As you follow the A9 road north into the Scottish Highlands, glimpses of distilleries are surprisingly few and far between. Dalwhinnie is a prominent landmark as you circumnavigate the village and as you pass Aviemore, the keen eyed may spot a signpost directing you off the road toward the Malt Whisky Trail. It’s not until you are on the home stretch towards Inverness - at the end of a dual carriage section - that another sign ushers you to turn off for a couple of minutes to arrive at Tomatin distillery.
Now owned by the Japanese Takara Shuzo Company, this distillery was one of the largest in Scotland during the 1970’s, offering 23 stills and a massive production capacity mostly destined towards blends like the Antiquary. Today, things are a little more modest with just 6 pairs of stills being utilised, following the removal of the surplus stills in 2002. This gives the distillery a more modest output of 5 million litres if full production was required, but in 2016 it was only around half of this capacity. However, the site if you do venture off the motorway is of epic proportions. Enough accommodation exists to cater for the needs of workers and their families; the area is dominated by the formidable presence of large warehousing for its widespread inventory. At the last count there were 15 warehouses with just 2 of these being of the traditional dunnage style.
The distillery itself was founded in 1897, at the height of that generation’s whisky boom, which would soon come crashing to an end with the Pattison Crisis. Some distilleries immediately closed as owners suddenly faced with a lapse in demand and guaranteed prices, or they could no longer afford to maintain production. Tomatin was one of the few to try and struggle onwards through the financial quagmire. The Tomatin Spey Distillery Company managed to keep things afloat until 1906 when bankruptcy brought production to a halt. The lull came to an end in 1909 when the Tomatin Distillery Company Limited revived the distillery and remained in place until 1985 when it was liquidated. Again, as a result of a lapse in demand, however the interest in the distillery from Japan was enough to attract its current owners.
The reason behind this connection was that Tomatin with its sizeable production supported various blends internationally. The Takara Shuzo Company were major customers of Tomatin and facing the prospect of losing a vital component of its own products, it took the long-term view of acquiring the distillery as a going concern. Since taking full control of Tomatin, there has been a sustained progression towards establishing its presence as a single malt. This process kicked off in 2004 with the launch of the core 12-year-old and was subsequently joined by limited expressions dating back into the 1970’s.
Japan remains a focus for the brand with a general revamp of the complete range in 2016 highlighting Tomatin to a new global generation. There are various limited editions but the core bottles are a No Age Statement called Legacy, then a 12, 18 and 36-year-old expressions. Tomatin has a more rugged and Highland characteristic from its nearby Speyside relations and works very well with a variety of cask types. In 2013 the Cu Bocan marked the debut of its own peated whisky and since then other vintages have been released to widespread acclaim. An attraction of the range apart from its solid characteristics is one of affordability in these times of excessively priced age statements. Support from the independent sector remains strong as well and it’s no surprise that after mainly existing to support blended whiskies, it’s now enjoying strong sales across all areas as a single malt.