WARNING: this is longer than most of the reviews I tend to post here
When we talk about the Scottish highlands, we tend to think of independence, natural beauty, and bellicose, if often taciturn individualists. Some might picture the Cairngorms mountain range or castles such as Eilean Donan. I can't help but think of Groundskeeper Willie ripping his shirt off to reveal his rippling muscular physique. Some of these images and stereotypes are integral to Scotch whisky sales as they sell ideas and stories as much as a product. Ok, so maybe Groundskeeper Willie doesn't really sell anything, but I'm a Simpsons geek so cut me some slack. But does Highland whisky share the harsh, rugged characteristics that the so-called "Highland cult of the picturesque" often promotes? I tend to think regional designations in scotch whisky are over-valued, but they do play into the story-telling, so I understand why they're still used.
Tomatin brands itself as the "softer side of the Highlands", so they're not Grounskeeper Willie by any means. Most of their whiskies are unpeated and gentle. But don't mistake "gentle" for uninteresting. I'm a big fan of Tomatin's 12 Year Old whisky and the last bottle I bought came with a sample of Tomatin's 14 Year Old Portwood Finish.
So what's the first thing I noticed? Tomatin 14 Portwood is bottled at 46% abv. YES!!! Thank you, Tomatin! Not everything needs to be bottled at Cask Strength (though it would be nice if it were), but 46% abv is respectable for a single malt. According to their website, this is not an all-Port Cask maturation, but rather a “combination of ex-bourbon barrels and Tawny Port Casks which previously held Port for around 50 years.” Now this is rare, since it would appear that these are casks which were used for actual, drinking-quality Port, and not Port-Seasoned Casks.
- Nose (undiluted): red grapes, strawberries, honey, oak, nutty (almonds, barley), vanilla
- Palate (undiluted): rich texture, gentle arrival, honey, red fruits, and oak spices
- Finish: medium length, warming, oak, chamomile, vanilla, grapes and strawberries
With water the almonds and vanilla become a bit more pronounced on the nose. There’s also a very faint aroma of oak char with water added. Interesting. Water also brings out more spice on the palate, mainly black pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The finish becomes less floral/chamomile with the vanilla and strawberries becoming more pronounced with the addition of water. This whisky certainly doesn’t need water. At 46% abv as it is gentle and enjoyable, but Tomatin 14 gets more interesting with water. A few drops are all that’s needed. The longer this sits in the glass, the more interesting it gets. After almost an hour in the glass, there’s toffee wafting out and a little hint of dark fruits (figs, dates) as well. I was also overjoyed by what I didn't find in the glass: sulphur. Not even a trace of brimstone or rotten egg stench! Huzzah!
I don't want all-peat, all the time. I’m a huge fan of peated whiskies, but sometimes it’s nice to switch things up. The thing I really love about Tomatin 14 Portwood is the balance the distillery has found between the wine Cask influence and the “intrinsic quality of the spirit”, to borrow a phrase from the venerable Ralfy. Big wine cask influences can “cover up” mediocre spirit, or even overpower a well-made spirit if the Cask is allowed to dominate. Tomatin has found a way to get that balance just right. Tomatin calls itself “a softer side of the Highlands”, but don’t confuse “softer” with “less interesting”. This is an inviting and moreish whisky. Just don't expect it to make you want to rip your shirt off. Highly recommended.