Whisky is often thought of as a seasonal drink – from outside of the bubble it has a long-standing reputation for being allied to long nights, colder evenings and roaring fires. Within the industry, there’s a predisposition for utilising the seasons merely as another tool in the marketing arsenal for making a sale – positioning an ideal ‘summertime’ dram as somehow also being perfect as a Christmas gift for a loved one less than 6 months later. Seasonality is tricky – no producer wants to limit their sales window to just proportion of the year.
Various aspects of whisky creation can be thought of as seasonal – from the sowing and harvesting of barley, through to the timed ebb and flow of production vs. maintenance. From a style and character point of view, it’s relatively easy to start to pigeonhole expressions into one of the four seasons. Springtime – a bright and perky awakener. Summer – a lighter, daintier refresher. And as autumn moves into winter simply bringing on all the peat and all the sherry – for many people, ideally both at the same time.
But this is both overly simplistic, and I believe unreflective of whisky drinker’s actual preferences. Regardless of the time of year, many enthusiasts are simply happy sticking to their preferred style of whisky no matter the weather. Whisky drinkers might enter the category all bright-eyed and bushy tailed, but they quickly evolve into creatures of habit.
This weekend’s Summerton Virtual Whisky Festival saw a sizable number of folk take to their gardens to sample a wide variety of styles of whiskies throughout what was a particularly hot afternoon. No matter when a Summerton event takes place, it seems almost guaranteed to be warm outside – last year’s physical festival in St Albans rocked in at over 30 degrees – a heat so stifling that seasonality was a sheer irrelevance – it was simply too hot to really appreciate any whisky in its shorter, unadulterated form.
Keeping a close eye on the comments, which extended far outside of the festival’s online confines, there was to my mind no sense of perceptible seasonality. Lighter, delicate drams fared no better in their popularity (indeed, they were, and always are, pegged wrongly as being for beginners) than heavier sherried or smoky drams. And many comments merely focussed on how particular whiskies were simply more in-tune with individual’s predispositions. Though I suspect some purchases might well be stashed away for later in the year when all is said and done.
Perhaps part of this stems from both the association of summer being for ‘longer drinks’ (make mine a hazy DIPA), but also the stigma which still envelopes much of the whisky appreciation community when it comes to mixing or even dilution.
Humans are seasonal creatures – we change our outlooks, our behaviours and our clothes according to the variances in the weather. But when it comes to changing our whiskies – possibly to make them more appropriate to the time of the year - there are still barriers to overcome.
Mixing whiskies is often viewed as a waste – either a sacrilege of a deemed superior ingredient on the altar of supposed lesser components, or simply as a product which was created to be enjoyed ‘as-is’. Neither of these perceptions are necessarily correct and they often stem from a false sense of the pre-eminence of the liquid. That’s not to say that I do, or would advise, mixing up a £200 single malt purchase – but at the same time, whisky with its myriad styles is extremely versatile and single malts should not be thought of as a sacred cow.
There is likely also a fear of failure when it comes to turning a dram into a longer serve – particularly a dram which is thought of highly in its original state. But at the same time, those of you who have not yet tried a whisky highball on a hot afternoon are, in my opinion missing out.
And yet, some enthusiasts feel no massive urge to either change their whisky drinking preferences nor to attempt to transform their malts into something which might conform to the social norms of a seasonal beverage. And that’s fine too – it’s a hot early summer, and I find myself feeling oddly inclined to peat-driven whiskies right now (isolation does strange things to already strange people). Regardless, watching over this weekend’s festivities, it was clear that the future of the category is likely assured – whatever your preferences, whisky is a drink for all seasons.
Delving through the growing dram backlog for today’s review I’ve selected a distillery whose attitude and promotion focus naturally on the lighter end of the market – possibly to a point where one might suppose Tomintoul to be ideally suited as being a summertime whisky.
Tomintoul 25 year old is composed from ex-bourbon casks the distillery laid down around 1990 – when the operation was owned by Whyte & Mackay. Angus Dundee (who also own Glencadam distillery in the Highlands) purchased Tomintoul in 2000 – but it was not until 2015 that the 25 year old was added to their reasonably extensive age range. The bottling is delivered at 43% ABV and will cost you around £185 here in the UK if you scout around (the larger retailers seem to have sold out of their allocation of this particular expression).
Nose: Immediate polished oak and dusty stick furniture sits with a medley of stone fruits – apricots and peaches – whilst juicy lemons are joined by gooey honey on toast. Maltiness and grassiness both run throughout – golden oats, toasted cereals, reeds and flax. In the background a chalky minerality – crumbled limestone and wet stones. Dilution reveals a warmer side with baked apples, lemony polish, icing sugar and plenty of barley water.
Taste: Soft, pliable and quite shrill. A creamy arrival offers a comparable fruit, barley and grassy composition to the nose – but with a substantially sharper and tarter spice and cask influence. Key lime pie, apple peels, baked apricots are joined by sappy oak, pepperiness and building oak tannins. A soft centre of honey and golden syrup gives way to hewn granite alongside buttercups and dried grasses. Reduction diminishes the tartness and unlocks the grip of the wood tannins – lacquered wood panelling, apple crumble, pressed cider and oaty flapjacks.
Finish: Medium, drying, oak-forward and soothed by mint leaf.
Tomintoul 25 year old is perfectly serviceable – a summary which is frankly damning praise for a bottle which costs the best part of £200. The issue is perhaps one of ambition. Tomintoul’s single malt range has always felt rather bolted-on to its much larger blending operations. And here, rather than feeling like we’re being treated to some the finest casks the distillery laid down in the early 90s, you’re left with the impression that we’re being offered more of the same bulk ex-bourbon - only sat around for a bit longer.