Even its most loyal devotees would admit that when it comes to aesthetics, Tomatin distillery is no Strathisla or Edradour. The somewhat industrial nature of the distillery buildings contrasts with the magnificently wild landscape that surrounds it. You may only be a few hundred yards from the main Inverness to Perth A9 road, but there is a real sense of remoteness about the place.
Tomatin may not be Scotland's prettiest distillery, but the old adage never to judge a book by its cover certainly applies here, as more and more consumers are discovering the virtues of its single malt.
Distillery manager Graham Eunson declares that, "Tomatin was a sleeping giant, and we are working now to unleash its potential as a single malt, rather than as a blend 'filler,' as had previously been the case. When I came here I liked the idea of a brand with potential, one that had been underestimated. Tomatin is way better than a 'bulk' malt for blending."
Orkney-born Eunson has been at Tomatin since August 2011, and he explains that, "This is my fifth distillery. I started at Scapa and when that was mothballed I moved to Glendronach, but that was mothballed too. I then moved from Allied Distillers to Glenmorangie, and that distillery was just too successful for me to get closed down!
"I spent 12 years at Glenmorangie before going to Glenglassaugh to work on the project to restore the distillery to working order after it had been closed for 22 years. I got that to where they wanted it and felt I needed a new challenge, and I was appointed manager at Tomatin. However, I still live 60 miles away, in Port Gordon, by the Moray Firth coast.
Many of his colleagues opt to live on site, however, and Tomatin is highly unusual in maintaining an old-fashioned 'distillery village' feel. "We have 44 staff, which is a lot for a distillery today," says Graham Eunson, "and of those 34 live on site. We have 30 houses here, mostly occupied by staff members or retired staff.
"We have 23 production staff, an engineering operation, a laboratory and the firm's main office functions, as well as all our warehousing requirements. We do blending for Antiquary, Big T and other company blends - there's a wide remit of things we do on site."
Environmental issues are clearly important to the Tomatin team, and Eunson explains that, "Our bio-mass boiler was the first of its kind in the UK. It's a four megawatt wood pellet boiler and supplies 75-80 per cent of our energy needs. The rest comes from an oil-fired boiler."
"We are in discussion with SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) about installing a wetland area where we can treat spent lees by running it through reed beds, which would save it having to be taken off site and spread to land, as is currently the case. It would halve the use of road transport from our site."
The Tomatin distillery that greets visitors today is a far cry from the original, which was established in 1897, when the late Victorian whisky 'boom' was at its height. The original pair of stills was augmented by a second pair in 1956, and expansion over the next two decades was relentless. By 1974 no fewer than 23 stills were in place, theoretically able to produce some 12 million litres of spirit per year, making it by far the largest distillery in Scotland in terms of potential capacity.
However, that capacity was never utilised, due to over-production across the Scotch whisky industry, and owners Tomatin Distillers plc closed down the 'number two side' of the still house, before entering receivership in 1985. The following year Tomatin became the first Scottish distillery to be wholly-owned by Japanese interests, and now operates as part of Takara Shuzo Ltd. Eleven stills were removed in 2002, and Graham Eunson says that, "If we work 24/7 we can make five million litres of spirit in a year, but we are actually making around 2.4 mla and have done for the last three years or so."
With greater concentration on single malt sales, the Tomatin range has expanded to include the No Age statement Legacy, 12, and 18 Years Old, while last year a 14 Years Old Port Finish expression and a 1988 vintage were introduced. The latest addition to the range is a Cask Strength bottling, released in February.
Jennifer Masson, Tomatin's Marketing Manager, notes that, "One thing we have done this year is invest a lot in the Tomatin brand, and marketing-wise we have started to establish a strong identity which was somewhat lacking before."
When it comes to sales, Graham Eunson explains that, "North America is our biggest market, along with the UK, Russia, Japan and Taiwan. Taiwan is interesting, because they really like to have single casks there." It seems that no self-respecting Highland or Speyside distillery can be without a peated variant these days, and Tomatin is no exception. "Rather than make a peated Tomatin we decided to market it separately under the Cù Bòcan name, with Tomatin in smaller letters on the packaging," explains Graham Eunson. "We see it as quirkier than the main brand. Each year we only make peated spirit for one to two weeks, in December. We're making around 80,000 litres."
Cù Bòcan - named after a legendary local hellhound - was introduced in 2013, and the initial No Age statement expression was followed by a 1989 vintage and a Sherry Cask version last year. Most recently a Virgin Oak bottling has been released, with a Bourbon edition due in August.
Another recent initiative is the Cuatro Series, with Eunson noting that, "After maturing for nine years in American oak casks, the whisky was transferred to four different types of sherry butts for a period of over three years. As a result each of the four expressions has developed its own unique characteristics. The range includes Fino, Manzanilla, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez.
Clearly the days when Tomatin was widely dismissed as a 'blending malt' are well and truly over.
Cuatro Series Fino 46% ABV
Nose: Earthy and nutty. Dry sherry, vanilla and cooking apples. A sprinkling of salt.
Palate: Smooth and nutty, with orange, tingling spices and subtle background sherry.
Finish: Medium, spicy and nutty, with citrus fruits.
Cuatro Series Manzanilla 46% ABV
Nose: Initially, dry, with developing caramel, milk chocolate and vanilla, plus supple leather.
Palate: Quite full, sweet fruitiness, slight saltiness.
Finish: Sea salt, apricots, allspice and dark chocolate.
Cuatro Series Oloroso 46% ABV
Nose: Early savoury notes, rich, sweet sherry.
Palate: Full-bodied, with musty sherry and spicy Seville oranges.
Finish: Spice, dates and sultanas.
Cuatro Series Pedro Ximenez 46% ABV
Nose: Rich sherry, dried fruits and worn leather.
Palate: Sweet and sherried, with nuts and cinnamon.
Finish: Medium to long, spicy.