.

Body – Clean, sweet, loads of malt sweetness and a very nice, savoury cereal edge .  Absolutely delicious.

Finish – Clear, clean, a bit short though.  Very fruity, refreshing and doesn’t challenge you with too much wood.  There is wood structure here but its all expertly blended into the malt.  This is a really excellent thing to drink.

What's not good about it:  Lacks a little depth and complexity compared to its replacement, the 30 year old.  Finish is a bit short.

What’s good about it:  Delicious – absolutely delicious!  Fresh fruit, totally smooth.  Beautiful drinking, and (was) available in half bottles.  The Whisky Exchange have this in their shop, if not on their site.

Tomatin 30 years old (2013), 46% A⊕+


I’ve reviewed this again because it fits nicely between the whiskies either side of it, it’s one my favourite whiskies – and because I’ve got a lot more to say about it!

Nose – Rich, concentrated tropical fruit, a bright candy edge to it but balanced with depth and structure.  There’s some mixed spice and fresh cut mango.  Creamy and cakey – pineapple turnover cake.  All backed by well balanced light malt and old leather and wood furniture.  Just lovely - opulent fruit and structure.  A real blockbuster and it totally pulls it off.

Body – Spiced malt, bright tropical fruit, cereal tones, absolutely faultless.  The fruit has real depth, not just bubblegum or fruit salad chews here - and it’s perfectly integrated with the malt and wood structure. 

Finish – Long.  Mango burps are always welcome.  A little struck match, then great handover to lightly fizzing wood spice.  A really pleasing, well blended delivery from start to finish. 

What's not good about it:  Nothing.

What’s good about it:  Balance, nose is stunning, everything else is faultless and deeply enjoyable to boot.  Also – it’s great value.  What a whisky.

Cadenhead Small Batch Tomatin 1978, 35 years old, 44.1% A⊕+


594 bottles, bourbon hogsheads.

Nose – Initially restrained, then deep fruity oak, then cherries and loads of bubblegum.  Bright, juicy red fruit, laminated between rich malt and fresh wood.  As it opens, the dominant flavours are of an almost obscene bubblegum and lacquered, Tomatin malt.  Quite lewd.

Body – Rich, sweet malt, not quite oily but getting there.  Some fence panel, pine resin, a toasted sesame element with the wood and fruit sweetness that provides balance and character.  Subtly spicy with a backing of hubba bubba, but extremely silky and luxurious for that, richly malty and incredibly sexy.

Finish – Medium, otherwise faultless.  Lovely structure, deeply sweet and delicious, very well balanced, extremely moreish.  That fence panel is in full effect during the finish; brand new, bright orange.  God it’s good.  10 minutes later, lingering aniseed.  Long gone afterglow – bubblegum burps.

What's not good about it:  For the price, the finish is a bit short.  Also, perhaps you’d need to be a Tomatin fan to really get it fully – its not really elegant, perhaps overtly sexy.  This isn’t a criticism from me, but might not be to some tastes.

What’s good about it:  Glorious malt, which repays deep investigation.  Perfect balance throughout, and the palate delivers on the nose’s promise.  Deep, integrated oak and spice, and perfectly balanced with quite obscene candied/bubblegum/strawberry sweetness and all those fences.  Fabulous stuff.

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