Monday 1 September 2014

Tomatin Distillery

After visiting the Tomatin Distillery briefly in 2012 [they did not have any tours on a Sunday], we promised ourselves to come back for a tour and explore more of their expressions. In May 2014 we were at the Speyside Festival, so we arranged to go back and boy, were we happy we did.

During our return visit, we were guided by distillery manager Graham Eunson and marketing manager Jennifer Nicol (now Masson) - arranged by our friend and fellow-blogger WhiskyLassie, about which you can read all about in the other article.

Many years ago, Tomatin was - with two mills, two mastuns, 24 washbacks and 23 stills, they produced about 14 million litres of spirit per year, the largest operational single malt distillery in Scotland to date. A number that still is not surpassed by the large facilities currently in operation, but it will not take long before any of the big players will. In about 1974 things went downhill in the industry, and after liquidation in the mid eighties, the company was bought by Japanese investors.

With a relative easy cut, half of the equipment is no longer used, but not dismantled - except for eleven of the stills, leaving 12 stills remaining on site, where only ten are currently used. If you look around in the still-house, you can still see the increments in the beams where the eleven stills have once been. Current production is about 2,5 million litres per year, where about 1 million is used for the single malts and home-owned blends, where the remainder is sold to blenders.

Talking barley and milling, it becomes clear "yield" is a big word. The target of every tonne of barley is to reach a yield of 400 litres of pure spirit or more. The aim is to source the best Scottish barley available from Simpsons Malt is Inverness, which is sort of around the corner. There are 10 malt bins on site, with a total capacity of about 500 tonnes of malted barley. Every four and a half day work-week, the distillery uses about 130 tonnes. Golden Promise is a bit out of favour, Optic is not doing the trick any more, so the distillery and maltster are now looking at Odyssey for the best result.

The experiment with peated malt was successful enough to continue. Where the peated malt currently is about 12-17 ppm, they are looking at 25 in the near future, and even 32 is already in discussion, which could be interesting for marrying and blending purposes, and a heavier version of the Cù Bòcan.

The largest of the two cast-iron full-lauter mashtuns is the one still in operation, and processes little more than 8 tonnes of wash in 6 hours and 5 minutes. This time could be cut down to about 4,5 hours, if that would be needed to up production. The clear wort coming from the mashtun fills one of the 42.500 litre washbacks, where 5 20kg bags of dry yeast will ferment the wort into wash over a period of 56 hours during weekdays, and during the weekend, the wash stays in the washbacks for 110 hours, with 6 bags of yeast. The dry yeast might be replaced by cream yeast in the future, and experiments are already on their way.

After fermenting, two washbacks fill the wash charger, which in its own turn fills six wash stills, with about 14.2000 litres each. After seven hours of distilling, the low-wines are put into another charger, that feeds four spirit stills with 15.000 litres each. Distilling is computer controlled, but manually operated, meaning that the computers are used for monitoring alone, where the still-men can change valves with one click of a button.

During the talks about production from the type of barley to the spirit coming out of the safes, it becomes clear to us that there are a lot of changes at hand. Experimenting, monitoring, changing experiments and more monitoring are key in the changes Graham is applying around the distillery. Small changes in the beginning of the process can turn out to have great effects on the end result.

The importance to detail becomes clear once more, when we discover the distillery has their own one and a half cooper in service to monitor the quality of the casks and repair on-site when necessary. The distillery fills about 20.000 casks each year, which get to be used for their own malts and blends, and they have 174.000 casks stacked spread around the 14 on-site warehouses, where about 220.000 casks can be stored in total. The oldest cask on site - from 1967 - has recently been re-casked to a fresher cask, in order to re-vitalise the whisky. The 1967 we have had a taste of was already really good, but we agreed that with some re-vitalisation, it could turn out to be really, really good. If it ever gets bottled, we are curious towards a sample of it.

In conclusion, Tomatin is in for a big change under the leadership of Graham, a big change that by the looks of it will gradually be applied slowly over the coming years, without changing the spirit [too much]. The passion Graham shows he puts in his responsibilities reflects on the atmosphere in the distillery. Jennifer's approach towards the dreaded marketing and the cooperation with Graham shows us that Tomatin is a distillery to reckon with, now, and in the future. They have good ideas, the changes already put in place seem to have their desired effect, and will bring us a product we can enjoy for many more years to come. If there is need for a larger output, they can relatively quick and easy upgrade their production capacity by hiring a couple of people and changing into a 24/7 operation if needed. That is ignoring the fact that - with some financial input, they could have the disused material operational again.

If you would like to read more about their work at the distillery, we have had interviews with both Graham and Jennifer recently, which they answered extensively.

After the twitter tasting on the third of September we will post another article, where we will not only concentrate on the samples tasted during that evening, but we will also have a look at their current single malt core range and some of their more known blends. Meanwhile, just click here for Ansgar's notes, and here for Thomas' notes.

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