Whisky has a tendency to focus on the past. The creation of the liquid itself being a point in time which can be measured and then looked back upon as a footnote in history. In the case of some coveted bottlings – a generational divide between distillation and bottling and countless world events in between. In the eyes of some – a desirable liquid chronology. But for much of the whisky market, the simple passage of time holds far less resonance. How often have you held a bottle of 12 year old whisky and thought back to what you were doing in July 2008? For enthusiasts, whisky and time is often far more relatable to its point of consumption rather than its point of inception. And as such, the presentation of that whisky – its style, its character, its packaging, its price – all of those things are usually considered in the context of ‘today’.
Whilst the modern whisky world owes much of its practice and process to history, it is very much a product of current generational demands. Limited editions, cask finishing, elaborate packaging – these things were simply not thought of, let alone eagerly sought after 40 years ago. In over 200 years of whisky production, the market for single malts represents less than quarter of this time period – the current whisky ‘explosion’ little more than 10%.
Not all distilleries have adapted to the modern realities of whisky production – whilst blends still drive the cogs which power the industry as whole, at the enthusiast level, single malt demand is a keen and lucrative focus. Whilst some distilleries have all but ended their blending and contract filling practices, others – usually the more sizable of sites – continue to produce at bulk. And some of these larger producers are, in my opinion, still struggling to find the right balance when it comes to their single malt products.
Whilst the raw ingredients might look the same, the requirements for bulk blending and single malt crafting are wildly different. A stack of 4th fill barrels and an IBC of potable water might do you well for the former – but it’s unlikely to provide success for the latter. The market for single malt has changed dramatically, and continues to develop. Two decades ago, the desire was for easy-drinking, quaffable and generally all round affable single malts. 40% ABV. Gently does it. Nowadays, there is keen demand for impactful flavours, for higher strengths and for an experience which is more than just a slow, gentleman like sipping by a fireplace. The market has expanded and diversified. Time doesn’t stand still. And yet some whiskies still seem to be stuck in an awkward past, unable to derive a formulation which truly resonates with the modern market.
Enter Tomintoul – the gentle dram. A whisky which you both see everywhere and yet is still somehow under the radar. A whisky which to my mind owes much of its composition to the distillery's history (and current) requirements for blending – and as such struggles to shine in our modern world.
Tomintoul has seen several brand reinventions over the past decade – but has always stuck to what it likely sees as its traditional roots – ex-bourbon maturation (primarily refill and likely re-refill), age statements, 40% (for much of the range), a focus on old-fashioned livery and an abundance of messages around gentleness. This likely holds appeal in some quarters of the market and whilst I find it somewhat bygone, it is at least an understandable proposition.
Over the last few years, the distillery has started to recognise that whisky enthusiasts are seeking more than just the gentle, straight-forward Tomintoul experience. Enter a range of sometimes inelegantly crafted ‘bolt on’s’: Tomintoul ‘with a peaty tang’, a small range of cask finishes and a handful of older, vintage expressions. Necessary diversification, but often without the justification and brand work required.
It’s all very well creating a brand proposition of gentleness, but then just adding in some peat or some sherry to broaden its appeal to the wider market doesn’t feel like being fully committed – and indeed, it doesn’t look like being fully committed. There’s an attempt to be modern and relevant, but in being bolted-on to the core product this resonates more of being stuck in the past – of taking a recipe which works for the ‘gentle’ mob, and then proposing that the addition of some smoke or some wine will therefore inherently appeal to those looking for deeper and bolder flavour exploration. There’s a fundamental difference between moving with the times, and feeling obliged to take past times with you into the future.
Nevertheless, Tomintoul does present a selection of reasonably-priced accessibly single malts – under the radar, lacking the modern sensibilities, but no less worth exploring simply because of that. Today we’ll take a dive into the 16 year old – the most commonly seen of the distillery’s expressions – I’ve even spied it in petrol stations – cos that’s where folk obviously shop for single malts. The expression is drawn from refill ex-bourbon casks, bottled at 40% and clocks in at £42.75 from The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Reasonably neat and dainty with green apple and lemon peels providing a soft but crisp backbone. Oats, breadiness, rolled pastry and hay reveal some of the innate character of the spirit itself, whilst toffee, vanilla essence and wild honey run throughout. In the background gentle herbalness from daisies and mint leaves. All well-ordered.
Taste: A par for the course 40% arrival – aiming purely to be ‘smooth’ and not necessarily to show off the distinctive character of the spirit itself. Vanilla flavoured cream alongside choux buns and oven-baked rolls – then a crisp and clean citrus with both peels and pith. The ex-bourbon casks come through in the development, offering gentle white pepper and toasted oak whilst marzipan and walnut nuttiness is supported by golden cereals and barley sugar.
Finish: Short to medium and quite malt focussed – oats, cereals, malt cake – alongside lemon rind and a tingle of pepperiness.
Tomintoul 16 year old feels like it draws much of its character from the distillery’s experience in blending. It’s conceptualised and crafted in a manner which doesn’t particularly emphasis either the spirit or the cask – but rather of a broad brush approach which certainly results in something arguable ‘gentle’. And in that regard it’s fine enough. At the same time, it’s all rather generic and extremely old fashioned in its approach. In trying to be everything to all people it ends up offering little that’s actually memorable. I can’t help but think that Tomintoul has the spirit which could be much more than this - but then I'm far from the target market.