The fair city of Perth was once the beating heart of Scotch whisky. Its grocer blenders were the founders of some of the most illustrious names that survive to this day: Bell’s, Dewar’s and The Famous Grouse (from Matthew Gloag). But a fourth Perth blending family – the Thomsons – might just be the oldest whisky dynasty in all Scotland.
That at least is the conclusion of Finn Thomson, the founder of independent bottler Finn Thomson Whisky, which has just released its first tranche of whiskies, including a 50-year-old Glenlivet priced at £15,000. Finn reckons he can trace a continuous family connection with Scotch all the way back to the 18th century. It’s a saga that tracks the history of the drink itself: from the hidden illicit stills of yesteryear to global fame today.
After a lot of ‘speaking to long-lost cousins and trawling through The National Archives’, plus enlisting the help of his father – lawyer and amateur historian Andrew Thomson – Finn believes the family whisky trail begins in 1772. That was when tenant farmer James Thomson operated an illegal pot still at Dunvorist Farm in Grandtully, near Aberfeldy. At the time illicit distillation was rife in the Highlands.
From there the Thomsons moved into legitimacy during the 19th century, operating the tiny Grandtully Distillery. They also supplied another branch of the family that set up as a grocer on Perth’s Old High Street. Like so many others, the Thomson business moved into whisky blending, eventually renaming its house blend ‘Beneagles’ to cash in on the building of the luxury Gleneagles Hotel nearby.
From barrel to bottle
Finn’s grandfather Michael Thomson sold the business in the early 1980s. But he kept hold of several hundred casks of young whisky that have been maturing over the decades since. Meanwhile, Finn has been learning the ropes of the industry over the past decade – and is now aiming to put those casks to good use as an independent bottler.
As well as working in Scotch, Finn had a stint as an English language guide with Familia Torres in Spain. He used that wine connection when ‘finishing’ an Inchgower single malt in casks previously used to mature Torres Gran Coronas Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva.
The result, a quirky whisky with a rose-gold colour and an explosively fruity character, is the kind of distinctive expression that independent whisky bottlers do best, even if Finn had his early doubts. ‘I had a love-hate relationship with it as it matured,’ he recalls.
‘At one point, I thought: “I can’t bottle this – people will slate me.” But then I shared it with friends and people kept drinking it. When you’re starting out, you’ve got to make sure that everything is of a high standard – but that doesn’t mean everyone has to like it.’
The Finn Thomson single cask range is split into three: Core for younger bottlings, Rare (30 years-plus) and Crown (one-offs). Early releases share the distinctive character of the Inchgower. They range from a surprisingly elegant North British grain to a full-flavoured Dufftown – as well as that Glenlivet, an opaque yet balanced sherry cask of real quality.
Finn is sourcing fresh casks, such as the Inchgower, to replenish the family stocks. Despite the £15,000 price tag attached to the Glenlivet, he is not necessarily aiming to serve Scotch’s fast-growing collector and investor market.
‘I want people like me to drink whisky,’ he says. ‘People in their late 20s and early 30s who want to spend money on a nice bottle and like cool packaging, but don’t want to be ripped off. They want to know a little bit more about the back-story – and, for them, £65-£70 is affordable for good quality.’
Finn Thomson whiskies to try
Dufftown 34 Year Old (1987)
A time capsule. In the late 1980s, Dufftown switched to a lighter, grassier style. But this was laid down before the change. Massive tropical fruit on the nose, then feral, nutty cereal notes on the palate, before the fruit creeps back. A lovable monster. Alcohol 54.7%
Inchgower 13 Year Old (2009) Torres Red Wine Finish
Inchgower is a left-field Scotch at the best of times. Here its inimitable maritime savoury character is matched to a mix of exuberant raspberry and red apple skin. It’s weird, but it works. Alc 58.8%
North British 34 Year Old (1988)
This has all the hallmarks of aged single grain whisky, including fudgy toffee and Sugar Puffs. But there’s also a large dollop of cream and butter, plus more grace and elegance than is the norm. Alc 58.2%
The Glenlivet 50 Year Old (1970)
Beneath all the whistles and bells – the hefty packaging befits a £15,000 whisky – sits a quite wonderful old Sherried malt. It’s full of dried fruit, cigar leaf, mint, leather and dark chocolate – plus that hard-to-define, umami-like rancio note. Through it all, somehow, you can still detect the distillery’s ripe orchard fruits. Alc 49.8%