Tamdhu Distillery has a long and storied history – and it is a tale that is both engaging and comprehensive. From its beginnings in 1896, the Sherry cask-focused Speyside distillery has attained success, relevance and significance, but also fell foul to long periods of closure when the stills fell silent. Most recently it was mothballed by Macallan-maker Edrington in 2010, but then re-entered production January 2012 under the ownership of Ian Macleod Distillers.
“We’d purchased Glengoyne [the Highland single malt Scotch whisky distillery] circa 2003, and have done a successful job with that, and it seemed the right time to go back into the market to acquire another really good distillery,” Iain Weir, Ian Macleod Distillers’ brand manager, tells me. “Tamdhu obviously came to the fore.”
For him it was the “fantastic” stock that appealed as well as the “sleeping giant”’s Speyside location. Plus, having also purchased Glengoyne from Edrington, the team knew the vendor well. “Edrington was very, very helpful getting the distillery back up and running again.”
With a ‘can-dhu’ attitude, you can achieve a hell of a lot!
Cast your mind back seven years ago: Tamdhu was condemned to closure. Proud but sadly dated, the distillery was a reminder of what it once was, not a vision of what it could be. This was the setup that Ian Macleod Distillers inherited.
“We’ve spent an awful lot of money on the distillery in terms of modernising, replacing and fixing the equipment,” distillery manager Sandy McIntyre recalls. The work restored the six existing copper pot stills, (three wash and three spirit), with the line which today produces 2.9m litres of alcohol annually, with a maximum capacity of 4 million.
“We had to automate quickly,” McIntyre continues, with the team maximising the potential of a semi-lauter mash tun that is capable of processing a grist weight of 11.85 tonnes. The distillery also took the much-needed step of installing a new gas main and a computer system*.
One of the bigger tasks was replacing the nine functional but ageing washbacks with shiny new 50,000-litre Oregon pine vessels. “It wasn’t essential that we did them right away, but the washbacks were close to 40 years old,” McIntyre says. “They’d lasted and served their time – you couldn’t knock them for it!”
Sticking with wood wasn’t just a romantic decision. “It would have meant removing the roof of the tun room to replace each of the washbacks with stainless steel, whereas with wood we were able to dismantle them in the area, take the steam out through some vents at the bottom of the tun room and put in the new ones.” Each washback could be broken down and replaced with a new one in just three to four days. If you don’t believe me, or want to see that process in action, Tamdhu has kindly supplied us with this superb time-lapse video:
The internal workings of the distillery were not the sole focus. Tamdhu possesses a sizeable surrounding area, nestled into beautiful, uninterrupted Speyside countryside. Perfect for warehousing. As I type, two new warehouses are under construction, with planning permission granted for another nine. “There will be 24 in total,” McIntyre calculates, along with two filling stores. At present, 60,000 casks can rest and mature on-site. The angels know where to get their share.
“We’re also looking at a planning application just now for a cooperage,” McIntyre continues. “We’ll just be repairing, testing and hardening casks, we won’t actually be charring or building. But it will make us more self-sufficient.” Three retired coopers are heading over to work at the site part-time. “It’s just magic that these resources are available to us.”
Other projects include a partnership with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to put in a salmon ladder in the nearby river, a move which bolsters both Tamdhu’s green credentials and the local fishing industry.
Tamdhu Distillery tours? Hold on to your hats
Given the work done at the Tamdhu Distillery, it would be understandable if you were anxious to see it all for yourself. In fact, you may recall that a fully-fledged visitor centre was previously on-site, based at what was a beautiful old Victorian railway station (above). Unfortunately, this service ceased in the late 1990s, and although a plucky few still knock to see if anyone’s home, Tamdhu has not been able to support tours since it re-opened.
But fear not, my whisky-loving friends! It won’t be long until Tamdhu will play host to our kind once more. While an exact replica of the previous visitor centre is currently not on the cards, Tamdhu is in the midst of discussions focused on creating an on-site brand centre.
“We’re planning on trying to create a VIP experience,” details McIntyre. “The plan is for some quite high-end tours by myself, very limited, very exclusive access. It will be a whole afternoon with lunch, a distillery tour, warehouse tour and some tastings in the warehouses.” This will include access to a limited number of casks, focused around exclusive distillery bottlings that people will be able to purchase, should they be so tempted.
But keep an eye out for the launch around April or May 2018, as places look to sell out fast. “I’ve committed to our marketing team to deliver ten such a tours a year,” says McIntyre. “We’re talking ten or 12 people per tour, so we’re only talking 120 people that will get to access Tamdhu each year.” Forewarned is forearmed.
A great distillery means one thing – equally brilliant whisky…
Of course, while all above is obviously wonderful, one very important question remains. What does it mean for all the whisky?!
The good news: new stuff is coming very soon.
The great news: there’s more than one release in the pipeline.
And there’s only one place to start because 2017 marks a certain distillery’s birthday…
“Earlier this year we released a 50 year old for our 120th anniversary,” brand manager Weir explains. “We were lucky enough to have a little stock of that age profile – not a lot as you would expect.” The liquid was drawn from a single first-fill European oak Sherry butt, filled way back in November 1963. Just 100 bottles were produced.
There’s another celebratory single cask due for imminent release too – but when we spoke to the team it was still under wraps. What they can reveal is that the final version should be available next month. Watch this space.
One decision that the lovely folk at Tamdhu have made for certain probably forms the most immediately thrilling whisky news, and regards the long-awaited sequel to Tamdhu Batch Strength (Batch 2). Get your Glencairn tasting glasses ready, because the Sherried-elixir that will constitute the forthcoming Tamdhu Batch Strength (Batch 3) has been chosen! Bottling is tipped to occur towards the end of October, which, at the time of writing, is really, really soon.
All about the Sherry
Something all these new releases have in common is the Sherry cask maturation – a long-established Tamdhu signature.
“I’m not going to say we don’t have Tamdhu in bourbon casks because we do,” McIntyre details. “We use it for some other blends, so if you wander round our warehouse you will undoubtedly see Tamdhu in bourbon.
“However, our chairman, our managing director, myself, are all particularly passionate about the fact that Tamdhu started exclusively using Sherry back in 1997, and the records show it, so we are going to continue down that route.”
It’s important because of the flavour profile, the colour, the smoothness, and the all round nature of the resulting whisky, he continues, regardless of the price of the casks. Or, as Weir puts it: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The excitement around the new-look Tamdhu Distillery is palpable
Proudly restored to full function in tranquil Speyside, Tamdhu Distillery stands as impressive as it did all those years ago when Charles C Doig’s 1896 designs established it as one of the most modern distilleries of the time. This sleeping giant is waking up, and the world of Scotch single malt is better for it. Race you up there for one of those tour places…
*Now, while I appreciate that talk of gas and computers (sounds like your IT department, doesn’t it?) isn’t the sexiest conversation ever, it’s all part of the necessary undertaking of modernising a traditional distillery so it can produce the kind of whisky we enjoy. So there.