Contrasted with all the glitz, glamour and TV or movie screen time sought by Scotch brands like The Macallan, Lagavulin and even Johnnie Walker, Tomatin has been a humble, unassuming Highlands malt brand. “The softer side of the Highlands” so says its tagline which seems to apply to both its taste profile and its brand profile.
Of late though, the underdog malt is gradually appearing on drinkers' radar just as the distillery began making greater efforts to market its products and raise its branding amongst younger drinkers. The object is to shed its image as a dusty "grandfather's drink."
For its 125th Anniversary last year, Tomatin unveiled "To What Matters," a campaign that comes with a cute flask, urging young adults to cherish their time with their loved ones.
Tomatin's rebranding campaign is led by a tear-inducing 60-second film following the fishing exploits of a young lady and Grandpa, and... I'll spoil it: it ends with her eulogy for Grandpa who happened to enjoy drinking Tomatin 18.
For Tomatin to move on from being a grandfather's Scotch, it seems that they had to literally kill grandpa 😢.
You’ll enjoy the moving short film, although it juxtaposes heart-warming music with a head-scratching scene of Grandpa liberally pouring a bottle of Tomatin 12 into the river.
After some digging on my part, this is apparently a Highlands tradition to christen a new salmon fishing season. I’m guessing the subtext is that it is time for outdated traditions and people to go?
Tomatin’s higher profile today is also due in no small part to the hard work of jet-setting Global Brand Ambassador Scott Adamson. I had the privilege of meeting him at a Tomatin-Shirakawa masterclass last week in Singapore at Quaich Bar.
From Scott, we learnt quite a bit about Tomatin’s history, including its unique production style.
Established in 1897, Tomatin was at one point Scotland's largest malt distillery. The distillery experienced various periods of good times and dark times throughout its history that mirrored the broader trends within the Scotch industry. During the 1980s' Whisky Loch crisis, which saw an oversupply of Scotch in the market, Tomatin was amongst the first Scotch distilleries to be mothballed. This period marked the beginning of a wave of closures, with other now-famous names like Port Ellen and Brora suffering the same fate.
But the late 1980s was the height of the Japanese Economic Miracle, and during this time Japanese companies were buying out companies left and right. The Japanese company, Takara Shuzo Co. Ltd., which was also Tomatin's biggest customer (it purchased Tomatin's malt whisky to produce its blends), decided to rescue and acquire Tomatin Distillery.
The acquisition made Tomatin the first Scotch distillery to be owned by the Japanese, marking the beginning of a new chapter for both Tomatin and the Scotch industry.
Under Takara Shuzo, Tomatin was to invest in improving the quality of its malt production. The product range was expanded. Equipment was modernised to have greater control over distillation. There was a greater emphasis on using quality oak casks for maturation. Most notably, Tomatin shifted to a week-long fermentation process, which Scott Adamson boasts is presently the longest fermentation regime in Scotland.
This week-long fermentation period is said to contribute to a more complex and flavourful whisky by allowing additional time for the yeast to interact with the wort, and the production of more fruity esters and other flavour compounds.
For Tomatin's 125th Anniversary in 2022, the distillery bottled the Tomatin 50, which I had the privilege to taste last week thanks to Quaich Bar.
This liquid was distilled in 1971 and exclusively matured in a first-fill Oloroso sherry hogshead before being bottled in 2022. Being distilled in the 70s, this Tomatin was produced under a slightly different production regime before Takara Shuzo switched things up in the 1980s. Back in the 70s, Tomatin had a 4-day fermentation period which is still a longer period than the industry average of up to 3 days.
According to Scott, a longer fermentation time helps to encourage "late lactic fermentation". This geeky-sounding process refers to a build-up of lactic acid bacteria during fermentation, which causes the bacteria to produce additional esters and flavour compounds that enhance the final taste of the whisky.
This whisky was bottled at 44% ABV.
Not only is an old whisky, this bottle also offers a rare look into the early days of vintage Scotch whisky production. Till this day, experts (the likes of Samaroli and friends) agree that Scotch whiskies produced in 1960s and 1970s were some of the best Scotches ever produced.
So let's give this a taste.
Tomatin 50 Years Old Single Malt - 125th Anniversary, 44% ABV – Review
Appearance: Bright gold.
Nose: A bright symphony of aromas – a creamy, mellow tropical fruits-packed richness. Opens with a bright and luscious tropical character reminiscent of Jamaican rum, with just-ripe bananas, candied pineapple, and mild Hawaiian yellow papaya, layered by a subtle veil of tobacco and roasted walnuts that add complexity and depth.
Palate: Clean, dense, and brimming with sweet and tart fruits. The first sip opens with a vibrant medley of tropical fruits from the nose, but melded with sweet-and-tart fresh red fruits such as plums, figs, and apricots. The flavours evolve to a slightly drier side with maltiness emerging alongside mildly sweet and woody banana chips, warm vanilla milk, red raisins, and a touch of leather polish.
Finish: The transition and evolution is so gentle and graceful it feels a little unnatural to segment the palate and finish. But anyways, the finish is long, dry and aromatic. A vanilla sweetness gracefully transitions into aromatic dry oak and a nostalgia-inducing box of Grandpa's unlit Cuban cigars. And as the journey concludes, delicate notes of tea leaves and a final hint of cinnamon lingering on the palate.
This is crazy smooth.
Complex, multi-layered and has the most incredibly graceful transition from one layer to another. Like an infinite series of Russian dolls. Beautiful!
The Tomatin 50 is, without a doubt, one of the most complex, clean-tasting, and rich sherried whiskies I have had the pleasure of tasting.
This has an incredibly well-structured profile with an ever-evolving palate that balances light tropical funk, red fruits, oak and aromatic smoke with finesse. The distinctive tropical notes are a definite testament to the quality contributed by Tomatin's long fermentation process.
The most impressive part of this is its gradual, elegant transition from one layer to another that feels like a walk down a really gentle hill - this is my favourite feature of the expression.
There is so much I could get out of this. It felt almost a pity that everyone was eagerly moving on to the next rare whisky at the masterclass. On my end I was unable to put down this glass, continuing to nose and savour this exquisite dram long after others have moved on to the next thing...