What's up with the Thompson Brothers and those funky labels? - Dornoch Distillery
Indie Spotlight: Thompson Bros
Location: Highland, Scotland
Note: Our Indie Spotlight articles look into stories of individual independent bottlers (or "IBs"), the value they bring to the whisky community and features that make their products special. To learn how IBs are different from conventional distilleries, check out our Basics Series article on Independent Bottlers.
Here’s one of the earlier bottles released by Thompson Brothers:
“What the hell is THAT on the label?” we hear you ask. That’s Jeff Goldblum. That’s right, this is a bottle of Scotch with a full-body portrait of actor Jeff Goldblum on it. What more can you ask for from this world? Has it not provided you everything you could conceivably want? We have added this to the list of items we never knew we would want.
Let’s learn a little bit about the bottler who brought Jeff Goldblum on a bottle to you.
"Whisky-making is an inefficient process, but the inefficiencies are what lead to flavour creation.”- Philip Thompson
The “Thompson Brothers” refers to a Simon and Philip Thompson whose family runs a hotel out of the Dornoch Castle situated in Sutherland, a county in the Scottish Highland.
Very responsible parents
With thoughtful and responsible parents, at around 15- to 16-years of age, Simon and Philip were assigned to be bartenders of the Castle’s whisky bar. On hindsight, leaving two teenage boys with questionable impulse control to serve liquor at the bar without adult supervision could either go well or go really wrong.
In an interview, Simon has candidly shared that as early as 15, the brothers began (and I should add, illegally) tasting the fine whisky collection at the bar. This taught the brothers to discern good whisky from great whiskies, and build up the bar’s collection.
Thankfully, the Thompson parents’ ill-advised gamble paid off and they are left with two capable adult sons with incredible palates for tasting and identifying good whiskies and no need to attend AA meetings. The Dornoch Castle Bar has since won many awards which its variety of high quality and rare bottles, and is among the world’s best whisky bars.
It is also during their time at the bar that the brothers developed a passion for Scotch whiskies distilled in the 1960s and 70s, which have considerably richer textures, fuller-bodies and stronger in flavour and complexity. More on this later (see the section below on Dornoch Distillery).
The Thompson Brothers IB label
In 2013, the brothers created the Philip & Simon Thompson label and began sourcing and bottling whiskies they particularly enjoy as independent bottlers. Their brand was eventually shortened to “Thompson Bros”. The Thompsons’ operation has given birth to bottles that are remarkably popular amongst many respected whisky bloggers and journalists.
Quality Scotch and well-curated selections
Thompson Bros is one of the youngest Scotland-based independent bottlers around. Compared to the likes of Cadenhead’s, Gordon & Macphail that were established over a hundred years ago, or even Douglas Laing that was established soon after World War II, the brothers are not from an established pedigree of Scotch whisky royalty.
With no industry experience (and by industry, we mean the whisky distilling industry) the brothers began as humble bar owners and whisky enthusiasts who have a nose for selecting great casks. The brothers’ reliance on instincts and doing things the right way has led them to produce a range of independently bottled Scotch that have received consistent praises from authoritative whisky critics.
Identifying underrated distilleries
Thompson Bros also gives people a sense that they curate whiskies from little-known distilleries that are in the brothers’ opinion, deserving of a bigger audience. The brothers occasionally would release a bottle of single malt from an obscure or less trendy distillery that taste much better than people might expect.
An example would be a series of Ardmore single malt released in 2019 through 2020.
Until the recent years, Ardmore Distillery had been a relatively obscure distillery mainly known by its fans. However, critics have increasingly formed a consensus that the distillery is one of the more underrated distilleries in Scotland that deserve more attention from the general crowd of whisky lovers. Ardmore’s classic flavour profile contains a mild aromatic peatiness and fruitiness quite unusual to modern Highland-style single malts.
In the mid 1900s, almost all distilleries in the Scottish mainland have shifted away from peatiness in their flavour profile to create a softer and sweeter whisky more acceptable to the masses. Ardmore fought this trend and remains one of the last distilleries still producing the old style of Highland whisky that retain a distinctive peat flavour.
Despite their relative youth and lack of traditional qualifications, the Thompson brothers are steadfast and genuine in their views. In an early interview (when the brothers were in their late 20s), Simon opined that although many in the Scottish whisky industry disparage whiskies from Speyburn Distillery as whisky lacking character, Speyburn was their favourite go-to single malt on every other night.
Subversive bottle art
And of course, the most distinctive feature of Thompson Bros’ bottles are the kaleidoscopic and eye-catching bottle art that is often of a rather irreverent nature. The label art are mostly provided by Scottish mural artist, Katie Guthrie.
We have seen Jeff Goldblum’s Cameronbridge. Here are a few others that would make you wonder what recreational drug their artist had been taking:
(Image Source: 88 Bamboo; Artist: Whisky Hobo)
(Image Source: Dornoch Distillery; Artist: Nicolas Flandrin-Jones)
Honest drinkers might admit that they chose a specific bottle simply because of the attractive label. Just considering the bottle above featuring ramen noodles- this certainly makes people hungry for the whisky.
Dornoch Distillery – throwback to the 60’s
The brothers were not content with being drinkers, bartenders or independent bottlers. In 2016, Phil and Simon embarked on their most ambitious project yet to become whisky distillers themselves. The brothers raised funds by selling their own homes and taking from some crowd-funded sources, and re-purposed a stone-wall fire station used in the 1800s to serve as a stillhouse. Simon is in charge of producing their product, while Philip is in charge of business affairs. The facility became Dornoch’s first ever whisky distillery.
But why start a distillery? What are the brothers going to make at the Dornoch distillery? Through their years of tasting, the brothers find that Scotch produced during the 1960’s and 70’s had much richer texture, more fruitiness and generally have more “character”. The brothers believe that all these are lost to the bygone era due to the use of modernised equipment, high-yield yeast strains and more efficient production processes- all to satisfy – in Simon’s words – the “shareholders, chemists and accountants”.
The brothers are inspired to re-create the style of whiskies found in the 1960’s and 70’s by reverse-engineering old bottles of whisky, using organic barley, correct yeast strains and age-old whisky making processes like floor-malting.
Their philosophy? Philip succinctly said:
"Whisky-making is an inefficient process, but the inefficiencies are what lead to flavour creation.”
Just consider why malt whisky makers continue to use 18th century pot stills to distil whisky, when these stills are much more inefficient than Coffey column stills, or modern distillation apparatus. It is the inefficiencies of the pot stills that enable heavier flavour compounds to be carried together with the alcohol into the resulting spirit.
Philip acknowledged that the use of organic barley rather than genetically modified ones lowers the yield of spirit derived from the barley. However, he believes that the natural and lower-yield barley provides much better flavour than other types of barley.
Dornoch Distillery is still a really new distillery finding its footing and exploring its potential paths and signature flavour characteristics. However, the brothers have released their first original bottling- Dornoch 2017, a 3-year-old single malt matured in a first-fill ex-Oloroso butt cask.
This was so highly anticipated that every bottle of Dornoch’s inaugural single malt was snapped up in the matter of a split-second.
The Dornoch 2017 has a nose of sweet dried fruits such as sultanas and figs, and some milk chocolate and nuttiness. On the palate, the whisky has an oily mouthful less common in young whiskies, with notes of honey, sultanas, chocolates light tobacco and some pepperiness. The finish carries some more tobacco with maltiness and a dry texture.
Scotch whiskyland is a domain largely dominated by participants who have been around since Beethoven composed his fifth Symphony. Yet Thompson Bros, despite its relative youth, has become an important member of the Scotch industry.
One quality stands out through the brothers’ years of running a bar, independent bottler label and now a distillery. Sincerity in wanting to share good quality Scotch with the general public. Without too much concern with what “qualified” industry people may say, the brothers are eager to identify distilleries they believe are underrated, and quick to point out faults with the industry at the risk of offending large conglomerates. Notably, the whole premise of establishing Dornoch Distillery is the criticism that modern whisky distilleries no longer produce whiskies of the same quality as before.
(Artist: KMG YEAH)
In fairness, we think that the opinionated brothers may be a little bit over-critical of distilleries for making whiskies that are no longer as full of “character” as in the 1960’s. Whether a certain flavour profile tastes nice is sometimes a matter of personal preference. Quality is a bit subjective. It is quite possible that society’s taste in whisky has changed since the 1960’s, causing distilleries to adjust their processes to create lighter-tasting whiskies more appealing to the general public.
In any case, we admire Phil and Simon’s purity of passion in selecting, bottling and now creating what they think is an ideal-tasting whisky for us. We also particularly admire the brothers’ quiet confidence in expressing their unadulterated views of the whisky industry. Respect!
Some of our favourite from Thompson Bros and Dornoch Distillery are:-
Entry Level: Distilled in Sutherland 19 Year Old 2017 (our review here), Linkwood 12 Year Old 2007, Ardmore 21 Year Old 1998.
Moderate: Dornoch 3 Year Old 2017, Ben Nevis 23 Year Old (Amber Light Edition), Blended Malt Scotch 23 Year Old 2001, Islay Single Malt (Undisclosed distillery) 27 Years Old 1993.
Top Shelf: Tormore 28 Years Old 1992, Carsebridge 46 Year Old 1973.
Filling a bookshelf? We picked these for you.