Old dog, new tricks

Posted 20 August 2019 by Matt / In Tomatin
The Dramble reviews Tomatin Cu Bocan 1989 Vintage

Bottle Name: Tomatin Cu Bocan 1989 Vintage

ABV: 53.2%
Distillery: Tomatin
Region: Highlands Age: 24

Times change. Tastes change. And unless you want to get forgotten by history, sometimes your whisky brand needs to change. We see brand makeovers all the time – a change of bottle design, a change of labelling – both seeking to alter the customer perception to one of modernity and relevance. Then there’s a change in stock policy or a change in production methods – a necessity to reaffirm the brand proposition and an ideal time to reinforce revised values. And then sometimes there’s a need for radicalism – not just a cosmetic change, not just a redrawing of the narrative, but a wholesale reinvention.

Rebrands are rarely taken likely and are caused by a combination of indicators. But nearly always there’s a keen eye on the bottom line – if a product is not selling as well as predictions (particularly in a buoyant market), questions are going to be asked. Is the brand value clear and understood? Is it appropriate? Does it resonate? And most of all, is it selling?

In the case of Tomatin’s peated whisky range – Cu Bocan – it seems that the answers to these questions was judged to be no. The range, which was first launched in the autumn of 2013 is now back – and it’s bringing with it a particularly far-reaching overhaul. Other than the name, 46% ABV and the continued use of peated barley, everything else about Cu Bocan has changed.

The Cu Bocan brand originally took its cue from a backstory of a mysterious ghostly hellhound who stalked the residents of Tomatin. Honestly, I’m not sure whether this was folk law or simply invented for the product. I don’t think it matters – it never properly fitted the whisky. The bottle design – opaque black glass with a wispy Rorschach test print whilst striking visually, was not necessarily appealing to all quarters. Much has already been written about the accessibility of whisky – stories supposedly from the 19th Century and ghostly vestiges do nothing to improve this.

And so, the new Cu Bocan has been released. It’s still a smoky whisky from Tomatin’s limited annual peated production, but now, its focus is clearly on the upcoming trend for funky casking and finishing that has been kicked off by the recent update to the SWA rules (and obviously long expected as many distilleries already have a wealth of casks laid down which were previously non-compliant). Three bottlings have been produced for the new Cu Bocan range - a Signature expression, and two ‘Creations’ – one formed of stout and wine, the other of ex-shochu and virgin oak. 

The new range is bottled in radically different glassware. Gone is opaque black (phew – honestly as smart as they look, opaque bottles are a bane – I want to see how much liquid I have remaining!), and in is a bespoke spiralised patterned design. You only have to read the press materials to see how Tomatin are attempting to completely repitch Cu Bocan for 2019 and onwards – it’s now described as a 'contemporary spirit’ and to my mind, both the bottle redesign and focus on ‘innovative maturation’ speak to this much more strongly than the ‘ghost dog’ (which I’ve always struggled to disassociate from the Forest Whitaker hitman movie from 1999).

But, thoughts of the ‘old’ Cu Bocan’s relevance aside, the changes to SWA cask rules would have got the Tomatin bods thinking. We surely don’t have long to wait for Diageo’s Don Julio whisky <shudder>, but similarly, many other distilleries are going to want to take a bite from the new possibilities and market opportunities that these rule changes have created. Its potentially easier (and less risky) to redraw an existing brand’s established reputation than to attempt to create an entirely new range. And, by coming out of the gates early it seems that Tomatin has managed to teach an old dog some new tricks.

Today’s review take us back to 2014 – and the Cu Bocan range’s second release. The 1989 vintage is formed of three ex-bourbon casks (#37470, #37471 and #37472) – supposedly discovered by accident to have been peated and left forgotten in the warehouse for 24 years (none of which I believe for a second – faux-happenstance is a story trait the whisky industry needs to consign to the dustbin of history). 1080 bottles at 53.2% ABV were produced from the marriage of the three casks – there’s still a few smaller retailers (mainly in Germany) holding limited stock of this older edition – the RRP when released was £200 – expect to pay around £250 nowadays.

Nose: Crisp and clean fruits with vegetative smoke. Pear juice, candied lemon peels and juicy pineapple chunks float over a core of smouldering moss, charred pine needles and scorched field flowers. Chalk cliffs and pangs of salinity are joined by paraffin wax, chopped herbs and vanilla cream. Reduction adds considerable sweetness – lemon drop candy and marzipan alongside sunflower oil and shaved coconut.

Taste: A bright, sweet and impactful arrival of caster sugar dripped citrus (oranges and lemons) with fresh, tart grapefruit. The smoke is considerably more prominent on the palate and flows in like a wave – inland, vegetal, mossy and floral. The mid-palate offer more minerality with hewn rocks and sandy pebbles – again with a lick of salt. The back-palate offers some well-aged cask influence  - lemony polish with ginger and nutmeg spicing. Dilution brings out a glorious tinned fruit dimension – pineapple in syrup and preserved lemons – whilst the smoke is transposed towards ashiness and smoked gravel.

Finish: Long and favouring the cask with vanilla cream, cracked dried earthiness and polished wood tables.

Cu Bocan 1989 vintage offers a combination of vibrant fruity clarity, pronounced (but still supportive) inland smoke and well-balanced cask influence. The trio work together in harmony creating a whisky which presents as light an accessibly, whilst possessing the depth and layering one would expect of its age statement. Well worth keeping an eye out for.

Score: 88/100

Master of Malt
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