The stories behind the whisky and distilleries in the Scottish Cairngorms

High Spirits

Cairngorms National Park is home to some of the most famous distilleries in the country

Home to some of the most famous distilleries in the country, the Cairngorms National Park also contains some of the highest, as David Pollock discovers

‘We get asked that question quite a lot,’ laughs Robert Fleming, distillery director of Tomintoul Distillery, which is six miles from its namesake, the highest village in the Scottish Highlands. The common enquiry regards how much location contributes to the taste and character of his spirit. ‘Some people think it’s the purity of the water,’ he says, ‘and some people think it’s the shape of the stills, but in fact everything combines to make each distillery different.’

At more than a thousand feet above sea level, however, it’s also tempting to ask what happens to the spirit at such an altitude. ‘When you’re maturing the spirit you lose about two per cent a year to evaporation,’ he says. ‘So obviously the higher up you are, the colder the climate and the less evaporation takes place. If we were maturing Tomintoul in an equatorial climate you’d lose about 15 per cent per annum and you’d get a totally different quality of whisky.

‘I’ve been out in Taiwan and I’ve seen a Taiwanese whisky distillery, they lose about 12 or 13 per cent per annum by evaporation, but their three or four-year-old whiskies look as if they’ve been maturing for seven or eight years because of the faster interaction with the casks. Whereas because we’re in quite a cold area, you tend not to lose so much per annum and you have a slower maturation. But that’s mainly to do with ambient temperature, rather than altitude.’

Neighbouring the rich whisky producing country of Speyside, Cairngorms National Park contains other distilleries within its boundaries including the hugely popular Glenlivet, located a little way north from Tomintoul and closer to sea level, and Dalwhinnie, one of the very few located at a higher altitude than Tomintoul, found on the south-western side of the Park’s mountain ranges. Both feature on the whisky trails trodden both by tourists and afficiandos of the spirit. Tomintoul village also boasts the Whisky Castle, an excellent whisky store with around 500 rare, independent and mass-produced bottlings of whisky from across Scotland. It also stocks the Guinness Book of Records-ratified largest bottle of whisky in the world – a bottle of 14-year-old Tomintoul which holds more than 100 litres of spirit.

Opened in 1965 and for much of its life used by its owners Whyte & Mackay to create a quality blending whisky, Tomintoul was taken over in 2000 by the Angus Dundee company, who started using some of the stock to expand on a single malt range ‘from 10 years old right through to 33 years old, peated whiskies, port wood finish, oloroso finish, a lot of different expressions.’ Although the distillery doesn’t have a visitor centre they’re happy to accommodate visits, explains Fleming, with part of the attraction in his opinion being the location of the site. ‘We’re quite remote, we’re situated midway between the villages of Tomintoul and Glenlivet. It’s a very lovely spot to be in. Onsite there are only two houses, the nearest neighbours are five, six hundred metres away. We’re very much out in the countryside.’

Yet Fleming is adamant that their location doesn’t present any particular logistical problems. ‘It’s always mentioned that the Tomintoul to Cock Bridge road is the first one to be blocked in wintertime,’ he says, ‘but we’re on the other side of Tomintoul so we’re not usually as badly affected. I’ve been here for 23 years and I can think of only two occasions when we haven’t managed to get the raw materials in, and never for days on end. We’ve always got three or four days’ fuel and we always have at least another four or five days’ malt. To keep the process going we always make sure we’re well stocked over winter. We get used to it and I must admit I’ve got a fantastic team here. At the first sign of snow or bad weather they’ll do anything they can to keep the entrance clear so lorries can get in and out.’ It’s a setting which should appeal to the romantic in most whisky drinkers.