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Tomatin distillery in pictures

Douglas Blyde made haste to community-focused distillery Tomatin, whose motto is ‘the softer side of the Highlands’, 18 miles south of Inverness.

On arrival he was greeted by kilt sporting distillery manager Graham Eunson

While other distilleries sold off such assets, 80% of staff still live on site in 30 sturdy, purpose-built cottages.

The smoothed peaks of the Monadhliath mountains, over 300m above sea level, make for a beautiful setting, although temperatures can plummet as low as -18 come winter.

Rabbits lollop over the overflow car-park near new reed beds. “We have 29,184 reeds from 18 species sprouting nine ponds that will cope with spent lees predominantly and copper,” says Eunson.

Driven by cost effectiveness, a 4,000kW biomass boiler was installed under Eunson’s tenure. It is tweaked from Belgium for optimum efficiency, with wood pellets automatically ordered from Ireland.

I was led to this decommissioned furnace in the oldest part of distillery, although not a trace of the once commanding former chimney remains outside.

Eunson was born on Orkney, “which explains the funny accent”. Professional highs include managing Glenmorangie and resuscitating Glenglassaugh Distillery in Aberdeenshire following 22 years of dereliction. “The call from Tomatin’s CEO Bob Anderson came on 1 August 2011”, he says.

“This is the only distillery I know where visitors get into the mash tun,” says Eunson as he himself does so, adding, “I heard of people swimming in one at another distillery. When testing for leaks on a hot day, a still man got caught as he went for a dip to cool down, and his colleague naughtily set in a gentle spin”.

This decommissioned Porteus grist hopper dates from the 1930s and still smells of oil. The similar machine adjacent was installed in 1974. “We should get another 300 years out of it,” muses Eunson.

Officially licensed in 1897 – although illicit distilling may be traced to at least the 1740s – Tomatin was once Scotland’s biggest single malt distillery. At its peak in 1974 it produced 12.5m litres of alcohol a year, from which era this tardis-grade panel dates

However, the economic downturn in the ’80s saw Tomatin enter liquidation. Not on the public tour are these Corten steel wash backs beneath a patched roof still shiny with 1960s varnish. “They were deemed to cost more in oxyacetylene gas to cut up than their scrap value, which I’m quite glad about,” says Eunson.

Takara Shuzo Corp, which also maintains a minor share in Blanton’s Bourbon, became the first Japanese firm to purchase a Scottish distillery in 1986 when it took Tomatin over – a bridge of a year from which no whisky was made. Tomatin is, incidentally, the fifth most popular whisky brand in Japan. Today, production, using a battalion of newer, shinier stills, is steady at 2m litres annually.

“It’s a distillery only a mother could love,” says Eunson, showing me a gantry which once extended to 11 stills (from a total of 23). They were dismantled in 2002. “We don’t hide anything. Despite our best efforts, we’re never going to be beautiful, so we’re trying to be educational,” he adds.

Generations of the same family often work side-by-side, not only in the case of Eunson, whose daughter Kirsty and son Scott work as tour guides in their holidays, but cooper of 11 years, Allan Bartlett, whose father works as groundsman and his mother, office manager/receptionist. “We don’t care what outside of casks looks like – it’s what’s inside that counts,” says Eunson.

The forklift that raises me to the eaves of warehouse 12 is “Scotland’s answer to Disneyland,” jokes Eunson. Here, 9,000 casks slumber compared to some 12,000 in warehouse 21. “We never put the full year’s production in one warehouse,” says Eunson.

Four years ago, no marketing department existed at Tomatin. However, in the past year, visitor numbers have doubled to 40,000 and will be hastened if the nearby railway station is reopened – at an estimated cost of £1m. The cask library, mapped in glass vials, is one of the most intriguing chapters on extended tours.

Tomatin expressions include the no age statement Legacy matured in virgin oak and Bourbon casks, which proved popular at a local music festival mixed with tonic water and juniper berries. The 12 year old with Oloroso and a little PX barrel influence is richer.

The floral, fragrant 14 bears notes from Tawny pipes from Symington’s, which saw service at the house for 35 years. The meanwhile, 18 features a lozenge-like opulence from Oloroso casks, while the mellow 36 (Bourbon and Oloroso) is savoury, sweet and resoundingly complex with a legion-long aftertaste.

Recently launched at London’s RSA vaults, the 1971, of which only 252 bottles were made, is sticky and melodious, and comes in a lacquered box with a peep show window. Eunson also crafts Cù Bòcan, named after a local mythical ghost dog that turns to smoke when touched. Smoke curls into a dramatic shape on the palate.

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