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.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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