You might know Cù Bòcan as the peated version of Tomatin; or a peated Highland whisky with an elaborate backstory about a hellhound. Or you might never have heard of Cù Bòcan before. Whichever the case, Cù Bòcan made a change in direction last year that I kind of missed. Sure I noticed the new packaging, but I totally glossed over the innovative cask maturation of two of three new expressions that were released last year.
It wasn’t until Scott Adamson, Tomatin’s Global Brand Ambassador, invited me to participate in a Cù Bòcan Zoom tasting, that I re-examined the brand. I’m glad I got the opportunity, because their new approach is much more my speed. Gone is all the hellhound marketing brouhaha. Instead the focus now lies on what is most important — the liquid.
Cù Bòcan first came to life at the end of 2005; although I doubt it was already going by that name. That’s when Douglas Campbell, Tomatin’s former master distiller, ordered a batch of lightly peated malt, distilled it and filled it in three different cask types: ex-bourbon, ex-Oloroso and virgin oak. According to Scott, the Cù Bòcan new make is probably pretty close to what Tomatin was making 60 years ago, when peat was still the fuel of choice for not just most distilleries, but many households as well.
It would be a mistake to call Cù Bòcan a peated version of Tomatin. The production regime differs on a few key parts. For one, it’s only produced during two weeks at the end of each year, meaning in winter. Therefore condensation happens much quicker as a consequence of the colder cooling water that enters the condensers. Scott mentioned this adds a weighty oiliness to the palate. Also, the distillation cut is much wider in an effort to catch the heavier components (which is common practice for peated new make).
Another important deviation takes place during fermentation. Tomatin is usually a very fruit forward spirit, which in part is due to the long fermentation of 110 hours. Cù Bòcan is made with two different fermentation lengths. Partly the standard 110 hours, but also a fermentation of 52 hours. The resulting new makes are blended together before maturation.
We tasted the three current Cù Bòcan expressions that are available: the Cù Bòcan Signature and two limited releases, Cù Bòcan Creations #1 and #2. Especially the latter two have a super interesting maturation regime, including Moscatel, Imperal stout and shochu casks.
Cù Bòcan Signature (46%, OB, 2019)
Minimum of 8 years old
60% ex-bourbon, 25% ex-oloroso and 15% virgin oak
Nose: A soft, fruity type of smoke with plenty of sweet vanilla, but also a touch of pineapple and lemon yoghurt, with some sultanas in the background. A whiff of milk chocolate too. Taste: Creamy mouthfeel. Soft spices combined with a lemon fruitiness, Greek yoghurt and gentle wood smoke. There’s touches of coffee in the background too, as well as tobacco, for a bit of a darker note. Finish: Soft smoke, gentle citrus notes. Medium in length.
Cù Bòcan Creation #1 (46%, OB, 2019)
28% ex-bourbon single malt from 2005, finished for 7 years in Imperial stout casks from Black Isle Brewery
72% ex-bourbon single malt from 2008, finished for 4 years in Bacalhôa Moscatel de Setúbal wine casks
Nose: Notes of charred oranges, triple sec and banana, with a touch of marmite. Mainly big juicy fruits from the Moscatel. Just a slight yeasty note, but there’s barely any smoke to be detected. Taste: Soft notes of aniseed with lots of sweet tropical fruits. Oranges, nectarine, peach and mango. Just a tinge of ashiness on the palate, which is almost a shame, but is probably also what keeps the sweet Moscatel in check. Soft spices, like ginger and black pepper. Finish: Gentle orange peel and a touch of espresso.
Cù Bòcan Creation #2 (46%, OB, 2019)
83% ex-bourbon single malt from 2005, finished for 7 years in ex-shochu casks
17% 5-year-old single malt matured in European virgin oak
Nose: Creamy, yeasty and buttery with notes of pear skin, lime and galia melon. There’s a soft earthiness, almonds, some mint and a slight minerality too, but based off the nose I wouldn’t soon qualify this as a peated whisky. To be honest, I completely forgot it was. Taste: Buttery mouthfeel and slightly more peaty than the nose suggests. Plenty earthy, as well as notes of peanut skin and some fairly present spices, likely from the European virgin oak. Lacks a little complexity compared to the other two. Finish: Melted butter. On the shorter side.
I’m not the biggest fan of peated whiskies and before this tasting I was sort of dreading sampling six (yep, I’ll explain why in a minute) peated whiskies in a row. But I shouldn’t have. At one point I actually forgot I was drinking peated whisky. That’s because Cù Bòcan is very much lightly peated, which leaves so much room for other flavours to be showcased.
My pick would be the Cù Bòcan Creations #1. The overt fruitiness from the Moscatel casks gives it a brightness you don’t often encounter, without ever becoming too sweet, probably in part because of the light peat influence as well as the Imperial stout casks.
In contrast, the Creations #2 is a bit more bland, but likely great in a highball. However, Johnnie Walker Black Label also does a fine job, so I’m not sure if it is worth the premium just for that. Maybe if you’re really into highballs, otherwise I find Cù Bòcan has better whisky to offer. Like the Signature, which is creamy, fresh and citrus-y.
Sadly, my overall favourite of the tasting isn’t for sale at all. As a sort of very decadent dessert, we tried three Cù Bòcan cask samples, each from one of the cask types used for the Signature. I absolutely loved the virgin oak, which I did not expect at all. It’s usually a type of maturation I stay away from, as more often than not virgin oak matured whisky makes me feel like I’m chewing wood.
However, this cask strength Cù Bòcan Virgin Oak was heavenly. If anyone from Bresser & Timmer, the Dutch importer, is reading this: please go on and try to convince Tomatin to bottle a single cask of this stuff for the Netherlands.