Tomatin Distillery stands a third of a mile west of the line of the A9 main road 18 miles south of Inverness, and the site is bisected by the main line railway to the city. Despite being so conveniently located it is all-too-easy to overlook, and even with brown tourist signs on the A9 it's perfectly possible to travel the road for years without really being aware of what Tomatin has to offer. Those who take the - minimal - trouble to turn off the A9 and make their way into the distillery find themselves driving through an extended complex of bonded warehouses and production areas, complete with an estate of purpose-built housing for the workforce.
Distilleries can be graded aesthetically on a scale that extends from "pretty" to "industrial", and Tomatin certainly lies at the latter end of that scale. But looks aren't everything. Tomatin has put a lot of thought into how it shows the distilling process to visitors, and a number of different depths of tour are on offer. We found it to be one of the most fascinating distilleries we've visited. It's certainly an experience we'd highly recommend to anyone who wants to see a distillery, whether as a first-time taster or for a more in-depth tour.
A legal distillery was first established at Tomatin in 1897, though it is thought that distilling in the area dates back centuries. The name "Tomatin" comes from the Gaelic for "Juniper Hill" and legend tells that because it made no smoke when burned (and so was harder to detect), juniper wood was the fuel of choice for operators of illegal stills. Tomatin also lay on an important route for drovers of highland cattle, which would have made it a handy place to establish an illegal still, with a ready market of thirsty drovers passing the front door. (Continues below image...)
The formation in 1897 of the The Tomatin Spey District Distillery Ltd took advantage of the Highland Railway as a means of bringing in raw materials and moving out finished product. Indeed, a private railway siding was built right into the heart of the production areas which, apparently, still exists beneath layers of later roadway. The other reason behind the choice of location lay in the soft water available from the Alt na Frith, running down from the mountains to the west.
As originally built, Tomatin Distillery had a single pair of stills. Things started to change in 1956 when a second pair was added. More followed in 1958 and in the 1960s, and then a major expansion in 1974 saw the total number of stills increased to 23 (12 wash and 11 spirit). What emerged was, at the time, the largest distillery in Scotland, with the capacity to produce around 12 million litres of alcohol every year. Although Tomatin was at the time one of the few distilleries to market single malt Scotch whiskies, almost all of what it produced was sold in bulk to third parties for use in blended whiskies such as J&B, Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker. The decline in the market for blended whiskies in the 1980s left Tomatin in an unsustainable position, and it went into liquidation in 1984.
In 1986 Tomatin Distillery was purchased by a Japanese consortium comprising its largest overseas customer, Takara Shuzo Ltd, and the trading company, Okura. Tomatin thus became the first fully Japanese-owned Scottish distillery in 1986, though a number of others have followed since. The bulk production of malt whisky as a commodity for blending had clearly failed to support the distillery in the early 1980s, and following the purchase the capacity was scaled back, from 23 stills to the 12 you see today. The aim has been to place much more emphasis on Tomatin as a single malt Scotch whisky in its own right, and ensure a more sustainable future for the business. It was looking pretty good when we visited.
OK, if you aren't visiting Tomatin Distillery for its scenic beauty, why are you there? Your tour begins in the attractively laid out visitor centre, which offers a tastefully stocked shop, an audio-visual presentation, a tasting area and - we think uniquely in Scottish distilleries - the chance to bottle your own whisky from a choice of five different finishes on offer. That's just another example of the thought given to ensuring that visitors have the best possible experience. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, because most visitors will want to see the distillery before sampling or purchasing the product.
Like the overwhelming majority of Scotch whisky distilleries, Tomatin no longer has its own maltings and buys in its malted barley. This is milled in the malt mill. There are two on view. Both were made by Porteus, one when the company was based in Leeds and the other, its replacement and still in operation, when Porteus had been taken over by Sizer of Hull. The plan is to cut open the older mill to allow visitors a rare view into its workings. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
There are also two very large mash tuns at Tomatin. One was taken out of operation when production was scaled back, and this, uniquely as far as we know, has been cut open in a way that allows visitors to wander around its interior, giving a real feel for the process. The washbacks are made of stainless steel, and while these may lack the romance of wooden washbacks they are certainly easier to keep clean.
The heart of any distillery is its stillhouse, and that is true at Tomatin. Here the space left by the eleven removed stills gives an open feel at one end, and part of this has been used to house a reference library holding sample bottles of whisky from - as far as possible - every year the distillery has been in production, and every expression. Nearby, on the floor of the stillhouse, is a tube condenser that has been opened out, to allow visitors an understanding of what lies inside.
The stills themselves are, unusually, controlled and operated from the lower level in the stillhouse, and this is where the cluster of spirit safes can be found. One unique feature at Tomatin is the absence from the necks of the wash stills of the two small windows usually found there, which show the stillman when the top of the boiling liquid has reached their level. At Tomatin the same function is fulfilled by a wooden ball hanging on a length of blue string beside each wash still. Pulling the string from the lower level caused the ball to swing out and then back against the neck of the still, and it is possible to judge from the sound it makes when it hits the neck whether the level of boiling liquid has reached that height or not. Another feature that we think is unique is the insertion into the top of the body of one of the stills of two circular windows, placed there simply to allow visitors a view into a still while it is working.
When we visited, cask filling was in full swing, and again this gave an opportunity to better understand a process that you sometimes see at distilleries, but not usually in close-up. The scale of the bonded warehouses at Tomatin reflects its history as the country's largest distillery, but the two we visited still had the usual quiet and almost cosy feel of bonded warehouses everywhere, and the characteristic smell of the angel's share as spirit slowly becomes Scotch whisky.
Two other things help set Tomatin Distillery apart. The first is the presence of an on-site cooperage. The second is that much of the energy the distillery consumes is generated by a biomass boiler. Two large silos, which we'd taken to be storage for malted barley, are for wood pellets, and the aim is to turn what is inevitably a highly energy intensive process into a much more environmentally-friendly one.