Tomatin Distillery: Beautiful In All Its Ugliness
I never really fancied Tomatin. In can’t say I have a plausible reason. It probably had something to do with the factory-like exterior of the distillery. It’s certainly not because I don’t like their product, because up until not that long ago I’d never tasted much of it. But earlier this year I attended a tasting in my hometown hosted by Scott Adamson of Tomatin. And as a good brand ambassador should, he changed my sentiment towards the distillery.
Tomatin quickly rose towards the top of my bucket list of distilleries I had yet to visit. So when I went on a short trip to Scotland a little while ago, I was quick to book a tour. A couple of days before my scheduled visit, I had the presence of mind to contact Scott. During the tasting he hosted in my hometown, he mentioned that about three quarters of the distillery employees live on site. Himself included. So I wondered if he would be around at the time of my tour.
Turned out that (a) he was and (b) he now offered to take me around himself. I was looking forward to a standard tour of Tomatin, but a private tour is always better!
If there was a competition for the most easy to reach distillery, Tomatin would probably win, or at least end in the top three. They are situated not far below Inverness, right along the A9. Entering the premises is actually pretty spooky. For the first couple of hundred yards you drive past huge warehouses covered in black mold. Very industrial. Let’s just say that it makes an impression. I went to meet Scott at the visitor centre, and that’s where our adventure starts.
One very important piece of background information is the sheer volume of spirit that Tomatin used to distill back in the seventies. From 1956 onwards, they expanded at record speed. At one point they churned out 12,5 million liters annualy, a record amount for a malt distillery which still stands today. Not even Glenfiddich or Glenlivet have managed to surpass that. Nowadays they’ve slowed down their production to about 2,5 million liters, but all the buildings are still there.
That means they have a lot of unused space inside of those buildings making it seem, at least on the surface, a very inefficient distillery. But that is also exactly what makes a visit to Tomatin so worthwile. It’s a big old factory, beautiful in all its ugliness. And it’s embraced as well. Tomatin doesn’t look slick, but they don’t want to either. The people working there are proud of the distillery, and love it regardless.
As it turns out, a half empty distillery has its advantages for visitors. That immediately becomes clear when you enter the distillery. There are two mash tuns, something you don’t see often. They are in different rooms. And one of them is out of use, its simply not needed with today’s relatively low production. So they’ve opened up the old mash tun one one side, making it possible to step inside.
The inside of the distillery reflects the outside. Industrial is a recurring theme here. Not quaint or picturesque, not at Tomatin. And I strangely love that. The stainless steel washbacks are an example of this. As is the half empty still room. You actually walk on ground level here, giving you a different perspective on the stills than in most distilleries.
Usually the wash stills have a small window in their neck, so that the still men can check if the distillate doesn’t go up too high, and whether or not they should reduce the heat. But at Tomatin the still men operate at ground level as well, so there are no windows in the wash stills. They would be superfluous. Instead a long wire comes down from the top of the still, with a small wooden ball attached at neck level. Periodically a still man gives it a tug, and by the sound the wooden ball makes when it hits the copper, they can hear if the distillate is at the preferred level.
At Tomatin, the still house and the mash room are too far apart as a result of the rapid expansion fifty years ago, and the decrease in production that followed. That’s why they have four still men, and four mash men as well. In a regular sized distillery, one worker can keep an eye at the stills and the mash tun/wash backs at the same time. At Tomatin, that job needs to be split between different people.
As a bonus for visitors, Tomatin also has a cooperage. If you haven’t been to the Speyside Cooperage or Glenfiddich (where they have an on-site cooperage as well) this is a nice chance to take a closer look at what a cooper does. It didn’t offer a lot of new information for me, so we quickly went on to the filling station. There they don’t just fill casks with their own spirit, but with spirit from other distilleries as well. Tankers with new make drive up to Tomatin, and empty their load into the spirit receiver. It’s an extra source of income.
The final stop of the tour was the warehouse. Almost always the best part of any tour. Scott and I entered a dunnage warehouse, one with two stories. On the lower level we saw another group of people, taking a standard tour. We went to the upper level however, which was for VIP’s only, Scott told me. Say what? Well, who am I to argue…
The upper level of the warehouse was basically the same as the lower level. Except that on the upper level, I was about to do a straight from the cask tasting. There were several different casks (sherry, virgin, bourbon etc.). One from 1976 even, Tomatin’s ultimate vintage tour. All of them waiting to be opened and tasted by me. But since I still had to drive back, Scott had arranged for a set of samples, eight in total. Quite generous indeed.
Needless to say, my visit to Tomatin turned out to be one of the best distillery visits I’ve done so far. It is just so very different from other distilleries. So huge thanks to Scott for taking me around. He told me a lot of interesting things about Tomatin’s history as well. Way too much for one blog post. You have to visit Tomatin yourself if you want to learn more about the distillery. I’m willing to bet that a regular tour is also very interesting and informative.
As for the sample set? I still have it unopened at home. I will taste them all, probably with a buddy, because they are big enough to share. Look forward to a blog post (or two) about those cask samples later this year.
Photo’s: Words of Whisky & Janos Korom/Flickr
Thijs is a spirits writer and accredited liquorist from The Netherlands. He runs the blog Words of Whisky and contributes to a number of Dutch and international publications.