From an architectural perspective, history has not judged the 1960s kindly. The decade that is forever associated with high rise housing and soulless shopping centres also spawned a number of new Scotch whisky distilleries that are most politely described as uncompromising in their style.
Some of them looked more like factories than the popular notion of a Highland malt distillery, as epitomised by the likes of Edradour and Strathisla, however that was the whole point. They were effectively factories; whisky factories intended to provide the malt components of the blended Scotches that were becoming ever more popular in the USA.
In a number of instances, the industrial nature of the new distilleries was heightened by contrast with the beauty, and even majesty, of their surroundings. Tomintoul is a perfect case in point.
The distillery was constructed during 1964/65 by Tomintoul-Glenlivet Distillery Ltd, which was a company set up by whisky blenders and brokers Hay & Macleod & Co Ltd and W&S Strong & Co Ltd. The site, on the east side of the River Avon and in the valley between the Glenlivet Forest and the hills of Cromdale, was selected after a year’s search for the optimum water source, with the Ballantruan Spring eventually serving this purpose.
The location, in the parish of Glenlivet and six miles from the village of Tomintoul – pronounced Tom-in-towel and meaning ‘hill like a barn’ in Gaelic – is spectacular, but Tominotul is the highest settlement in the Highlands, and winters in the area can be extremely harsh. During construction of the distillery, the contractors kept several weeks’ worth of building materials on site, just in case snowfalls made the local roads impassable.
Tomintoul is the highest settlement in the Highlands
The distillery that came on stream in July 1965 was not pretty, but judging a book by its covers has always been a foolish enterprise and the spirit that flowed from the shiny new pair of stills proved to be of high quality.
Blending was, of course, the name of the game from the outset, but Tomintoul was first marketed as a single malt in the mid-1970s, after ownership passed to Scottish & Universal Investment Trust Ltd (SUITS) in 1973, and a second pair of stills was installed.
Early single malt offerings were an expression bearing no age statement and an eight-year-old, with both being presented in distinctive – and now very collectable – perfume-style bottles.
SUITS also acquired Whyte & Mackay Distillers Ltd, which operated Tomintoul, until in 2000 London-based blenders and bottlers Angus Dundee plc purchased the distillery, going on to add Glencadam in Brechin to their portfolio three years later.
The man in charge at Tomintoul since being appointed manager in 1990 is Robert Fleming, now distillery director for Angus Dundee, and a character with as fine a Speyside distilling pedigree as anyone could wish for. “I am a fourth generation Speyside distiller,” he says. “My father, grandfather and great-grandfather all worked at The Glenlivet distillery. My father was brewer there, and I was born and brought up a nine-iron away from Glenlivet stillhouse! When I started work in 1974 it was with The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd.”
Discussing the whisky produced at Tomintoul, Fleming says: “Since the distillery opened, it has always been a light, fruity, estery spirit.
“It was a style that was good for blending and we have continued to make it in that style. Around six per cent of our output is bottled as single malt, with the rest going into Angus Dundee’s own blends, such as Parker’s and Scottish Royal, along with blends that we
make up for customers and a significant amount is used for reciprocal trading.”
Tomintoul distillery is at the heart of Angus Dundee’s blending operations, as well as its malt whisky-making, as a ‘blend centre’ was created there in 2003. “We have 14 vats on site, ranging in capacity from 10,000 litres to 100,000 litres, which we use for blending purposes,” explains Fleming. “Blends are made up to our own or customers’ specifications there, and we have 120,000 casks of spirit stored on site, including grain whisky and a variety of malts for blending, as well as Tomintoul single malt.
“Since 2011 we have had our own bottling plant at Coatbridge in Lanarkshire, which used to belong to William Lawson’s and was just a shell when the company bought it. We installed a new bottling line and are now looking at adding a second one. There is also warehousing and a large spirit holding facility.”
In terms of Tomintoul single malt – marketed as ‘The Gentle Dram’ – the principal range has been progressively augmented until today it comprises 10, 14, 16, 21 and 33 Years Old versions of ‘standard’ Tomintoul, plus Oloroso Cask Finish and Portwood Finish 12 Years Old expressions. Additionally, Old Ballantruan and Peaty Tang give a different profile to the portfolio, with the latter being a vatting of four and five years old peated Old Ballantruan and eight year old unpeated spirit.
Robert Fleming notes that “Our most recent release is a 10 Years Old variant of Old Ballantruan, which has been quite a success story for us. We were probably the first Speyside distillery to start making batches of heavily peated spirit, which was intended for blending, but we discovered as it matured that it was very good in its own right and started bottling it as Old Ballantruan in 2005.”
He also points out that in 2009 Tomintoul single malt achieved a place in the Guinness Book of Records for producing the world’s largest bottle of whisky. Standing almost five feet tall, it holds the equivalent of 150 standard bottles, or 5,250 drams, and since last October has been on permanent display in Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience.
The Tomintoul line-up has won many accolades, including the 2010 World Whisky Awards ‘Best Speyside Single Malt’ for Tomintoul 33 Years Old, introduced the previous year. The distillery may not have the most attractive dust jacket in the bookshop, but it certainly provides a damned good read!
“We use Concerto and Optic barley,” says Robert Fleming, “usually unpeated, but we distil heavily peated (c. 55ppm) spirit for several weeks each year. The semi-lauter mashtun is ﬁlled with just under 60,000 litres of mash, providing four still charges of 15,000 litres each, and fermentation in six stainless steel washbacks lasts around 54 hours. The two wash and two spirit stills run on ﬁve hour cycles. 3.3 million litres of spirit per annum are distilled, with 46 weeks of production per year.”
10 Years Old40% ABVNose:
Light and ﬂoral, with malt.Palate:
Easy-drinking, grassy, citric, with fudge notes.Finish:
Honey and malt, medium length.
16 Years Old 40% ABVNose:
Quite light, fragrant, with orange and toffee.Palate:
Medium-bodied, more orange, fudge and a suggestion of peat.Finish:
Vanilla and citrus fruits.
21 Years Old40% ABVNose:
Barley, spice, pears and a touch of leather.Palate:
Rich and spicy, with malt and soft toffee.Finish:
Lengthy, spices and cocoa.
33 Years Old40% ABVNose:
Elegant, with summer fruits and malt.Palate:
Rounded and smooth, with allspice, vanilla and fudge.Finish:
Quite long, initially fruity, drying, with spice.
Old Ballantruan50% ABVNose:
Gentle peat smoke, emerging ﬂoral notes.Palate:
Peat to the fore, with hazelnuts and malt.Finish:
Very long, eventually cigarette ash.
Tomintoul DistilleryBallindalloch, Banffshire AB38 9AQTel:
+ 44 (0)1807 590 274www.tomintoulwhisky.com
Not usually open to visitors.