Whisky and Words Number 45: Tomatin 12-year

A deeply colored spirit

A deeply colored spirit

This is another review I have to credit to my local scotch-loving spirits retailer, Kelly. His recommendation for Oban was spot on, so I gave him heed when he told me the Tomatin 12 was akin to the Balvenie Doublewood (which I really like) and at a comfortable discount to the Balvenie. Tomatin sells for about $36 here in Oregon, whereas the Balvenie retails for $62. Frankly I think it’s a tall order for anyone to take on The Balvenie, but let’s give Tomatin a fair shake.

What do we know about the distillery? The box art implies a start of 1897, and that is indeed when the ‘legal’ distillation commenced on the site. The distillery has expanded and contracted over the years, having survived one bankruptcy and a liquidation. It was purchased from liquidation by the Japanese conglomerate Takara Holdings, putting this brand in the multi-billion-dollar club of holding companies. Curiously, Tomatin is the only Scotch distillery owned by Takara. More curiously, its web page is the only Scotch distiller web page I have seen with a Japanese language prompt alongside the English one:

Hm, many Japanese visitors perhaps?

It is a very complete and well-done web site, certainly worth a visit. Their Corporate Responsibility page as a ton of detail on their social responsibility and green distilling initiatives. The latter are quite impressive, so if you want a tipple that is approaching carbon neutrality, this is a good choice.

The Balvenie comparison

In the 1980s Tomatin was the largest distillery in Scotland, with 23 (!) stills. They have scaled back since then and of their 12 stills (6 wash, 6 spirit) only 10 are in use (6 wash, 4 spirit). Tomatin’s volume of production is roughly equivalent to The Balvenie at around 5M liters per year.

Guess which is which

On to the spirit. The Tomatin focus is on ‘silky smooth’ and ‘soft’ spirit, crediting Scottish barley and their water source, Alt-na-Frith burn. Nice to see them using local barley. Like the Balvenie Doublewood, they use ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry barrels to age the whisky. As a result, the coloration of the two spirits is very similar. You can see on the right that the Tomatin (left glass) is just a quarter-shade lighter. It is also very clear, probably due to more filtering. (Click for higher res.)

The softer side, on the back side (click for hi-res to read the fine print)

Given the marketing focus (soft, silky), Japanese ownership and focus on overseas sales, I expected a gentle nose and smooth palate, as Japanese whiskies tend to be on the less forward side of the spectrum. The flavor profile of the nose is agreeable and lightly fruity with a little more focus on oak than the Balvenie, but it comes with a more alcohol sting than I expect for a 43% ABV spirit. You don’t want to get your schnoz too deep in the Glencairn glass with this spirit. However, the flavor is there—the palate had surprising depth. Almond and fennel are quite noticeable. This is an herbal Scotch. It is not as unctuous and luxurious as Balvenie’s excellent Doublewood, yet the Tomatin 12 certainly carves a unique flavor profile. I’d account the flavor to the selection of casks and their toasting. The oak used by Tomatin imparts an herbal rather than grassy note than in a typical light Scotch.

In the finish, the Balvenie wins out with its characteristic complex woodiness and a more balanced fruit profile all around. Also, the Balvenie uses a touch of peat, whereas peat is absent in the Tomatin. But is the Balvenie better? And nearly twice as good (given the price differential)? That depends on what you are looking for.

Tomatin Highland Single Malt, 12 years, 43% ABV

Nose: Well-rounded, with cherry, plum and oak over a very subtle mineral note. Some alcohol sting.
Palate: Lyles golden syrup, almond extract, fennel, peppery tannin.
Finish: The sweetness cleans up fairly quickly at first, with a green oak counterpoint, but the fennel sweetness and aroma linger on.

Bottom Line: Tomatin’s 12-year is certainly not a replacement for the Balvenie Doublewood. Whereas the Balvenie is luscious and full-bodied, the Tomatin 12 offers a lighter-weight palate (not surprising for a Japanese-oriented whisky) with surprising and pleasing subtleties. At just over half the price of the Balvenie, it offers a refreshing summertime Highland single malt that you can afford as a daily driver. This single malt embarrasses blends selling for more. Worth a try, and a steal at the current price.

Tomatin vs. Balvenie 12. Note the similar color.

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Whisky and Words Number 44: Stein Distillery Straight Bourbon, 5 yrs

One tasty bourbon. Click for full-res.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a frequent bourbon drinker, and I have to look up the code words that go along with bourbons—in this case, “straight.” According to Angel’s Envy, to be sold as “whiskey” in America, a spirit must adhere to the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906). To wit: the spirit has to be “straight,” that being defined by certain proofs at casking and bottling, being cut with only water and, most importantly, aged for 2 years. In this review, we’re looking at a 5-year-old bourbon. That doesn’t sound like much aging to a Scotch drinker (minimum 3 years in Scotland but 10-to-12 is more common) but there is the climate to consider.

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Whisky and Words Number 43: Dewar’s White vs. Johnnie Walker Red

In the previous post, I mentioned Dewar’s old full-page magazine ads, with the Scots Guard soldier or some other Scottish kitsch. I also mentioned the ubiquity of White Label, the fifth largest selling blended Scotch in the world and top selling Scotch in the U.S.


Dewar’s web site claims the White label is “The World’s Most Awarded Blended Scotch Whisky.” This post is going to answer the question, is it any good for sipping? And to give it some spice, we’re setting the White up against a competitor, the Red, from Johnnie Walker.

The Dewar’s packaging, like the ’12’, is in a classic style, again heavy on the heritage with “True Scotch” announced just below the “White Label”, rendered in some old-timey font. Boy howdy, glad to see we don’t have a fake scotch on our hands. I have a warm feeling inside (and I haven’t even tried any), like when I get the Domino’s box with ‘Real cheese’ emblazoned on the side. Lower down we see the ‘Gold and Prize 500 medals’ claimed. I guess they are including silver, bronze, even iron medals? Who knows.

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Whisky and Words Number 42: Dewar’s Blended 12 ‘The Ancestor’

A classic, fine looking bottle.

If you were of my generation, you’ll remember Dewar’s ads from magazines–often full-page ads, typically with a Scots Guard soldier in full regalia and some marketing flack typical for its day. These days I don’t notice many advertisements for Dewar’s. When I encounter the brand I’m on a commercial flight and I’ve asked what they have for scotch; it’ll be their White Label. In the marketing wars the brand appears to be outshone by the massive Johnnie Walker complex, but they still have a strong presence in bars in the U.S. They claim to be the fifth largest selling blended Scotch in the world and top selling Scotch in the U.S. Maybe Johnnie just advertises more?

Notably, Dewar’s web site claims the White label is “The World’s Most Awarded Blended Scotch Whisky.” Maybe they just entered more competitions, I don’t know. I tried finding a list of their awards. Still looking.

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Whisky and Words Number 41: Iwai Tradition Mars

A tall dark stranger to our shores

I’m finally getting my holiday post up, a bit tardy I must say. This one is a real departure for this blog, which thus far has all been Scotch whiskies. The Mars Shinshu Iwai is, as you would guess, from Japan. The style is different from what I’ve been reviewing here, as it is an American ‘whiskey’ style — corn mash, shorter maturation (but one would assume at higher temperatures than Scotch, as typical for American whiskies). Oddly the Iwai folks spell it ‘whisky’ on the bottle like the Scotch.

The importer’s website tells us that the moniker Iwai comes from Kiichiro Iwai, a ‘silent pioneer’ of Japanese whisky-making. With a little digging (thanks to gourmantic.com) we find that Iwai-san ran the Mars distillery years ago. The timeline they give is confusing, as the Mars distiller was licensed in 1949, commenced producing in 1960, but according to Gourmantic, Iwai-san had sent a junior member to Scotland to investigate their whiskies in 1919. At any rate, the distillery is in the Japanese highlands — 800m above sea level, a decent highland for sure.

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Book review: Hitler, Ascent by Volker Ullrich

I admit, I bought this book in part to help me understand how close to authoritarianism we (in the U.S.) are lurching under Trump. I may write more about that aspect in another post. But this entry is about the book. It is a long entry, as it’s a long book: 758 pages of content with a stunning 187 pages of notes. I only read some of the notes, mea culpa.

So, why undertake such a behemoth? I always wondered, when reading about the rise of Hitler in general history texts, when they said “he seized power” — how did he do that, exactly? Well, Ullrich tells us how, with a very detailed forensic investigation, using personal diaries and other primary sources which unearth precisely both the motivations and means of the Nazis. And in doing so, he does an excellent job of unearthing the methods and frailties of a man who still remains an enigma. We know very little of Hitler’s personal thoughts, as he had papers about his early life confiscated (p.17) and all his personal papers were burned at his death. Very few examples of his personal writing remain, and his outward facing persona was just that — a persona. As for that, he put all of his outward-facing concepts into Mein Kampf. So while Hitler’s thoughts may remain obscured, the man’s actions are not. Ullrich applies a magnifying glass to Hitler from his very beginnings. It turns out to be a very consistent view. Hitler did not vacillate, at least not strategically.

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Whisky and Words Number 40: Caol Ila Moch

This is my wife’s ‘so good I had to bring it home’ whisky from our trip to Islay. It was an offering of our post-tour tasting. Being a big Caol Ila fan, my wife really took to it. Maybe because (besides Caol Ila 12) she tends to prefer more civilized stuff like Glenmorangie, and the Moch is presumably a dialed-back Caol Ila. But is it? Let’s find out…

A sunny day, a light straw color and cookies. Not a bad combination.

This expression is another NAS whisky – no age statement. Since my last screed on NAS whiskies, I have reviewed a couple more and liked them. NAS whiskies can be good and bad, and all over the map as far as price. I do not remember what we paid for the Moch, but on Master of Malt it’s about $55, a pretty moderate price for a special expression.

I like to start with what the company says about its product. The box proclaims this spirit is “Soft, smooth clean and fresh…the dawn of a new day.” An odd way of introducing a whisky, sounds like the ad for a bar of soap. For this whisky in particular I find the marketing understated (for a change). This is a spirit that makes its presence known immediately on the bottle being opened. It won’t clear a room like Laphroaig but the peat and seaweed produce a lively bouquet. A better image might be ‘a breath of sea air’ but they called it Moch (‘dawn’ in Gaelic) so we get the ‘dawn’ thing.

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