We take a lesson in the complexities of sherry cask-ageing with one of the very few single malts that is entirely aged in sherry casks, Tamdhu in Speyside.
The last tasting I attended in person before lockdown was with Gordon Dundas, brand ambassador from Tamdhu. We met in a tiny room in London: a few writers, lots of whisky and no social distancing. At the time it was fun and enlightening, looking back, it seems almost miraculous that such a thing was possible.
Tamdhu has to be one of Speyside’s least-known distilleries. Dundas said that he’d never even heard of it before he got the job at Ian McLeod Distillers, the parent company. “Even whisky people don’t know Tamdhu”, Dundas said. “We are not an old distillery,” he continued, “when the distillery opened in 1897, it was the most modern distillery of its time.” Tamdhu nearly disappeared a couple of times: no distillation took place between 1925 to 1947 and then after a period of expansion in the 1970s, it was mothballed by the Edrington Group in 2010. Ian McLeod acquired the distillery in 2011 and production resumed the following year. The company, Scotland’s second largest family-run distillers, now owns three whisky distilleries, Tamdhu, Glengoyne, and the soon to be reborn Rosebank, along with brands such as Smokehead, Sheep Dip and Edinburgh Gin.
At Tamdhu there’s capacity to produce four million litres of pure alcohol per year, 85% of this goes into blends. The rest is put into sherry casks to be sold as a single malt. Despite the rather trendy looking St. Germain-style bottles, introduced in 2013, it’s marketed very much at the single malt lover. There’s no line about demystifying the category or changing whisky’s image. Dundas commented: “We’re after the whisky drinker. We’re not trying to convert people nor are we after the cocktail market.”
While sister distillery Glengoyne packs in 90,000 visitors per year, Tamdhu doesn’t even have a visitor centre. According to Dunadas it would cost £1million and they would rather spend the money on sherry casks. He also added: “We are not a pretty distillery”. The whole operation is automated. Dundas told us little about the process: “we heat the stills slowly. It’s a very different whisky when stills get too hot. It’s more of a simmer than a boil which gives us lots of reflux. Historically people used to whack the stills on full power.”
The new make certainly tasted good. We tried it at 66.9% ABV and it showed lots of cereal character and green minty notes. Water brought out a creamy texture. You wouldn’t know it but Tamdhu uses a tiny amount of peated barley because, according to Dundas, that’s what’s always been done.
Then we got onto the serious business of sherry casks. The distillery has its own on-site cooperage presided over by an ex-Glenfiddich cooper. The firm has produced a useful 12 minute film called Spain to Speyside (above) to explain how the casks get to Scotland. The team buys from various firms in Spain: Tevasa, Vasyma, and Huberto Domecq (scion of the great Domecq sherry family). Tamdhu uses butts (around 500 litres), puncheons (like a dumpier butt, no giggling at the back!), and Hogsheads (250 litres). These are sent whole to Scotland, not broken down.
The casks are all seasoned for two years with oloroso sherry of roughly five years of age. This is real sherry, not sherry-style wines that some producers use. The wood soaks up about 35 litres of sherry per year. Dundas said: “The role of sherry is to modify the oak. Colour and flavour come from oak not the sherry. Sometimes it can be hard to tell sherry-infused oak from bourbon oak.”
Tamdhu uses both American oak (quercus alba) and European oak (quercus rober). The Spanish wine industry has long-used American oak barrels which are much cheaper as you get many more casks per tree. It’s not just in Jerez, traditional Rioja owes its signature taste to long ageing in American oak. The final factor to be considered is whether the casks are first-fill or refill.
So when someone says ‘sherry cask’, there are a number of questions we can ask:
-What size is the cask?
-Is it European or American oak?
-What type of sherry was used to season?
-How long was the sherry in the wood for?
-Is the cask refill or first-fill?
-How long was the whisky in the sherry cask for?
It’s complicated. To demonstrate the importance of just one of these factors, European or American oak, we tried two limited edition Tamdhus:
– Representing America was a single cask bottling named in honour of Sandy Mcintyre, distillery manager, winner of best Single Cask at the World Whiskies Awards this year. It was distilled in 2003, bottled in 2019 at 56.2% ABV, and only aged in a first fill American oak sherry butt.
– And in the European corner was the Edinburgh Airport Cask which was distilled in 2006, bottled in 2019 at 58.9% ABV, and only aged in a first fill European oak sherry butt
The American oak one had some of what you might think of as sherry notes on the nose, some dried fruits, but really it was all about fresh fruit with vanilla, crème brûlée, and caramel. Tried blind, I think most people would say something about bourbon casks. The American oak character is really strong.
Then we tried the European one, the colour is much darker (all Tamdhu expressions are the colour they came out of the cask, unlike some other famous sherry-influenced malts that Dundas mentioned). Now this is what you’d think of as a sherry bomb: dried apricot, tobacco, leather, a smell like getting into a Jensen Interceptor. Then the mouth, it’s all about wood tannins, strong chilli spice, drying leather and maraschino cherries.
Both are superb sherry-influenced whiskies but only one is what you’d think of as a classic sherried whisky, the European oak version. Those ‘sherry bomb’ notes come not from sherry but from European oak. It makes sense, because those flavours also crop up in old Cognacs. Old Macallan often tastes a lot like Cognac.
We then tried some of core range bottling that combine the two oak types, different cask types as well as refill and first fill casks:
– The 12 Year Old leans more to American oak. The nose smells of butter and vanilla with a touch of tobacco then peachy fruit with some strong herbal new make character coming through. It’s creamy and sweet on the palate with some peppery notes.
– The 15 Year Old is matured in around 40% European oak. The nose is so fruity with apricot, pineapple, oranges in syrup, lots of rancio character. On the palate, there’s vanilla, orange peel, demerara sugar with walnuts on the finish.
– Finally, we tried the Batch Strength #4, a limited edition NAS expression bottled at 57.8% ABV. It’s a real beastie that would appeal to lovers of whiskies like Mortlach. Nose is marmalade, dark chocolate, then the palate is like burnt sugar, thick dark marmalade, dark chocolate and chilli spice.
My favourite of the day was probably the 15 year old, a graceful melding of European and American oak but everything we tried was spectacularly good. Tamdhu is very quietly, without making too much fuss about it, turning out some of the finest whiskies in Scotland. You should check them out. And now you’ll never use the words ‘sherry cask’ when tasting whisky without thinking carefully again.