I seem to be in Glasgow once a year at the moment. During the week of International Women's Day in March I visit and catch up with Geraldine Murphy, founder of the UK's first women's whisky club which is based at her family's pub and whisky bar, The Pot Still on Hope Street. Her Women in Whisky fundraising lunch is the main driver for my visit, but this year I hit the ground running as my first stop was the launch of Tomatin's innovative Five Virtue's range of whiskies. The event, from a distillery that I had already earmarked as one to find out about in 2017, celebrated a partnership with Eva Ullrich, a contemporary abstract artist renowned for her landscape works. My own first foray into whisky events was at an exhibition by Scottish colourist JD Ferguson at our local gallery, and so this evening really appealed to me.
Of course the main focus was on the whiskies, a series of five non-age statements based on 'The Five Virtues' - Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Five essentials in the evolution of civilisation and five materials or processes which enjoy a symbiosis within and without the distillation business. Although the make-up of each whisky is not disclosed on the bottles, in the spirit of openness Tomatin were happy to describe the ages of the component spirits to those who were genuinely interested. The whiskies have gravitas! The Gallery at SWG3 is a modern white space off a road which turns into a path along the river in an area of Glasgow that is busy with redevelopment. It was a perfect venue. Whisky sours and fabulous canapés (I loved the salmon with celeriac in a whisky dressing - might need to 'borrow' that idea!) were offered to cleanse the palette and the whole Tomatin range was on offer too - but that was a step too far for me after the Five Virtues.
FIRE will be the first of the new expressions to be launched this Spring with WOOD. All the whiskies will be limited editions and will retail at around £50. The WOOD expression is huge in flavour, complex and challenging, full of spice and beautifully illustrating a blending together of spirits matured in French, American and Hungarian oak casks. I came to this last in the evening and found it easier with a drop or two of water which softened the nose and balanced out the flavour for me. I need to taste this alongside Oak Cross from Compass Box. It is a whisky that I need to sit down with and get to know better because of the depth of flavour - it was hard to assess at such a dynamic event. All the expressions are bottled at 46%abv so you would expect depth and richness of flavour - and indeed, you get it. The artwork for FIRE made me think of dry and hot: Ayers Rock rather than the A9 dropping down into Inverness. The spicy, earthiness of the whisky comes from seasoning the barrels by scraping back previously used wood and re-firing it to release new flavours. This edition was perfect with the aforementioned salmon canapé - it reminded me of the flesh of the delicate Arctic char or a rainbow trout. The whisky was not as spicy as the artwork suggested but the sweet and lemony notes make it the more accessible of the two early releases - it's the one that would appeal most to my whisky club members.
Tomatin produce far more whisky from their twelve stills than their reputation would suggest, much of their spirit going into blends. Nothing bottled to date under the Tomatin label has been peated and they only make a peated spirit for two weeks at the end of every year. In EARTH, to be released in Autumn 2017, we have something most unusual for Tomatin - a peated whisky and one which I really enjoyed. Peat for me is best as a seasoning in whisky and not as the dominant flavour. In EARTH Tomatin have balanced the smoke beautifully with a honeyed, heathery sweetness that cleverly has a touch of salt in the mouth and dried fruits from some sherry cask spirit. The finish on this is long. My journo cousin picked up on the distillery actually tweaking the blend of this whisky once they had seen the artwork produced by Eva, which suggested more sweetness to them than the original recipe for the spirit.
The whiskies that we shall have to wait for until Spring 2018 include my favourite of the evening, METAL. This expression, so I am told, most closely represents the traditional Tomatin style, which means that I am looking forward to exploring more from the distillery. I found it pungent but not too sweet with big leathery tannins or wood notes from the first fill Bourbon barrels. The sweetness actually supports the pleasure of the whisky on the palette and the finish is massive. There is a creaminess to the whisky and a cocoa/coffee spice too. The METAL moniker celebrates Tomatin's stills but, perhaps, does not truly represent the delicious expression. The final expression is WATER which contains some winter-distilled spirit, a trendy concept at the moment, which many say has a deeper flavour than whisky distilled at other times of year. I am not sure. However, I found WATER to be soft and voluptuous, an easy whisky to drink but quite complex in nature. A conundrum for a winter's day. Perhaps I was just getting into the mood of the event when I wrote that this whisky sparkled and cascaded with flavour in my mouth like a babbling winter brook in spate? That sounds rather pretentious now!
It would be hard to bottle five expressions in a series that would appeal equally to any drinker. You will gather from the above which were my favourites. I left the event understanding why Tomatin have been awarded Brand Innovator Of The Year 2017 at the Icons of Whisky Scotland Awards and were Distiller of the Year in 2016 in the same prestigious awards. I am really looking forward to getting to know them better.