Tamdhu Distillery has been transformed over the last decade, and now as the sherry cask specialist celebrates its 125th anniversary, we take a look at how it’s become one of the most beloved Scotch whiskies around.
Tamdhu whisky is full of character, and its distillery likewise is full of characters. The latter don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s a chart on the wall of the mash tun room with every employee’s name, complete with nicknames like “Haggis”, “Silicone Stu”, “The Dog”, “Professor” and, my favourite, Ryan “Cheeky wee” Farquhar (sorry Ryan, it only works with the full name). A weekly periodical called The Poop News is posted in the lavatory to keep everyone apprised of the latest intra-distillery happenings. On-site, staff laugh at the juxtaposition of this industrial factory chugging away alongside the leafy remains of a Victorian rail line in the spectacular Spey Valley. “It’s not a looker,” distillery manager Sandy ‘Big Mac’ McIntyre remarks lovingly on our tour.
Victorian whisky writer Alfred Barnard said he knew of no other region possessing such immense topographic variety and beauty within just 20 miles as this valley, and described it as once seen, never forgotten. I certainly won’t ever forget being here, but then I’ve been trying to make this trip for half a decade. Tamdhu was the focus of the first independent feature I ever published as a drinks writer, and indeed as a writer full stop, back in 2017. I’d just started working for Master of Malt and the opportunity to learn how Ian Macleod Distillers Ltd (IMD) planned to wake this sleeping giant arose. Nearly five years on when an invite to the Spirit of Speyside festival was extended my way, I went looking straight away for tickets for the Tamdhu Distillery tour to see how this plan was progressing in the flesh and pull back the curtain on a distillery that doesn’t typically allow visitors. Leading the tour was McIntyre, the first person I ever interviewed.
He doesn’t just make the Tamdhu spirit, he typifies it. He’s jovial, approachable, but passionate and fully committed to the distillery’s vision of creating a fruity, robust, and pure sherried whisky that has all the hallmarks of a top-tier Speysider. However, when he joined in November 2014, things were quite different. Tamdhu was still largely unknown and in the early stages of a relaunch with just two core expressions. He and a dedicated team have turned things around a great deal in a short space of time, expanding that range, forging relationships, picking up a few awards along the way, and, in the process, redefining what Tamdhu is all about.
Trains, grains, and Saladin boxes
What IMD acquired in June 2011 was a distillery described once as “the most efficient and designed of its era” by Barnard in 1898. This came impressively just a year after its construction was completed, which began in 1896 and was led by a consortium of blenders operating under the name of the Tamdhu Distillery Company, with no less than William Grant himself raising £19,200 (£20m in today’s money) from 15 partners to help build and equip the facility. Elgin architect Charles Doig handled the design but omitted his signature pagoda roof here, and the first distillation was of 290 litres on 21 July 1897. By the end of 1897, the Highland Distillers Company (whose chairman was Grant and is an organisation that eventually became part of The Edrington Group) added the distillery to its impressive roster, which included Bunnahabhain and Glenrothes.
The beautiful surroundings you’ll find Tamdhu in to this day were as strategic as they are serene. This is a site that once would have provided sanctuary for illicit distillers thanks to its remote but fertile surroundings full of quality barley, pure water, and an abundant peat supply. What truly defined this era of Speyside whisky, however, was the expansion of the Great North Railway. Of the 33 distilleries that opened in the 1890s in Scotland, 21 of those were in Speyside, thanks in part to this great iron snake that connected Speyside with the thirsty Londoners who developed a taste for its brand of fruity whisky. Tamdhu Distillery was directly connected to the main Strathspey line via a dedicated siding and its own station called Dalbeallie, which opened in 1899. The remnants can be seen at the distillery today, which is something of a treat as almost all evidence of the train network that helped make this region the world centre of whisky production has since been erased.
Speyside distilleries endured plenty of hardships in this era regardless, and Tamdhu was one of many to succumb to the cynical, cyclical whisky business. Both it and neighbouring distilleries suffered prolonged periods of silence as demand, war, trade, economics, and vodka all struck their blows over the years. The site was closed between 1911 and 1913, and again in 1927 and 1948. In the good times following its reopening in 1949, the existing floor maltings made way for Saladin maltings. It’s a rarely-seen system comprising of long concrete troughs or boxes with perforated floors through which air circulated, which dries the barley and allows it to be turned mechanically, latterly by computer-controlled levers. At its height, Tamdhu’s Saladin maltings comprised 10 boxes that could each hold 22 tonnes of malt, and at one time it supplied malt for 30% of the Highland Distillers Company. It was the last Scotch whisky distillery to use the system, but sadly it had to make way recently, with the current team describing what they inherited as being held by “sticky tape and love”.
Revival and refocus
With the 1970s boom came expansion. Two stills became four in 1972, and four to six in 1975. Tamdhu was able to distil over 4 million litres per annum by the time Edrington purchased the asset from Highland Distillers in 1999. But with the likes of Highland Park, The Macallan, and Glenrothes to play with, Tamdhu was sidelined by the group before being mothballed in 2009. IMD saw potential and snapped it up a couple of years later and has since spent the last decade realising it. They also painted a few of the rooms avocado, including the usual brilliant red of the Porteous mill, and this is simply unforgivable.
IMD inherited an automated distillery but has made this a more human operation, increasing a rotating two-man shift to a full-time team of 18, with half of them living in on-site cottages. It also has brought a regime of renovation, replacing all nine wooden washbacks, four of the six condensers, and refurbishing the stills, all while adding no fewer than 23 new warehouses, two filling stores, and building an on-site cooperage. In an effort to increase Tamdhu’s conservation credentials a ‘fish pass’ on the nearby Knockando Burn allows salmon and trout to spawn upstream.
The production capacity remains 4.1 million litres but the present working capacity is 3.7 million, and Tamdhu runs 24/7. A spring and borehole continue to supply the same water it has used since its inception, while 220 tonnes of malted barley a week (varieties Laureate and Concerto) are sent Tamdhu’s way by Simpsons in Berwick Upon Tweed since there’s no on-site maltings here anymore. After a four-roller Porteous mill creates a grist, a total of 16-18 mashes a week take place in an 11.85-tonne stainless steel semi-lauter mash tun that makes a clear, fruity wort.
Fermentation using Mauri creamed yeast lasts for 59 hours in those 53,500-litre Oregon pine washbacks. They could have replaced these easily with stainless steel, which is more reliable and less hassle, but I’m told the traditional wood was favoured here as the Tamdhu whisky makers want the “wee beasties” (microorganisms) that create more flavour congeners and thrive in the porous nooks and crannies. This wash is then distilled twice, first in three 18,639-litre wash stills (nothing is typical here) and then in three 22,500-litre spirit stills. They’re all from Forsyths and have the same onion shape and a slight decline in the lyne arm angle with shell and tube condensers (copper for wash and steel for spirit). Everything is measured here just right, with enough efficient copper contact from the condensers to remove elements deemed too heavy and allow fragrant, fruity elements to shine, while the bulbous still and subtle lyne arm angle ensures the spirit doesn’t become too light and retains a robust quality.
The sherry cask specialists
The full-bodied nature of this spirit is necessary because of Tamdhu’s cask policy. This is where the Speysider really stands out. It was originally Edrington that began filling a bulk of Tamdhu’s new make into ex-Oloroso casks, but IMD took this one step further to turn Tamdhu into fully-fledged sherried stars. Arguably the most definitive policy implementation of theirs, now the only single malts that get bottled with the Tamdhu name are matured in 100% ex-Oloroso sherry, and it’s the only Scotch distillery to do this. It’s a bold cask type when you’re doing full-maturation rather than just finishing, and you need a spirit that’s able to stand up to it. Think of it like making a cocktail with big flavours, you need a spirit you can still taste when it’s all mixed together.
There are some ex-bourbon casks that are filled still, but those are for blends or to be exchanged with other distilleries. The bourbon casks are mainly in palletised warehouses, but single malt whisky is filled into first or second-fill American or European oak which matures predominately in traditional dunnage warehouses. Tamdhu fills about 700 casks a year (they have about 114,000 casks on-site presently), reducing the distillation strength from 70.5% ABV to 63.5% ABV. Records show that in 1897, Tamdhu’s founders secured the first shipment of sherry casks from bodegas in Spain. Today, cooperages in Jerez de la Frontera like Tevasa, Vasyma, and Huberto Domecq, as well as from sherry makers Williams & Humbert, Jerez, and Bodegas Baron of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, are the suppliers Tamdhu relies upon.
This is one of those distilleries that like to be involved in the entire process, specifying orders based on factors like oak variety and size, toasting temperatures, seasoning wine, and duration of seasoning from acorn to cask. There are no shortcuts taken here. The minimum seasoning period required to create a certified sherry cask for sale to a distiller is 12 months, but casks prepared for Tamdhu get 18-24 months of seasoning with Oloroso sherry. This seasoning sherry is on average about four years old and a small amount if it is inside to keep the casks wet during transit to Scotland, but it’s removed before the new make is filled. The whole process takes six-to-seven years, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone here who doesn’t think it’s worth it.
A defining decade in 125 years of history
That’s just the way things are here. Tamdhu embodies the best of a family business ethos, making decisions based on pride and passion before profitability. Originally this was another classic Victorian blend bolsterer, helping slake the thirst of the blended Scotch boom like so many of its Speyside sisters by being a key component of expressions like Famous Grouse. IMD shifted production focus from blends to malts and insisted on age statements, natural colour to show off that sherry influence, and a price structure that doesn’t alienate single malt fans. Its smaller production capability and lack of stock compared to the giants that live in the valleys that surround it might have put some drinks companies off Tamdhu, but everybody here has a quiet confidence about what’s to come and is happy to be patient because they truly believe it’ll be worth the wait.
What we’ve seen so far has raised expectations. Tamdhu single malt relaunched in 2013 with a 10-year-old expression, but the core range now is all about the 12-year-old, 15-year-old, and 18-year-old expressions that followed. The latter was released recently to mark the 125th anniversary, and Tamdhu has also made a habit of launching some of the most in-demand limited-edition offerings, like its excellent Batch Strength series. It’s an impressive selection already, one that ensures there’s a dram for all sherry bomb lovers.
What I think Tamdhu does best is demonstrate the variation and subtitles you can derive from just one style of cask. Yes, we’re dealing with oloroso here, but what kind? Is it American or European oak? Is it a hogshead, a butt, or a puncheon? Was it first-fill, and how long was it matured for? Sherry cask whisky can be a bit one dimensional and overpowering, but through its policy of buying quality and taking the time to understand these casks (this is where an on-site cooperage comes in real handy), Tamdhu is able to create more complex and interesting sherried drams, while that robust, fragrantly fruity spirit is perfectly measured to cope with the weight of a bold barrel style.
Via Victorian railways and from Spain to Speyside, through various closures and owners, it’s fair to say Tamdhu has been there and back again. But this last decade has defined what it’s all about: super sherried single malt made lovingly by a team that appears more like a family. And this approach doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Neighbours like Macallan, Glenfarclas, and Aberlour provide stiff competition in its region alone. But Tamdhu is full of enough character to stand out. Just ask “Big Mac”, or “Cheeky wee” Farquhar.
Please repaint that avocado though, guys.