If you want visual evidence that whisky is a cyclic business and the overall trend of increasing consumption has been interrupted by crashes and slumps, you can find it in mothballed or abandoned distilleries. Alternatively you can visit Tomatin to see a middle sized distillery working inside something that was much larger. At the beginning of the 1980s it was the largest malt distillery with a capacity of 12,000,000 litres a year, now it is 5,000,000. So all around you can see the signs of something carrying on in slightly reduced circumstance. The picture at the head of this post shows redundant equipment being put to an interesting use. They no longer needed this later mash tun so they cut it open so that visitors could walk inside and get a much more immediate sense of what it is.
But how did we get here? Simple: the 1980s saw a slump in whisky demand and a build up of stocks that could not be sold. Tomatin had spent the previous decade vastly increasing their capacity and in 1974 they added no fewer than 12 stills. It must have worked for a time but the 80s were not a good time for the whisky industry as production outstripped demand leading to excess stocks and the closure of some distilleries. Tomato went bust in 1985, or as we more appropriately phrase it for a spirits company they went into liquidation. And that would have been that, against the backdrop of a depressed industry, it could have been left to rot like the body of a dead giant, except some long time customers who wanted to maintain their supplies. Takara Shuzo Co. and Okara & Co. became the first Japanese investors to buy a Scottish distillery. At first it continued in its traditional role of producing bulk whisky for other companies (though scaled back from the heyday) however a decade ago they switched to establishing themselves as a brand in their own right, with a wide range of single malts. In this they have been very successful, especially in America. So it is wrong to think of the current operation as a shadow of what once was. In fact it is growing and developing in interesting ways. Size is not everything, in fact it is one of the least interesting of things. What is interesting is doing things well.
Nevertheless everywhere there are signs of the old days. You know you are in an old industrial plant but that gives the visit a rawness you will not find at Macallan, for example. Some of it like this this old control pannel make me think about the country’s industrial past, not just whisky. There is something about the grey painted metal and the dials that remind you the controls in engineering plants of the earlier years of the 20th Century and the time when when we were a major manufacturing nation.
The view of the stills is particularly interesting. In almost every other distillery you walk into a mezzanine floor where the still emerge like pieces of copper sculpture but here you was in at ground level and see the bottom of the still, where it is heated. It is a bit like 1980s Richard Rogers exposing the mechanical services of a building. Though there could not be a greater difference between a
swanky architect designed facility and this collection of functional buildings. In fact I don’t think there could be any greater contrast than between this and the new RHS+P designed Macallan plant. But here the lack of swank, is part of the charm, as is a feeling of “do it self”. Because Tomatin is a singleton distillery everything is done on site, so the are more people who work here than at, say, a bigger distillery like Glenlivet. In this way it reminds me of Bruichladdich.
Whatever that charm may be, it is popular. When I arrived the visitor centre was heaving with people and all the tours had been booked out. As seems mostly to be the case most of the visitors were from Europe, with German being the most frequently overheard language. Tomatin has obviously done something to establish itself firmly in the top 20 of visited distilleries, with approximately the same number as the higher profile Glenmorangie. So in summary it could be said that Tomatin was once the largest malt distillery in Scotland, that is no longer the case but any another metric it is still in the top twenty