A quick escape to the Highlands (Day 1)
In our first post, divided in three parts, we describe a May 2021 trip to the Highlands. On the first day we visited Tomatin distillery.
The morning started with a bad sign: we broke the Buddah’s statue, souvenir of a trip to Thailand. Despite this ill omen, the morning went smoothly: picked up some food, bus was on time, check-in at rental car was quick (car slightly bigger than expected…but, hey!), and we are on the road again, baby!
On the A9 motorway, right after the village of Pitlochry (where Blair Athol and Edradour distilleries are, by the way) we took a little detour to have lunch at Queen’s View. This is a small park overlooking Loch Tummel, just a 15-minute drive from the main road. Not the easiest drive (typical single-track road) but the impressive scenery makes it worth it. Instead of driving back to the A9, we kept driving along Loch Tummel and had a tasty coffee at the Loch Tummel Inn, in their garden which overlooks the Loch, lovely! After that, we continued driving around the Tay Forest to re-take the A9 a little further north.
We arrived at the Tomatin distillery at around 2.30 pm. It’s very easy to find as the signs are very clear, and we were impressed by the size of the site. In fact, we will learn later that the distillery, built in 1897, during the 1970s and 80s it became one the biggest single malt production sites in Scotland, counting up to 23 stills.
We checked in easily, and before our tour started, we were able take a quick look at the shop, which features all the core range of Tomatin, Cù Bocan, and Antiquary blended scotch, plus many special releases (including the French wine finishes released in Spring 2021) and not one, but five (5!!!) bottle your own, starting from £75, up to a 1990 vintage ex-bourbon cask for £375.
The guide (Stewart) immediately gave the impression that he knew his stuff, and took us and the others to a small room to watch a quick introductory video. After that we were finally inside the distillery, for the first time in almost a year. First stop: the milling room. Again, we were struck by the size of the machinery, as we were expecting a smaller distillery – we were about to learn that despite their current production of ~2 mlpa, their full capacity is over 5. Also, we learned that the peat for the Cù Bocan comes, as we suspected, from Aberdeenshire. Here was one of the best parts: they kept an old semi-Lauter mash tun for display purposes…and of course we had to take a picture from the inside (ps: Roy from the Aquavitae YouTube channel will record one of his vPubs from inside the same mash tun a few weeks later, check it out https://youtu.be/iEyfop-KwDA)! Moving further, we entered the fermentation room which is equipped with twelve stainless steel washbacks.
The still room is also interesting: you can clearly see how the distillery was down-sized at some point, as only a portion of the building is actually used. Interestingly, they have a shell-and-tube condenser on display, which we could closely inspect to try understand how these things work (with mixed success). We also nosed some empty ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks before they were filled with new make, which was very interesting. Finally, as with every good tour, we moved into the warehouse…we’d missed the dumpy smell! At this point Stewart was literally bombarded by questions from some enthusiasts at their first distillery tour ever. We were running way over time, so the tour was rapidly wrapped up in the tasting room. Teresa had 3 small sips of Tomatin Legacy, 12 y/o and a Cù Bocan Signature, Gianluigi “won” a miniature of Tomatin 12 (the perks of being the driver). At the shop we had a further sip (or smell) of Tomatin Cask Strength, which we ended up buying…we couldn’t leave the place without a souvenir.
We drove back to the main road, past Inverness, heading north. We finally arrived at Dornoch, where we had our accommodation booked…it was not the Dornoch Castle Hotel, as we believed, rather the (500m away) Dornoch Hotel (sad trombone). Not too bad though, after dinner we spent a couple of hours having (a few…ehm) drams at the Dornoch Castle Hotel bar, where we were literally spoilt for choice. This included some 80’s Glen Grant and Tamdhu, and a That Boutique-y Whisky Company blended malt.
In our understanding the Dornoch distillery could not be visited at that time, and we did not find their own single malt on the menu, which we were (and still are) both very curious to try. However, we could not leave that place without tasting some of the Thompson Brothers releases as independent bottlers, which were all very well enjoyed.
Tomatin Legacy Tour
Price: £10 pp (May 2021)
Tasting: 3 small drams (Legacy, 12y, Cù Bocan Signature) or a 50ml miniature of Tomatin 12y if you drive
Target: whisky novices and casual tourists
Value for money: very good
Highlights: the “open” mash tun
Things we did not like: nothing, really