It's hard to survive as a relatively small independent producer of Scotch whisky. Whisky distillation is a capital-intensive business -- stills and barrels aren't cheap, and neither are the excise taxes that have to be paid when the whisky is distilled (rather than years later when it's actually sold). Distillate can't legally be labeled as Scotch until it has aged for three years, it has to age for a significantly longer period of time before it's a viable single malt. What distilleries have traditionally done is to generate cash flow by selling young whisky to the blenders, but that's becoming more and more problematic as the industry consolidates. Diageo has all the young malt whisky that it needs for its blends, thank you very much, and the same can be said for all the other major spirits companies that produce blended Scotch. The commercial realities of the whisky business explain why there are so few independent distilleries left in Scotland and why so few distilleries have started up recently, despite the current Scotch boom.
Tomintoul, located near Ballindalloch on the river Spey, is therefore an anomaly. It was founded in the mid 1960s, much later than just about every malt distillery in Scotland and just before the Scotch bust era in the 1970s and 1980s. Somehow, it managed to survive that experience and is today owned by Angus Dundee Distillers, a small company based in London and Glasgow with a stable of two malt distilleries (the other being Glencadam, in the Highlands). Sure enough, they have their own line of blended Scotch, too. Whether that's because the big boys don't need Tomintoul and Glencadam or because Angus Dundee found that there's more margin to be had from selling your own blended whisky than there is from selling malt whisky in bulk to the blenders, I couldn't say. I can say that I have never seen any of the blends that Angus Dundee makes or markets, and I wonder if they're simply too small to have made it over here.
I had seen a Tomintoul 10 year old before, but it had never really registered with me. Yesterday, though, a representative of the US importer of Tomintoul, Medek Wines & Spirits, was at the Spec's warehouse downtown handing out samples of both the 10 year old and the 16 year old versions. What the heck, I thought, and so I tried both. The 10 year old is malty and fresh. The rep said that the target audience for it were those who were new to Scotch, and I can see that. It was tasty and uncomplicated. The 16 year old was better. There's a bit of peat, a lot of sherried sweetness, and a nice dose of malt. I liked it very much, so I ended up buying a bottle. I liked the full glass that I had last night, too. Tomintoul's slogan is "The Gentle Dram," and that accurately describes it. There's nothing aggressive about it, just what you would expect a good middle-of-the-road Scotch to taste like.