Tomatin Distillery

Visit #3, September 21, 2015Sign

Located in the Northern Highlands of Scotland, the Tomatin Distillery was our third distillery visit on our 9-day whisky tasting tour of Scotland.  Reservations were for the Taste of Tomatin Tour.  The distillery is approximately 20 miles south of Inverness and is set in a good location on the Alt na Frith, which is a water source that means ‘free burn’.  Founded in 1897, Tomatin is named after the Gaelic word for the Hill of Juniper Bush.  There are currently 30 families that work at the distillery.

In the 1970s, Tomatin saw its largest growth with the addition of 6 new pairs of stills totalling 23 in all.  At this time they were producing 12.5 million liters of spirit a year.  They were the largest distillery in Scotland.  During the tough times of the Scotch whisky industry in the 1980s, Tomatin was forced into liquidation in 1984 and was purchased by a Japanese company in 1986.  The current production is circa 2 to 3 million liters of spirit a year.

Tomatin gets its malted barley from Berwick-upon-Tweed which is southeast of Edinburgh on the coast of the North Sea.  They work with 120 tons a week and 8 tons per batch.  The grinding of the barley takes about 1 1/2 hours.  The production cycle runs from Sunday to Friday where they do three mashes producing 45,000 liters of wort using three temperatures of 60, 70 and 90 degrees.  We were actually able to walk into a mash tun (which was a first) and it was quite impressive to see the blades on the bottom and the size from within.

Malt Bin
Malt Bin
Grinder
Grinder
Walking into an open MashTun
Walking into an open Mash Tun

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12 washbacks are located on the site where fermentation takes approximately 56 hours.  During the distillation process, the heart run lasts about 4-5 hours.  The stillman swings a rope to hit the still to listen to what is going on.  Depending on the sound that the still makes, the stillman is able to adjust or even repair if necessary.  This was something that we did not see at most distilleries and it takes a good amount of skill and experience.  The spirit is then put into the barrel at 63.5% alcohol.  At the Tomatin distillery, they store 180,000 casks on site.  They do have an on-site cooper that repairs barrels.  We were able to visit the workshop and see them working on constructing and repairing barrels.

12 washbacks
12 Washbacks
Still room
Still room

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Cooper
Cooper

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One other interesting note: Tomatin is one of the greenest distilleries.  They work with a biomass plant that reduces the distillery’s energy cost and greenhouse gas emissions.

Our Taste of Tomatin Tour concluded with a tasting of 6 different whiskies.  This was held in a tasting room which was nicely decorated with bottles of whisky in marked containers along the walls.  The first taste was the New Make, or the spirit that gets placed into the barrel at over 60% alcohol.  The second taste was the Tomatin Legacy, which is a non-age statement whisky but we were told it probably uses a combination of 5 to 8-year old whiskies.  The third taste was the Tomatin 12-year old.  Both the Legacy and the 12-year old whiskies were 43% alcohol content.  The fourth, and my favorite, was the Bourbon-barrel Cask Strength whisky at 56.4% alcohol and a 12-year old aging.  The fifth taste was the Sherry-barrel Cask Strength at 57% alcohol and 12 to 13-year old aging.  Our last taste was the Cu Bocan (the sprectral dog) which is a peated whisky (15 ppm), non-age statement but aged approximately 8 years.  Overall, it was a great tasting.

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Charles’ Notes:  Our Tomatin visit was extremely informative.  Being a larger operation, you sometimes do not know what type of experience you will receive, but our guide provided  great information and took us through their whole facility.  It was a nice combination of history and the working process of this distillery.  Highlights included the mash tun visit, where we could actually step up into a mash tun to feel its immense size.  It was also nice to see the cooper at work and be able to ask questions directly.  This is something that would be difficult to do at a cooperage where everything is on such a timed clock.  The tasting was also well planned with a good selection of all of the various Tomatin whiskies.  The tour and experience well exceeded my expectations.

Hillrock Estate Distillery

Visit #12, October 17th, 2015Hillrock XII

 

Only three weeks after returning from our amazing 11-distillery adventure in Scotland, the itch for experiencing another distillery was high on our minds.  The Hillrock Estate Distillery was our first choice and what a gem we found in Ancram, NY.  Driving to Ancram is a treat, in and of itself, through the beautiful rolling hills between the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires.  It was a perfect fall day with the leaves changing colors and a crisp air signalling colder temps on the way.  The Hillrock House, overlooking the barley fields and the distillery, was restored in 2006 and stands as a sign of history as it was built by a Revolutionary War Captain back in 1806.

Hillrock X

 

Our guide for the afternoon was Tyler, one of the distillers we met during our visit.   Hillrock is very proud of its “field to glass” production and with good reason since there are very few found in the United States.  All of their corn, barley and rye is sourced within 15 miles of the distillery.  In fact, 36 acres of grain is grown on site.  The tour started in the Malt House, the first malt house built since prohibition.  It was here that we saw some of the ingredients that are used for making their whiskies.  The only non-local item was the peat that they import from the Speyside region of Scotland.

Upstairs in the Malt House is a room that contains the steeping tank and the floor where all of the barley is raked while germinating.  The grain is left in the steeping tank for approximately 3 days before it is taken out and spread across the floor and raked before going into the kiln which is located on the first floor.  They do about 1 ton of barley per week and typically use last year’s harvest.  The barley is raked every 6-8 hours or 3 times a day to prevent clumping.  Once ready, the barley is sent down a chute below to the kiln to stop germination where most of their regular single malt barley gets about 8 hours of peat smoke.  We were able to climb up and stick our heads in the kiln.  Matt, our Islay fan, was ready to jump in and get smoked.  It is a very impressive building and well laid out in its planning.

Steeping Tank
Steeping Tank
Malt Room
Malt Room
The peat smoker
The Kiln

Their still room is located in a separate building.  Here there is a mash tank (tun), 5 fermenting tanks and a pot still mixed with a kettle still.  The still and operation was set up by master distiller, Dave Pickerell, who previously spent 14 years at Maker’s Mark.  It takes about 1 day to make the mash using temperatures between 110 and 160 degrees.  The five fermentation tanks hold approximately 250 gallons and fermentation takes 4 to 5 days.  One run through the still is made with about 20 minutes of head, 8 hours of heart and another 20-30 minutes of tail.  30 gallons is made in one run.

Mash Tank (Tun)
Mash Tank (Tun)
Fermentation Tanks
Fermentation Tanks

Hillrock Fermentation Tank

Head, hearts, tail
Head, hearts, tail

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The barrels, made of Virgin American White Oak, are produced by the Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville, KY.  They primarily use 25-gallon barrels and they store over 2,500 barrels of spirit.Hillrock IV

Our tour ended with a tasting.  We tasted their bourbon, rye and single malt.  The bourbon uses the Solera process (adding and removing whisky over time creating more complexity) and is finished in Oloroso sherry casks.  The double cask rye is double matured in traditional oak casks and then in charred American white oak barrels.  Lastly we tasted various single malts with different levels of peat.  Their standard single malt uses 8 hours of peat smoke, but they also had a 14-hour and 20-hour bottle available.  It was great that they were trying out different lengths and techniques with all of their whiskies.  This will help them find the right balance moving forward.Hillrock Smoky

Charles’ Notes:  Overall, our visit to Hillrock Estate Distillery was excellent.  The facility and location are outstanding.  We enjoyed our 1-hour tour and tasting and looked forward to revisiting for a special event or when they are introducing their next revision or spirit.  Everyone was very friendly and willing to share their stories and successes.  It brought back certain memories from Scotland that you just cannot find here in the United States when visiting distilleries.

Ben Nevis Distillery

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Visit #2, September 21, 2015

The amazing thing about travel is the unexpected.  Our Scotland whisky-tasting tour initially planned on visiting the Ben Nevis distillery in Fort William, Scotland, but a reservation was difficult to make so we planned on skipping it.  But while passing through Fort William, we stopped at a BP gas station to take a break.  Across the street from the BP station is the Ben Nevis distillery (picture above), staring at us and enticing us to visit.  What did we have to lose…  Upon entering the distillery, our expectation was to visit the gift shop, but we were pleased to find out that a tour that was starting in a few minutes.  How great!  I explained the difficulty we had with initially communicating with them and they apologized and mentioned that some employees were away and this caused some of the issues.  It turned out to be one of the best distillery visits we had out of the 11 that were visited during our Scotland adventure.  A truly special treat.

The Ben Nevis distillery sits at the base of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles.  It is an impressive and beautiful mountain and area where many outdoor enthusiasts search for their time in nature.  The water that is used for the distillery comes from the Allt a’Mhuilinn, which is a stream descending from the northern slopes of Ben Nevis.

It was founded in 1825 by Long John McDonald (from where the blended scotch, Long John, was named).  The distillery is now owned by a Japanese company Nikka which acquired the distillery in 1989.  10 people currently run the distillery.

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The are two malt bins at the distillery where Ben Nevis stores the malted barley it uses.  The process begins on Sunday at midnight.  The mash tun is 21,000 liters in size.  There are four stainless steel washbacks and two wooden washbacks on site.  Eight years ago, these two wooden washbacks, made of Dougles Spruce, were reintroduced to the distillery.  Each washback holds approximately 43,000 liters and fermentation takes about 15 hours.

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Ben Nevis Mash Tun

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Washbacks - Two wooden
Washbacks – Two wooden

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The two pot stills and two spirit stills are made of copper.  Our guide, John Carmichael, stated that this was due to the fact the stainless steel was not available 1400 years ago…  14,000 liters of spirit are made weekly at the distillery.  The spirit is taxed at 87.2%.

Pot Stills
Pot Stills

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Ben Nevis uses a mix of Spanish, French and American oak for their barrels and all barrels are made on site.  Some of their casks are from Jack Daniels.  They typically can do up to 5 different fillings per cask.  Sherry casks are also used since they are large and have less evaporation.P1020252

Once the tour ended, we were back in the gift shop and tasting counter where we all were able to taste the 10-year old.  Before we knew it, John, our guide, came back over to us and led us outside and upstairs for an unexpected treat.  He had set up the executive conference room for us to taste some of their aged bottles.  We tried the newmake straight out of the still, the 12-old and the 25-year old.  Wow, how great this was.  We went from almost passing by the distillery on our way up north, to getting a great tour, followed by a special tasting.  The 25-year old Ben Nevis was one of the best whiskies I have tasted.  At 56.4% alcohol, it had a kick but the age smoothed it out.  We tried bottle #151 out of 227.  It was a fantastic treat and one that I will never forget.  Cheers to John Carmichael for making this distillery stop one of our favorites.

25-year old
25-year old
12-year old
12-year old
Mr. Carmichael
Mr. Carmichael
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Matt with John Carmichael

Charles’ Notes:  The Ben Nevis distillery was a great stop.  Not only is it located at the base of  one of the most beautiful mountains in Scotland, it felt real and didn’t have that corporate feeling that you can find with some of the larger distilleries.  We had full access to take photos, to ask questions, and to explore each room on the site.  John, our guide, made this extra special as well with his humor and Scottish charm and, of course, the special private tasting that we had.  We are already looking forward to our next visit at Ben Nevis in the future.