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Day 4: Tomatin

Before getting into the meat of my recount (or should that be drizzle?), I’d like to alert the prospective traveller to a phenomenon which I call Landlady’s Revenge.

I don’t know quite when the bond between eating in a public space and music became indissoluble, but I first noticed its incursion into Scottish bed and breakfasts during the previous Odyssey. Then, at my third breakfast in Braehead Villa, I had to ask that the accordion-heavy drivel be turned off as I could not bear it any more. Landlady’s Revenge, therefore, is where your host welcomes you into their home, provides you with a comfy bed for the night, clean towels and a binder of things you might like to do in the local area before exacting neat and artful retribution by forcing you to pick at your muesli to the strains of some flutey-voiced, warbly, traditional Scottish musical kitsch. My four fellow guests, Swedes long past retirement age, commented on the aural awfulness, too.

After an especially painful but energetic run-through of ‘Flower of Scotland’ I ran upstairs and packed as quickly as possible. Deciding quite what to wear for the day was a problem, however, for although low cloud abounded above Newtonmore, it wasn’t exactly cold and it wasn’t raining.

Three miles in and just beyond Kingussie, I had to remove the over-trousers. The road was angling upwards and I was set to sweat big time otherwise. This was a good move and the ramps didn’t prove too onerous. However, soon it was time to head downhill and the low cloud was especially thick by this point. On went the over-trousers again and before long the over-shoes had been donned, too.

I’m still unsure whether dampness is worse than a headwind and searing heat combined. Unless it is mid-winter, the constraining clothing means that you perspire aggressively so you are wet inside and outside. The only benefit is that you are wet and warm, which is to be preferred to wet and cold. However, I was trying to make it to Tomatin for 11.45, I was in time-trial mode and the wetness was worsening.

Descending through forest, meeting the odd tour bus coming the other way, life was bearable. By Coylumbridge, however, we had reached saturation point and that very special breed of fine Highland rain that seeps in everywhere. On went the hood and the winter gloves, up went the perspiration levels.

I’m sure the landscape round about me was striking, and looking at the map now I see that I was on the banks of the Spey for much of the way, but I could hardly see. Vile is the word, but you have to keep going. By Boat of Garten, however, I was concerned. Water was low (the irony) and I had to stop for food. It was now that I could appreciate how inadequate my rain jacket had become, with no base layer protecting my chest from the cooling water.

Anyway, it wasn’t until some way after Carrbridge, when the rain became mist again, that I knew I had to make a clothing switch and fortunately I had packed a second hi-vis waterproof. With a rugby jersey on beneath it, I began to warm up and make better progress although I accepted that my 11.45 Taste of Tomatin Tour was long gone.

I rasped my way up to the Slochd Summit, 1315 ft above sea level apparently, which is quite high for a Scottish road, and finally there was another cyclist! I didn’t catch his name but the tanned giant in the saddle was a surgeon from York cycling from Glasgow to Inverness. We chatted about the weather, midges, and Roald Dahl by which point Tomatin had appeared on my left.

Inside, Hannah and Scott did a marvellous job of pointing me towards radiators (my shoes and gloves made it into the still house) while I refuelled and reflected on the horrors of the forty miles thus far. It turned out I was on time for the 1pm Taste of Tomatin Tour, so I paid my £10 and set off with about seven others.

Drizzle, drizzle everywhere...

If Dalwhinnie had been an over-priced geek-free zone, Tomatin spoilt me rotten. Scott, the tour guide, gave us all an immensely thorough run-through of Tomatin’s fascinating history (it was at one point the largest malt whisky distillery in the world, but look up my ‘Tomatin at the Quaich Society’ post for more detail) before sticking his hand into a bag of Maori yeast in the washback room, talking us through distillation with the aid of a real decommissioned shell-and-tube condenser and leading us into the cooperage.

Where there were once 23 stills, now there are 12. Condenser at bottom right.

Unlike other commercial cooperages, where employees are on piece-work contracts, Tomatin’s two full-time coopers are salaried like everybody else which makes for a more relaxed working environment. I loved this section, like a maze of wood, starting with first-fill Sherry butts exhaling generously, to a quadrant of virgin oak casks (used for Legacy and Cu Bocan), a phalanx of Port pipes and a legion of ex-Bourbon barrels, mostly from Makers Mark.

From left to right: virgin oak, Port pipes, a Sherry butt.

Finally it was into a cool, clammy dunnage warehouse where a few more cask types were on display, before back inside the still house to an adjoining room for the tasting. The previous day, £17 had bought me three whiskies (two lots of 15yo, a Sherry finish and a single cask); today, £10 bought me one new make sample, three core range whiskies and two single casks. Tomatin pummels Dalwhinnie in terms of bang-for-buck, intrigue, information and charm. In fact, if you are on the A9 don’t bother with Dalwhinnie at all.

The new make nosed like soft, creamy pear with a skeleton of firm caramel. Water revealed fresh barley, apple jelly and a touch of flowers. Legacy, as it had been in St Andrews in the autumn, was a delight and for under £30 I struggle to think of a single malt I’d rather drink. The 12yo was more appetizing than usual although I do find the Sherry finishing too sweet and grapey for the spirit; drier Sherry inflections would work far better.

The fourth dram was the visitor centre bottle-your-own Bourbon cask which I was very anxious to try. Exuberantly sweet on the nose with caramelised barley, delicate oak, peach and honey. It did become a touch ‘nippy’, however, which is perhaps not surprising for an 11yo spirit out of first-fill barrels. The taste was creamy, light and sparkly and overall very attractive. It’s neighbour was the VC’s Sherry cask which showcased exactly why I don’t like the Sherry influence on Tomatins: all fat sultana, fruit and nut chocolate and creaminess. I wanted depth, but the spicy, Dorrito-esque palate didn’t deliver. Cu Bocan was much as Cu Bocan had been previously: sweet, lightly smoky and well-structured.

As I saddled up, following a wee taste of the 1988 (medium-bodied, bursting with yellow and tropical fruits) and the 14yo Port finish (by far my favourite of the whole lot on the day, the Port adding the dry richness that those Sherry casks seem incapable of doing), the sun appeared. I was buoyed only momentarily, however, as a mammoth storm cloud sat on the mountain top above the distillery.

It took a while to leave Tomatin village, as I hid beneath a farmer’s barn for the clouds to pass. By and large, however, I escaped the worst of it as I retraced my steps back to Boat of Garten and swung east towards Nethy Bridge. I didn’t remain entirely dry, but I could get away without the over-trousers which made a significant difference.

In Nethy Bridge, 58 miles after setting off from Newtonmore, I needed a whisky comfort blanket. The Nethy Bridge Hotel duly obliged with Isle of Skye 8yo on the optic. ‘You want that Glenfiddich’, said the local expert. ‘It’s the same price and you’re getting a single malt’. I replied that I felt like a blend at that precise moment, which baffled him entirely. Sipping my double over the next 40 minutes, I didn’t regret my decision.

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The Blend Bibliography – Isle of Skye

Quietly, consistently, the word spreads. On the blogs especially, between the single malt pangeyrics and cocktail correspondence mention is increasingly made of blended Scotch whisky. And the coverage is informed, open-minded and – heaven forfend – positive.

If the principle barrier to blended appreciation has been, as Casktrength.net put it, ‘ubiquity’ I have come to realise that however recognisable the faces of Scotch blends may be, my familiarity with them is only skin deep. Far from demonstrating discernment, comprehensively passing over entry-level blends exposed a yawning chasm of ignorance for me. How could I claim to know anything about Scotch whisky when the category of Scotch whisky that 90% of the world chooses to drink was entirely alien to me?

Over the past two months platoons of samples have passed under my nose and what an enlightening process it has been. In many cases, the supposedly Plain Janes of the whisky world boast a subtle beauty, blessed with sparkling repartee and disarming charm. In a new feature, I want to focus on some of the blended Scotch whiskies you may have overlooked and detail the histories and personalities; the enterprise and innovation, and finally the flavours at their heart.

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Recently, I returned to Skye in the Scottish Hebrides for a week of walking, gastronomy and whisky. The Waternish peninsula would take care of the former, fine food would be guaranteed at the Kinloch Lodge Hotel and the Three Chimneys, and fortunately – three days prior to leaving for my holiday – I found a contender to satisfy most requirements on the latter front.

Isle of Skye is a blended Scotch under the control of Ian Macleod Distillers. Other notable brands of theirs include Glengoyne and Smokehead while they have recently revitalised Tamdhu Distillery in Speyside. The blend lies at the heart of the business, however, with the recipe ‘in the family’ from the 19th century and acquired by Ian Macleod along with the Isle of Skye name in 1963. The Skye connection is an obvious one: over the course of my week in the Dunvegan area it was almost impossible to move for Macleods and Dunvegan Castle, which we visited on a foul Wednesday morning, is the spiritual home of the Clan. Now based in Edinburgh, courtesy of the Isle of Skye blend the company retains this ancestral bond to the West Coast.

Today’s blend harnesses the honeyed body of Speyside malts and the peated pace of one or two island distillates to good effect. The standard expression is the 8yo, but it is also possible to come across a 12yo and a 21yo as part of the core range. They have even released a 50yo, although stocks are very limited.

The UK and USA remain core markets, but in-roads are being made with the whisky-drinking publics of Ukraine and Russia.

The bottle design takes its cues from the Cuillin Hills – the awe-inspiring geological razor blade which dominates the island’s skyline (or should that be Skyeline). The Cuillins represent one of the longest and most testing ridge walks in the British Isles and their moods alter depending on the time of year and the weather; the 8yo highlights their red russet phase, while at other times the prospect can be a furious, Mordor-like black – alluded to by the 12yo.

When I contacted the company they hinted at a significant new sponsorship agreement to be announced at the beginning of next month. In the past, however, Ian Macleod’s blend has headlined at the 135th Year of the Isle of Skye Highland Games in Portree as well as partnering with the revamped Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh during last summer’s Festival Fringe.

I picked up my bottle of the 8yo at my local Tesco for £17.50 having been surprised by its robust but rounded nature and intriguing fruity depths, discovered in a sample from Master of Malt.

Isle of Skye 8yo 40%

Colour – honey with deep orange tones

Nose – light and crusty peat grafted on to rich, fruity Sherry oak at first. With nose in the glass the grains take the lead and their luscious body, zest and rich vanilla qualities suggest some are older than the stated 8 years. Behind this is impressively sensuous honey and berry fruit hints, as well as caramel made from condensed milk. Jelly sweets, soft grassy smoke and suggestions of cigar wrapper. Rounded and assured.

Palate – rich and peaty textures before honey, redcurrent and plum take matters into sweeter, rounder territory. The grain is predominant throughout but adds lovely, potent and above all clean body. A crackle of spice to close.

Finish – very grain-driven again with fleshy fruit (papaya, mango) and a background of ginger, cinnamon and raisin.

While I might not always agree with him, Jim Murray does write with ardent eloquence on the subject of blended Scotch and he rates this expression very highly indeed. For me, it is a perfect example of a blend that is on the one hand very ‘different’ yet soothingly familiar.

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