Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Long Way Up. 6th September. Dalwhinnie and Tomatin

It's 6 O'Clock on Sunday Morning. I'm brutally jaded and leaning against the old Vauxhall Corsa as I fill up the tank at a deserted Tesco Petrol Station. I'm trying to ignore the little voice in the back of my head telling me that getting up this early just so you can drive 350 miles to make the 1 O'Clock Dalwhinnie tour and have time to squeeze in Tomatin another 50 miles up the A9 just isn't worth it, but it's an insistent old voice.

'By the way,' it goes on, 'don't think I didn't see you packing that f***ing tent earlier. If you think we're doing any more ad hoc camping on this trip you've got another think coming.' I don't know what to tell the little voice - I'm a man on a budget. Between the cost of tours and petrol it'll be as much as I can do to buy food!

The voice is grumbling about my having skipped breakfast when I hit the M6 and begin the long straight line which, but for a minor
wiggle around Glasgow, takes you straight to Inverness. The less said about the monotony of the next 6 hours the better really, and around about half 12 the Cairngorms open up and reveal the familiar friendly face of the Dalwhinnie Distillery.

If I tell you to picture a distillery, the one in your head is probably Dalwhinnie. Clean white walls, pagoda roofs and nestled in a stunning natural bowl in the mountains. It isn't quite the highest distillery in Scotland, as Braeval in Speyside sits at a slightly higher altitude, but it is the highest whose Whisky is available under the Distillery's own label. It is also one of the classic malts, so out comes the 'passport', and that'll be zero pounds thanks awfully! Despite the unbelievably gorgeous weather (not a cloud in the sky!) there's a bit of a nip in the air. Unsurprising given this is the coldest inhabited village in the UK, with snow on the ground
for 9 months of the year.

The guide takes us round the distillery which, true to Diageo form, is very clean, well-laid-out and signposted with pictures of the flavours and aromas they expect you to pick up. Also true to Diageo form they have a nicely trimmed and focussed core range - 15 yo, Distiller's Edition, a 'triple matured' expression and their new 'Winters Gold' which is made exclusively from Spirit distilled in a particular season. Guess which. It's not a big distillery - one wash still and one spirit - but the Whisky is pretty easy to come by, with the 15 year old being available in Supermarkets. It's also one that I would heartily heartily recommend to either seasoned drinkers or those who have never touched a drop of Scotch in their lives - affordable, accessible and most importantly chuffing delicious. (That's an official tasting term.) The distillery is also a great one to visit - sitting literally next to the A9 it couldn't be easier to find, and it
provides a nice 'rest point' on what is otherwise a long and sluggish road from Perth to Inverness. For those with a sweet tooth the tour also includes a delicious piece of Scottish Chocolate to pair with the dram. I certainly know a couple of people who would be keener to join me on my visits if a few more distilleries followed suit...

Dalwhinnie 15yo - Very cold in the cask room where the samples are dished out, so I take mine into the shop and give it a few moments to warm up and get the nose open. Super fresh and crispy when it does - guide Willie reckons vanilla; I would say that ultra-light honey, heather and honeycomb are a touch ahead. White flowers, Granny Smiths and orange juice too, and the minute touch of peat used translates into an almost mineral clarity. Vanilla clearer on the palate. Tiny bit of sweetness, but not cloying - clean and light in body. Great liveliness. Perfect aperitif - the whisky world's answer to Chablis! 43% ABV

I can take my time a little more in reaching Tomatin, but at this point my entire day's sustenance has been a muffin and a coffee snatched at Gretna services. (Oh, and the whisky and a square of chocolate...) I decide, since the only place that serves food doesn't

do anything more substantial than sandwiches, to push straight through and get Tomatin ticked off before Inverness. This is the decision of a sleep-deprived clown, as a result of which I spend a fair amount of time at Tomatin joining the others in the group in looking around for the source of the stomach rumbling noises. (Well I'm hardly going to stick my hand up and say 'I'm the culprit guys.' Pretty sure they knew it was me though.)

I've been a fan of Tomatin for a while now, so it's nice to go back for a visit. I join a large party of French tourists for the tour, one of whom is literally obsessed with barley. I'm not sure he even cares about the end product, just keeps sticking up his hand at intermittent points and asking further barley related questions. 'How big are the grains?' 'How cold-resistant is the barley?' 'Is it two-barley or six-barley?' (I have no idea what that last question means and neither did our beleaguered guide.)

Back in the 70s Tomatin was the largest distillery in Scotland creating 13 million litres of Spirit per year before going into liquidation in the 80s and then being bought and re-opened by a Japanese company. These days it is considerably smaller - something in the region of 2.5 million litres - but the buildings remain their enormous size, and you can see where the old stills used to be. They also have a second (no longer used) mash tun, which they have removed part of the side of, so you can walk in. If it were me I'd install some furniture and use it as an office, though I accept that doing so would be impractical and peculiar. Tomatin is also worth visiting if you want to take photos during the tour. Diageo's Distilleries, and indeed many others have a 'no photos other than in the shop or outside the distillery' policy, but at Tomatin it's all fair game except from right next to the stills, which is reasonable enough.

In edition to the unpeated Tomatin the distillery makes a very lightly peated expression, the Cu Bocan, which is my personal favourite of their whiskies. It's very reasonably priced, but since they only distill peated malt for one week of the year there isn't much of it about. Worth looking up though. They also do a non aged dated whisky, the Legacy which has a cracking nose, a cask strength expression and an age range from 12 to 25. (Plus some special editions here and there.) For my money their spirit is at its best when aged in American casks, but that's just opinion.

Anyway, we make our way around the distillery, warehouse, bottling line and cooperage (one of only 4 owned by distilleries in Scotland) before returning to the bar for that well-earned dram. There are a fair few available to taste, but since I'm driving I stick to the flagship 12, contenting myself with merely nosing the others.

Tomatin 12 yo - A touch muted on the nose, initially at least. Savoury barley, then soft pear and a smidge of chocolate and orange. Oak relatively prominent, accompanied by some attractive caramels and sugars and a forgivable touch of sulphur. Bit nutty on the palate and finish - hazels not walnuts; the sherry influence here definitely second fiddle to the bourbon cask mainstay. Fairly rounded and chewy. Alcohol warming but not too fiery. Medium bodied. 43% ABV

Reaching Inverness has the feeling of coming home, though it's been a year since I visited and 18 months since I lived here. Perhaps it's the gorgeous weather, the familiar walk through the town and the chance meeting with an old colleague at a Starbucks, but after hours in the car and the 2 day journey 550 miles Northwards from Bristol I'm able to think: 'worth it.' Two brilliant distilleries ticked off, holiday officially begun and the clean, fresh scent of the early autumn Highlands in my nostrils. The grumpy little voice is clearly still making itself heard though, because I take one look at the tent and decide 'you know what, no financial saving is worth this.' I'll be staying with some friends from Monday night onwards, but tonight I book myself into the cheapest hotel the internet can find. As it turned out I would have had more room if I'd just slept in Tomatin's empty mash tun!


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