Tomintoul distillery is usually closed to the public, however they run a few small tours as part of the Speyside Autumn Whisky Festival and we were fortunate enough to get booked in. The tour was taken by production manager, Tom Gerrie who provided a more straight talking tour than your typical distillery; no talk of happy cows on this visit.
There are currently nine expressions bottled under the Tomintoul label; ranging from the 10 year old through to the 1976 vintage. As is typical of most distilleries, the majority of the whisky produced is created for blending. Usually these blends would be the group flagship brands such as Diageo’s Johnnie Walker or Pernod Ricard’s Chivas Regal, however Tomintol take a different approach.
Tomintoul produces blends to client specification, “we make what the client wants” as Tom put it. This direction has resulted in a large blending facility being bolted onto the back of the distillery, which allows grain and malt whiskies to be blended and transported straight from the site to a bottling facility local to the client. As with most distilleries, Tomintoul’s largest market is currently France and they export one tanker per day to be bottled for French supermarket blends, about 750,000 bottles per week!
Whisky fact: Single Malt Scotch Whisky must be bottled in Scotland, but other types (e.g. blends, grains) can be bottled anywhere. This is a recent change to the Scotch Whisky Category rules.
The distillery is unremarkable to look at – it was founded in 1964 so less pretty than some of its older peers. Likewise the basic science of making the whisky is no different than that of any other. What made this tour fascinating was listening to a production manager with over forty years experience in the business giving us insight into some of the specifics of Tomintoul, but also the industry in general.
We walked through the distillery, taking in the differences at each stage with Tom narrating the various details. The wort fermentation is about 109 hours, much longer than most distilleries in order to add to the ‘gentle dram’ whisky style. Copper piping is used everywhere for the same reasons; the metal removes sulphur aromas which are left in ‘meatier’ whiskies like Mortlach. Beside the stainless steel washbacks sits a plant about 12 foot tall, “it was dying in the office so they brought it in here for the carbon dioxide; the guys keep it as a pet”. The control desk looks like the original 1960s installation with chunky flashing lights and flow diagrams. The stills are unpolished, “we don’t do tours, so we don’t polish our stills”.
On the way to the warehouses we were able to see the casks being disgorged into a trough. Although it looks quite unhygienic, the whisky passes through so many filters before being bottled that nothing else makes it to the final product. The first building was a typical racking setup containing various malt whisky casks. The other warehouse was full of grain whisky brought in for blending. This is the first time I’ve seen grain whisky in the casks and the differences between these and malt are stark. Malt casks are stored on their side to increase the effect of the wood, grain casks are stored upright on pallets as it takes up less space. If a malt cask leaks in the warehouse, “I could have 3 guys fixing it within an hour”, if a grain cask leaks it’s just left as not cost-effective to repair.
After the tour, we retired to the a meeting room for a tasting. I had picked the short straw and was driving, but Adele was in for a treat!
We went through a selection of the range; the 12 year old portwood finish, the 14, 16 and 21. We were also able to the Old Ballantruan ‘Peated’ Malt which was recently released. Pick of the bunch for me was the 21, followed by the 16. Both had lovely deep flavours from the bourbon casks with vanilla and sweet fruits. I also really liked the Old Ballantruan – it’s a young whisky, but a lot more subtle and controlled than I expected.
Overall, our time at Tomintoul was a great experience which I’m really glad we signed up for. Definitely one to look out for if you’re ever in Speyside for the festival.