Here we go. The Best In Show winners from the 2023 San Francisco World Spirits have just been announced at a special gala hosted by the event’s parent company (Tasting Alliance) in Las Vegas, Nevada. The competition itself was held in mid-April in Northern California. And plenty of double-gold recipients have been revealed in the interim. So, why are we talking about what’s going on tonight, months later, in a neighboring state? It all has to do with Top Shelf: a one-of-a-kind industry event offering guests a full-on experience—tastings, master classes, panels and an Oscars-like gala wherein the world finally relishes official confirmation of those beloved Best In Shows. When it comes to whisky, that title has been conferred upon a luscious 36-year-old single malt from the Tomatin distillery in the Highlands of Scotland.
If you’re already familiar with Tomatin, good on you. We’ve talked about it here as a producer worthy of significant praise. Indeed, SFWSC wasn’t even the first competition in recent years to honor the distillery with a top prize. If you’re not already acquainted, we forgive you—the brand doesn’t enjoy massive distribution in the US. But now is as good a time as any to catch up on what you’ve been missing.
The 125-year-old distillery has seen its fair share of ups and downs over the last few decades. It went bankrupt in 1906, before reopening with new owners three years later. By 1958, it was a humble workhorse with two stills, only beginning to find its way. By 1987 it had expanded to become the largest malt maker in all of Scotland at the time. Today Tomatin is back down to around 2.5 million liters per annum, which is enough to count it among the small to mid-size operations within the Scotch industry. Under the direction of a Japanese holding company, it is preferring to concentrate on quality over quantity. Nevertheless, its core range has been expanding in the 21st Century.
Point in case: Tomatin 36 Year Old. The grand winner at the 2023 SFWSC is part of the distillery’s “Prestige Collection.” That means it was pulled from Warehouse 6, which master distiller Graham Munson regards as home to some of his most treasured casks. For the 36, those barrels and butts formerly held bourbon and Oloroso sherry, respectively. In bringing them together, the marriage of malts amplifies the best of both—heather, honey, and marzipan from the bourbon side; from the sherry roasted nuts and a lingering echo of plum and dates persistent to the finish.
Thirsty yet? You ought to be, because this particular 45.1% ABV bottling was deemed superior to all other whiskies this year—across all categories—by a panel of expert judges, all of whom tasted blindly. To slake your thirst you ought to head out to a trusted local bottle shop post-haste in hopes of finding it in the real world. Should you be so lucky, you can expect to pay a minimum of $1500 USD in exchange for the experience.
Hopefully some of those in attendance in Vegas this evening were able to sneak away with a dram or two. Should you be keen on sharing in the experience next year, you can read an entire article devoted to Top Shelf here. But here are the crib notes according to Tasting Alliance founder and CEO Amanda Blue: “This was a star-studded show where the best and brightest in the industry rubbed elbows and sipped the finalists.” She goes on…“In fact, people flew in from all over the world to try the finest spirits from 2023 and we were sold out for both the tasting event as well as tonight’s gala.” The easiest way to recreate the experience at home is with a pour of Tomatin 36 at the ready. Celebrity stand-ins sold separately.