On the last day of our trip to Speyside we had an appointment with the Tomatin distillery. In 2012 we had stopped at Tomatin Distillery on a Sunday, driving from Oban to Inverness taking the scenic route via a closed Ben Nevis distillery. Tomatin does not do tours on Sunday either, but they had their visitor’s centre doors opened, so we could go in for a cup of coffee and a dram. Back then we had promised ourselves to come back and this year, that time had come. Johanne had arranged a tour, but was not told what to expect, so the five of us came in and were ready to get surprised. And what a surprise they had in store for us…
It is about an hour drive from where we stayed in Craigellachie, following the A95 and A9, and a small detour following the A938 is worth your while if you ever get to take the trip. When entering the distillery site, we first thought to have entered a village of some sort, instead of a distillery. When passing warehouses it became more and more clear that we were on the right track, because we could see the distillery itself already. It is missing the characteristic Doig ventilator/ Pagoda chimney, but the large Tomatin sign on the wall gave it away. Tomatin is one of the last distilleries in Scotland where most of the employees live in the houses we passed on the way to the distillery buildings. In the visitors centre, we were welcomed by marketing manager Jennifer Nicol and distillery manager Graham Eunson.
After a cup of coffee, Graham and Nicole first led us to the filling store for the first surprise of the tour. Johanne, being on her #whiskyfabricroadtrip through Europe could sign a virgin oak cask and then fill it with raw spirit and she received a computer printout with details of the cask. Graham promised to send samples of the cask each year, to see where it was going, and that it would be used in the Tomatin Legacy bottlings in about six years from now. Tears of joy were shed.
Many years ago, Tomatin used to be the biggest distillery of Scotland, having two mills, two mashtuns, 24 washbacks and 23 stills. Since the mid 1970’s, they have scrapped about half the stills and are operating on a lower capacity ever since, with only one operating mill and mashtun, 12 of the washbacks that are still in use (where some are unused, tucked away, but still there) and 12 stills, of which only ten are used at this point.
The disused mashtun has been partly dismantled, and visitors can get a good look of (and step into) the mashtun from the inside. It is said the mashtun can be put together and used again, if need be, but there are no such plans at the moment. They are thinking of doing a similar thing with one of the still present disused washbacks, in order to explain the fermenting process from the inside of such device. One of the old spirit safes is also there for display, just as one of the old condensers. The condenser is worked open, so visitors can have a look and explanation about how one actually operates.
We really got our geek on during the tour, where we received an opportunity to ask about every detail of the process. From the type of the incoming malted barley and how to get the best yields out of it, about some of the experiments that are currently in place at some processes on the production floor, and where more balance can be put into the process by monitoring the washbacks and the timing of the distillation better. Every change at this moment is part of the job Graham has recently accepted where besides distillery manager, the job of master blender also fell into his lap – where the use of his own lab is one of the niceties that came with the job.
Graham showed us around the grounds of the distillery and let us test our fear of heights when stepping into a device that normally transports casks up and down in the warehouse. We went to the top op the warehouse and had an amazing view on the casks resting. After that it was time to catch our breath at the little cooperage they have on site, and too watch a cooper hard at work.
When walking through the warehouses, some of the casks had our birth years on them. Graham told us we could bring the cask home if we had our birth date in common with the selected cask, and Ansgar was only one day off… No luck there, but on the second floor of one of the warehouses, we could have a taste of some of the casks that are presented there for these types of tours. We received a taste of a 2006 distillate maturing in virgin oak, a 2005 virgin oak with peated cù bòcan spirit, where the difference between the two casks was really surprising, and a 1976 (or was it a 1974?) refilled hogshead that was simply sublime. A portpipe we wandered past when we came down again, was finishing a whisky for the past 14 months and was almost ready for bottling on the 2nd of June 2014. I am looking forward to a bottle of this…
Saying our last goodbyes to the cask that Johanne filled earlier that day, we entered Graham’s lab where the adventure continued with a shared tasting of the oldest Tomatin that is currently found in the warehouse; a 1967 distillate that has recently been recasked. Great stuff that, too bad Graham tucked away the wee sample bottle before we got our chance of nicking it. Finishing the day with a sip of the Cù Bòcan 1989, after which it was time for us to spend some of our money in the well stocked store. Where one of the prices was the no. 1 bottle of the most recent ex-Bourbon – Fill your Own Bottle. A nice addition to our modest selection.
Many thanks go out to Graham and Jennifer for the five hours of their time – we all left with a big smile on our faces. Filled with the many wonderful experiences and highly emotional moments, we were actually quite sad to leave again for Craigellachie, where we would spend our last day in Speyside and would spend our Saturday driving down through one of the most beautiful roads of Scotland – until now, that is.