Whatever else they were thinking about when they built Tomatin, it wasn’t tourists. Located just 18 miles south of Inverness, and handy for the main A9 road from the south, Tomatin is not the tourist board-approved image of a distillery.For one thing, it’s situated on a bleak piece of moorland. This has its own austere beauty, but it’s far from the traditional image of hills and glens.Then the approach road is dominated by warehouses – not low-lying, atmospheric dunnage warehouses but unapologetically large, modern slab-sided structures. But at least they prepare you for the shock of the redundant dark grains plant that looms over the distillery. I’ve seen nicer collieries. In Swansea. In the rain.The tour itself is pretty straightforward. A simple visitor centre houses the bar, shop and a video lounge. You’re invited to watch a low-key corporate film, then accompanied on a tour of the distillery.Or part of it. Tomatin was once famous for being the largest single malt distillery in Scotland, with an impressive 23 stills. It was, in fact, a factory for making malt whisky, the vast majority of which was required for blending.However, in recent years, about half the stills were removed and the vacant space in the still house clad in some vibrant purple chipboard, which is where your ‘tour’ mostly takes place. Some very attractive photographic panels grace the walls, but it’s hard not to get fixated on the rusting girders above your head and the marks on the steelwork where the old stills were cut away.Anyway, having told us that milling, mashing and fermentation take place “behind that wall” our guide pointed out the rest of the still room, beyond a guard rope.That was apparently off limits as well, so we proceeded to a warehouse to look at a stuffed customs officer (best thing for them, some would say); some barrels in different sizes and a tantalising line up of vintage casks from 1965 – the oldest whisky in the place apparently.My eye was caught by a Victorian print on the wall. Astern and manly Scottish soldier was being attended by a nurse, bandaging a vicious wound in his leg. His steely grip held a beaker of Scotia’s finest. Was he going to drink this, I wondered, or whimper like a Sassenach and use it to clean the wound? I was startled from this reverie by a question posed by one of our group.“This old whisky,” he asked, “how do they know when it’s ready?” Suppressing the notion to quip “when marketing says so, and they think they can get £1,000 a bottle for another limited edition!” I listened intently for the answer.“I’ve often been asked that,” replied our guide “and I haven’t got the faintest idea.” Commendably honest you might feel, and charmingly naïve, but hardly what the bloke wanted to hear.Shock followed shock. Moving on to describe colour in whisky we were confidently told that most came from the barrels (fair enough) but that if it wasn’t dark enough “we add a wee drop of caramel.” The c-word is rarely spoken in distilleries these days so I was more than ready for a dram.And that promptly followed, for we were back in the centre in a few steps, being thanked for our visit and offered a decent measure of Tomatin’s 12 year old. Then they went and spoiled it all by pouring a cream liqueur – which to a man we politely ignored.Now, to be fair, our guide was for the most part well-informed; she was personable, friendly and welcoming; the Tomatin web site and the interpretative panels in the still room are well done and the dram is both free and poured with a generous hand but it’s frustrating not to actually visit the distillery, and the architecture is strictly functional (I’m being kind here).So, the Mystery Visitor’s verdict: could | do better. Oh, and don’t tell us that this is “the second highest distillery in Scotland”, “the second largest” etc. After all, how many silver medallists can you remember? Contact
Tel: +44 (0)1808 511 444
Visitor centre open all year, free.
Monday – Friday, 9am – 5pm.
Saturdays, summer only.