Perhaps I’ll embarrass him for saying so, but Alistair Mutch wins gold as far as replying to emails is concerned. No sooner had the proposal for a Tomatin tasting been composed and fired off than an email of acceptance duly returned. Alistair would be there, and he would be bringing seven whiskies. Job done. Why couldn’t all tastings be so straightforward to arrange?
Alistair had started the day at the Tomatin Distillery just south of Inverness and consequently there was an air of authenticity and provenance to the small off-licence he brought with him. Kicking off with The Antiquary 12yo we could appreciate the blended side of the Takara Shuzo Co., Tomatin’s Japanese owners. Indeed, as Alistair stressed, the history of Tomatin is closely tied to the fortunes of blends. Once the biggest distillery in Scotland, Alistair boasted that once upon a time every blended Scotch would have had a wee drop of Tomatin in it. Fast forward to the 1980s, and this business model proved the distillery’s downfall. The global demand for Scotch unaccountably tailed off and in the new, bleaker economic climate Tomatin had been overproducing. The owners went into liquidation, and Tomatin did not put its head above the parapet again for some years.
Nowadays, of course, they have the Antiquary brand all to themselves. Amongst the very high malt content, the majority is Tomatin. The blend started life in Edinburgh, the name reputedly conferred by John and William Hardy in the nineteenth century as a tribute to favourite author, and near neighbour, Sir Walter Scott. On the night I found the 12yo very interesting indeed: smooth in the extreme, with plenty of malt and natural caramel notes. Gristy barley and lemon peel leapt out on the nose.
The Tomatin range itself began exuberantly. The new Legacy is the group’s contribution to the NAS market-place and has, according to Alistair been winning over many punters at Europe’s numerous whisky festivals. There is a proportion of virgin oak in there, and it showed with dazzling vanilla and lush fruit tones.
On to the 12yo, and Alistair discussed how Tomatin embarked upon constructing a stable of whiskies to tempt the consumer. Age was important as a point of difference, of course, but since 2000 successive distillery managers have put their stamp on old favourites, or introduced new ones. The 12yo has been around for a while, but the addition of some Sherry oak to the mix is a more recent innovation. I must admit this is not for me: wafer biscuit, a bizarre pear note, then heavy chocolate… It tastes muddled, in my opinion, but others around me enjoyed it.
The smile returned to my face with the 15yo, however. Only the delicate attentions of refill Bourbon have interacted with the naturally fruity Tomatin spirit and what a dazzling display of honey, white peach and ginger. A sweet whisky, and no mistake, but one I could happily have spent more time with.
Sherry oak returns to the range in the shape of the 18yo, but at this age there is sufficient leathery weight to the malt to carry the gaudier overtones. It has grown in to the dried fruits and moccha depths. At 46% and unchillfiltered, this dram compels your attention. Perhaps a shade too much oak for my tastes on the night, and this belief became stronger when I could appreciate the staggering performance of the next whisky.
‘Now you might taste pineapple on this one,’ warned Alistair. Far from suggestive skullduggery, the 30yo was indeed a wicker basket of tropical fruits. The palate screamed pineapple and passion fruit, but there was not a single overbearing oak note. Obviously a mature whisky was in front of us, but it could still give my taste buds the run-around.
Most distilleries produce a peated make these days (which poses problems when trying to work out what sort of Bunnahabhain you are likely to get) but despite laying down stocks some time ago, Tomatin have been slow to launch their smoky alter ego. The Cu Bocan, aptly enough for a man of Alistair’s story-telling abilities, started with a tale: Tomatin legend has it that the last wolf in Scotland was killed on the site of the existing distillery, and that the ghost of this lonely canine occasionally stalks the village. A research student, after discussions with retired distillery workers, uncovered more of the beast’s behaviour. When spotted, it will rush at you before vanishing harmlessly in a wisp of smoke.
Cu Bocan, from its bottle design to its contents, manifests this myth. Alistair told me that the malt is peated to only 15ppm, which does not so much batter you with ash and brimstone as beguile you with a choice coil or two of wood smoke. I enjoyed it immensely: softer and sweeter than the Benromach 10yo (which posts a similar peating level) and with none of the rubberiness that Fettercairn Fior can exhibit, that peat character rests comfortably in the mix. A very well-made malt.
Having offloaded plenty of WaterAid Raffle goodies, Alistair made his excuses and departed as duties called him back at the distillery that night. A full Quaich Society house will remember his unhurried demeanour, riotous sense of humour and pearls of wisdom from more than 20 years in the whisky industry for some weeks yet, however. We shall also fondly recall the whiskies he showered upon us, of course.