Tomatin and Cù Bòcan – The Devil Dug

Two hundred pounds is a lot for a bottle of anything.

I can think of lots of precious liquids – perfume, champagne, fine wine – of which none would receive two-hundred of my pounds for a single bottle.

Of course, with whisky it’s a little different. As an example, I consider my recent Glengoyne 25 year-old purchase such good value, I should probably nip up to the distillery and give them some additional pounds. Well, not quite, but I embellish to make a point. This is whisky which lay in an ex-sherry cask for 25 years and I get dizzy thinking about what history that liquid has witnessed during it’s exceptionally long wait for my pour. It’s perfectly conceived, beautifully crafted and pretty spectacular.

Glengoyne, too, deserves to command a premium. A well-known single malt, from a respected distillery who, to my knowledge, have never released a dud expression. Pedigree, then, and a quarter century of quiet maturation, for around £250. Fair enough. Once in a blue moon, I can pretend to afford such a treat. Especially since, as a product of middle age, I’m not going out so much anymore. In my early twenties, however, I’d have choked at the thought.

Back then I basically lived and worked solely to run a car and wait patiently for the weekend. All my of my disposables were spent on two precious liquids; beer and petrol. The beer in question was whatever was cheap and on draft. The petrol in question fuelled a 1976 Ford Fiesta. It had seen better days. It was loved, but could best be described as ‘a runner’.

Artistic skecth image of a mk1 ford fiestaAs an example of its frailties, on a midnight trip with two friends in the Highlands, its headlights failed. One of my friends was driving a similarly old Mini through the pitch black night and he slowed allowing me to follow him closely enough to make it safely to a lay-by. If anyone knows the Trossachs National Park, we stopped just off the A821 at the start of the single track road up to Loch Katrine. Switching off the lights of the Mini for a moment and getting out of the car sent us into an inky darkness where we couldn’t see the hands in front of our faces. As we poked and pulled at the fuse box, our dearth of technical knowledge was exposed and we were left wondering how to get my stricken car home through the blackest of nights.

After only a few minutes, we experienced an event so utterly terrifying, it has chilled our memories since. We had pulled over next to a roadside ditch when suddenly, from down in the undergrowth, there came a loud, visceral, bellowing growl. The blood-curdling rasp was so petrifyingly close, so menacingly deep, it rendered each of us frozen in icy terror. We had no idea what could produce this unearthly noise, but I’m telling you it was something huge. Likely blood-thirsty. Probably fangs. Certainly deadly intention. It took an almighty shot of raw adrenaline to thaw us enough to flap and fumble back to the open doors of our cars and slam them shut. With only feeble squeaks and puffs of panic, my two friends took off in the Mini, in clouds of spitting gravel and spinning wheels.

With trauma setting in, a 20 year-old me was left abandoned in my blinded Ford as the blackness fell ominously around me. After several flustered attempts, I managed to turn the key in the ignition, hoping to not only start the engine but somehow, miraculously, light the headlamps. But no, the lane ahead remained black. As the rear lamps of the Mini disappeared into the distance, I was unable to see beyond the steering wheel in the dim lights of the faded dash. I still vividly remember the searing, numbing terror I felt in every fibre of my being.

I still don’t fully understand how I made it down into the street-lit safety of Aberfoyle that night. Perhaps drunk on a cocktail of adrenaline and pure terror, I managed to navigate that dipping, twisting, pitch-black road using nothing but the force.  We wracked our brains to understand what made that unearthly noise, even venturing back in the daylight, to find only soggy moss, gorse bushes, ferns and skid marks.  With no clues of grizzly ghosts or menacing monsters, a mystery remained. Happily, 25 years later, the marketing folks at Tomatin weighed in with a possibility.

The Black Beast of Tomatin

An image Cù Bòcan Tomatin's Canine Spectre

Cù Bòcan selfie

Cù Bòcan is – what would be known in Glasgow parlance as a “devil dug”- a fabled hellhound said to stalk Tomatin distillery and village a few miles south of Inverness. It seems this menacing presence can appear behind unsuspecting folks and scare them half to death. Yet, despite their fear, they are compelled to reach out to the beast and stroke its dense, black fur. As they reach out, the mysterious mutt vanishes into a spectre of smoke veils. As I read the stories, I struggled to find any testimony of deep menacing growls from roadside ditches, so it’s perhaps not my creature. Shame.

Regardless, Cù Bòcan has become the brand representing a range of peated malts from Tomatin distillery. Why? Well, I guess you can’t sell yourself as “Tomatin – The Softer Side of the Highlands” and then try to market heavily peated whisky with a story of a stalking ghost dog. More on that in a moment.

Despite having already enjoyed some Tomatin expressions, I was keen to join a tasting session recently to sample their latest line up. I feel this recent re-vamp is welcome and a good balance of the traditional with a more modern, contemporary package. The selection is varied and ties in well with their focus on single malts. Certainly, they’ve done pretty well on the award circuit. It’s a very attractive and honest range which seems to perfectly match their geographical position in the whisky landscape of Scotland, straddling a floral Highland with a sweet round Speysider. It appears their Japanese owners allow them to operate as a virtual independent. I like the feel of it all. A great hosted tasting with their UK sales manager has made me want to visit to discover more.

Tomatin’s Rebranding Success

Once the largest producer of single malt whisky in Scotland, the distillery fell into administration in the 1980’s. When the new owners, Takara Shuzo, step in they become the first Japanese owners of a Scotch single malt distillery. Steady success has followed since and things have been looking especially rosy in recent years with an increasing focus on single malts and strong performances in overseas markets, especially the US.

They kick off their core offering with a no-age statement (NAS) ‘Legacy” edition which is honestly produced to reach a certain price point while still presenting the distillery character (around £28).  Thereafter we have a 12yo, a 14yo portwood finish, a cask strength and, my personal favourite, their 18 year old which is a lovely balance of malty oak and spice at the right, to my palate, bottling age (around £75).  Thereafter there are a myriad of specials, older editions and travel exclusives, such is their strategy as a serious single malt, as opposed to a bulk, producer.

A picture of Tomatin's Core Range of Single Malt Whisky 2016

Tomatin Core Range 2016

Nowadays, every year since 2005, they close for a week and flush the system in order to run off 50,000 litres of peated malt. Enter Cù Bòcan. Scots Gaelic for “ghost dog” it’s a brand lifted from this legendary spectral dug that, conveniently, turns to smoke. They began with a NAS version a couple of years back and then progressed to today’s range of vintage expressions as well as creatively finished versions such as Virgin Oak and Sherry Cask. Great. I do wonder if this is in response to increased demand for peated Highland malt, or simply an attempt to create it. No matter. Peated whisky, generally, is in high demand right now and a diverse offering can only be a good thing. Has anyone been struck by a strange anomaly here? How can we have vintage expressions when they only started to produce peated malt in 2005?

A picture of Cù Bòcan 1988 Special Edition whisky

Cù Bòcan 1988 Special Edition

Well, it seems that for one expression (the 1988 special edition – pictured) they stumbled across some aged stock of regular Tomatin snoozing away in ex-Islay casks. Very curious. Tempting, even.

Then, to produce their 1989 special, they found more casks from a run where a batch of peated barley was processed by mistake (at which point they wouldn’t stop precious production but simply run it through and hope to exchange the end product or use in a blend). This isn’t quite as strange as it sounds. I’ve heard other, sometimes funny, stories of traditionally non-peated distilleries suddenly reeking of peat smoke when the wrong barley is delivered. All good fun and curious whisky anecdotes.

And yet. These special editions are a kind of just that. Anecdotes; niche, one-off, little-known, very limited releases from an already little-known range of peated whisky, from a less well-known distillery normally associated with non-peated whisky. Of the 2,200 bottles produced, you can still buy the 1988 now at the same £200 price it was released. So it’s not exactly flown off the shelves.

Possibly the compelling back story and robust marketing will prove a success for the core offerings, after all it’s nice to serve the dram with a curiously ghoulish tale. In my personal opinion they are very delicious drams, at least as good as any Ardmore, BenRiach Curiositas or other peated style of Speysider or Highland malt – at a similar age and price point.

However, are these vintage special editions, coupled with the mystery and might of Cù Bòcan, enough to make me part with two-hundred of my sterlings?

It’s good whisky, for sure, and an intriguing tale of forgotten casks and scary canines. But, personally, for this money I’d probably take another trip up to Glengoyne. In the daylight. In a reliable car. And not past Loch Katrine.

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