On a rainy afternoon a few months ago, the staff office at Tormore Distillery was in an uproar. Distillery manager Polly Logan and assistant manager Sam Douglas were hunting everywhere for a small handheld pump to help them move liquid used for samples. “We don’t know what it’s actually called,” says Logan, “so we’re going with the technical term ‘whisky sooker-ooper’ because that’s what it does, it sooks the whisky oop.”
“We’re trying to describe what we need to the team,” Douglas laughed. “But even when we use Google, we can’t figure out what this thing is called.”
Logan and Douglas have been in charge of making Tormore’s new spirit since January this year, when the distillery’s new owner, Elixir Distillers, officially received the keys to the facility from Pernod Ricard, to which it had just sold its enormous retail business, The Whisky Exchange.
The playful mood on-site is a sign of the distillery team’s high morale as they begin tackling a significant longer-term goal set by Elixir’s owners, brothers Sukhinder and Rajbir Singh: transforming Tormore from a distillery formerly focused on production for blends into a respected and delicious Speyside single malt brand.
It certainly deserves the attention. Though construction was completed in 1960, it is Scotland’s first new malt whisky distillery built in the 20th century, the herald of a new wave of production facilities built across the 1960s and 70s. Unlike many of its brutalist, functional contemporaries, Tormore is majestic, gauche, and quirky in equal measure.
It may not be surprising, then, that shady Americans were involved. The distillery was built by drinks conglomerate Schenley, led by chairman Lewis Rosenstiel. At that time, Schenley was a titan of the drinks industry, owing its rise and success in part to Rosenstiel’s close business and personal relationships with organised crime figures including the legendary Meyer Lansky and Al Capone associate Joseph Fusco.
During this period, Schenley also became a major Scotch whisky player in a short space of time, starting with the 1956 purchase of London’s Seager Evans & Co, which owned Glasgow’s Strathclyde grain distillery, the Glenugie malt distillery in Peterhead, and the Long John blended Scotch whisky brand. Under Schenley ownership, Seager Evans also bought Plymouth Gin, opened the Kinclaith malt plant, built Tormore, and also eventually acquired Laphroaig, Aberdeen blender Gordon Graham & Co. (then owner of Black Bottle), and Stanley Holt & Son, which at the time boasted one of the largest stocks of maturing whisky in England.
Tormore itself is a reflection of this wild spree of companies willing to throw money around. The enormous Art Deco-inspired distillery building – part palace, part power station – displays what is probably the only (never used) curling pond on a distillery site; extensive large topiary shaped like bells, whisky stills, and other shapes (Logan received a pair of golden topiary shears as a Christmas present); and a copper roof. A tall clock tower equipped with large bells rings out one of four traditional Scottish tunes every 15 minutes, 24/7.
Understandably, distillery staff across the decades have preferred to keep it turned off. An entrance room that serves as a lounge adjacent to the still room features two magnificent leather armchairs and a hand-carved wooden ceiling.
Elixir’s project process engineer Andy Cameron – by coincidence a regional curling champion – has spent decades working in the whisky industry and is mystified by the site: “Just look at it from the outside. I’d love to meet the guy who came up with this idea. It’s crazy! I couldn’t calculate or contemplate how someone today would decide to build something like this.” Cameron compares it with Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, as depicted in the famous children’s book by Roald Dahl. “It’s a place that looks like there’ll be a little button to push somewhere and something crazy happens.”
The layout of Tormore’s production equipment is also odd, to put it mildly. Over the years, and as it changed owners a number of times (Pernod Ricard took over the distillery in 2005), the distillery’s production has expanded haphazardly. When the Elixir team took over, they needed to hire contractors to figure out where many of the drains ran. There are 11 washbacks spread across three rooms – four next to the mash house and stills, four on top of the boiler house, and three skinny tall ones in the noisy clock tower – each with a different microclimate. Harmonisation of fermentation conditions creates an interesting challenge.
The distillery itself was also not in the best condition when Elixir took it over, with significant wear and tear repair work, led by Cameron, required across the site. In fairness to Chivas Brothers, though, the former owner was helpful in the transition, providing staff to assist in running the facility until Elixir brought in its own people, while two Chivas distillers bearing a combined experience of 40-plus years working at Tormore stayed on and are now Elixir employees.
Tormore also has several aces up its sleeve. First, despite the clunky set-up it is a remarkably efficient distillery, averaging a spirit yield of more than 420 litres of pure alcohol per tonne of malt most of the year. The reason why is still a mystery.
Logan has a number of theories: “It could be a lack of evaporation within the stills or something else. We just haven’t had the time to do deep digging in figuring out exactly how this is happening… so I’ve tasked the guys with taking some lids off of our crazy little purifiers on the stills, which are nothing like I’ve seen before. We think they have baffle plates inside them. It might also be the condensers. It could be the coolers. It could be any combination of these. But overall, it’s an incredible site.”
Second is that Tormore’s new-make spirit is delicious and high quality. It is Elixir head blender Oliver Chilton’s job to determine how to turn it into tasty whisky while managing existing stocks of Tormore casks.
“It’s quite a full spirit. It’s got a big nutty note to it. I quite often see it referred to by all sorts of people as ‘light’ but I don’t think it’s light at all. It’s at the very least medium bodied if not full bodied. What comes across as pear and stone fruit notes lingers in the mature spirit, especially in American oak,” he explains.
Almost all Tormore is currently maturing in refill ex-bourbon, but Chilton plans to diversify the casks used to mature its spirit, inspired by a particularly tasty parcel of aged Tormore he found maturing in first-fill bourbon whose taste profile he hopes to partially replicate.
There’s a lot of work ahead recasking existing stock as well as laying down spirit in new casks. Chilton is currently trialling various sherry casks sourced from a number of bodegas and seasoned in different conditions. He has also sourced ex-Madeira casks and other casks that formerly held sweet wine as well as virgin oak that will be used mainly for further maturation of older stock. He aims to have Elixir’s first Tormore whisky ready to launch in 2025.
Chilton has gone beyond whisky within the warehouses, too. He has set up a ‘rum solera’ to be used for the maturation of Elixir’s Black Tot rum. He follows similar principles to a sherry solera by regularly moving the maturing liquid into increasingly older casks, even using ex-sherry solera bodega casks for maturation, and is setting up a rum-blending lab on-site. He plans for Tormore to eventually become the headquarters of Elixir’s rum operations, maturing the rum it sources and blending it together.
In the meantime, most Tormore spirit will still be going to Chivas under the terms of the distillery sale agreement. The distillery currently produces around 3.2 million litres of pure alcohol a year, though production will likely soon rise to 3.5 million. The first 2.5 million litres each year for the first three years of the distillery’s operation are earmarked for Chivas.
However, the future of the distillery extends beyond a mere transition between owners. A new on-site filling store will be up and running by September, giving the team far more flexibility and control over maturation operations. Only a small portion of Tormore whisky, around 2,500 casks, is actually stored at the distillery. (Tens of thousands of other casks from different distilleries on-site belong to Chivas.) Most of Elixir’s Tormore casks are spread among warehouses across Scotland, so Chilton is in the process of bringing these casks back home and consolidating his stock.
Further down the wish list of longer-term plans will be an expansion of production and the creation of a visitor centre so the unique site can be shown off as it deserves.
There is no question that the Singh brothers have ambitious plans for the distillery, and alongside their Portintruan Distillery project on Islay they are completing a metamorphosis that began with selling whisky miniatures in a grocery shop, inspired by certain grocer entrepreneurs of the past. They had been talking for some time about owning the means of whisky production.
Chilton, one of Elixir’s first employees, said that the Singhs were looking to buy a working distillery – in addition to Portintruan, which they’re building from scratch – with the goal of transitioning from a retail company to a distilling company. It’s similar to the path by which Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal first emerged, but adapted for the 21st century.
To them, success means creating delicious whisky made with integrity. For Chilton, his remit as Tormore’s blender is not simply to create something tasty but to honour the unique history and people of the distillery.
“The more you dig into it, the more you learn about the building and the nuances of this place, the more you start to understand there’s this wild identity that isn’t really expressed through its bottles,” he says. “Tormore’s whisky is fruity, nutty, and full, but you also want to try and tell the story of the place itself and the people that have been here for a long time. We want to add a new layer to that.”