When Tullibardine Distillery in the Perthshire village of Blackford began to produce spirit during 1949, it marked a significant moment in the history of Scotch whisky. Tullibardine was the first new distillery to open in Scotland since 1900, and it heralded a slow but steady improvement in the health of the Scotch whisky industry, culminating in the 'boom' period of the 1960s, when additional whisky-making facilities appeared in many a Highland glen.
Tullibardine may have been new to whisky making, but the name had been used during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries for a distillery at a now unknown location in the area. The chosen site for the second Tullibardine also had a strong Scottish drinks heritage, having been home to a brewery where King James IV of Scotland reputedly paused to acquire beer on the way to his coronation at Scone, near Perth in 1488.
The post-war Tullibardine venture was designed by William Delmé-Evans, who went on to create the Isle of Jura and Glenallachie distilleries. It was operated by Glasgow whisky brokers Brodie Hepburn from 1953 until the firm was taken over by Invergordon Distillers in 1971.
Tullibardine's capacity was subsequently increased by the installation of a second pair of stills in 1973, and when Invergordon was acquired by Whyte & Mackay Distillers Ltd in 1993, the Perthshire plant was considered surplus to requirements, closing the following year.
This could have spelled the end for whisky making on the site, situated alongside the A9 dual carriageway between Stirling and Perth. The day was saved, however, by a business consortium, which purchased Tullibardine from Whyte & Mackay for £1.1 million in 2003, with production recommencing before the year end.
Key to the consortium's business plan was the creation of a small retail park adjacent to the distillery, though this was subsequently sold to a property development company, and the consortium concentrated on raising the profile of Tullibardine as a single malt, releasing a wide range of cask finishes along the way.
In 2011 the consortium sold Tullibardine to the third-generation family-owned French wines and spirits company Maison Michel Picard, based in Chassagne Montrachet, Burgundy. Previously, there had been an imperative to sell spirit to third parties for blending in order to generate cash-flow, but under the Picard regime this was no longer the case, allowing for an emphasis on a smaller and more focused range of single malt bottlings.
Virtually all of Tullibardine's output not intended for those bottlings is now destined for Picard's popular Highland Queen and Muirhead brands, which it acquired from The Glenmorangie Company in 2008.
In 2013 there was the launch of an entirely new Tullibardine portfolio, with enhanced presentation and a revised line up of expressions. The entry level bottling, previously known as Aged Oak, was re-christened Sovereign and the previous vintages were replaced by 20 and 25 Years Old bottlings. As International Sales Manager James Robertson explains, "We now have three core finishes - '225 Sauternes,' finished in casks from Château Suduiraut, '228 Burgundy,' with casks from Château de Chassagne Montrachet, and '500 Sherry,' using mainly PX casks. The numbers relate to the size in litres of the casks in which the whisky has been matured for a final 12 month period."
According to Robertson, "In the past we were guilty of selling our whiskies well below the market rate and so with the re-branding we were able to place the new 20 Years Old and 25 Years Old at a price level that fits their age. I feel that these six whiskies at last provide Tullibardine with a core range that has an identity and something that the consumer can feel part of, whether they are new or old Tullibardine followers."
He also notes that, "Picard has allowed us to believe in Tullibardine as a distillery to be taken more seriously than it has been in the past, and they have the integrity of the distillery at the core of their thinking. They have provided more financial stability, and we have been able to tap into their customer base, as well. They have also invested in better machinery and plant for the production team. We are now in 40 markets and in 2014 we sold 10,000 nine litre cases of Tullibardine, compared to 5,000 cases in 2012."
The latest distillery release is the oldest and most expensive to date, namely a Tullibardine 1952, lavishly presented in a gold and crystal Baccarat decanter within a wooden cabinet. It was matured in a sherry quarter cask originally acquired from Pedro Domecq, and represents the first expression in Tullibardine's Custodians' Collection.
As James Robertson explains, "It takes Tullibardine to a whole new place. It takes us into the super premium bracket. Of the 70 bottles of 1952 which we launched officially in June 2015 we have so far sold 32. We think that's remarkable, given that it retails for £20,000 and Tullibardine isn't a brand that hits the headlines. The second bottling in the Custodians' Collection will be a 1970 vintage, which will be released later this year."
He adds that, "You have to buy one of these bottles to become a Custodian, so it's an exclusive club. You get two glasses, a black card with your name and bottle number on it, and in a second drawer in the decanter box there is a numbered key, which opens your personal 'strongbox' in a cabinet within the distillery visitor centre. In that is a piece of the actual 1952 cask. Custodians get free distillery admission and other benefits which will be developed as time goes on."
While the distillery has been busy launching its most prestigious bottling to date, there have also been major changes on site, with the retail park element having ceased trading and being subsequently incorporated into the distillery footprint. One large unit now accommodates a bottling hall, which should be fully operational within the next few weeks, as should a laboratory and new dry goods store. Other areas of the former retail park have been converted into three adjoining racked warehouses which will have a floor space of 30,000 square feet.
With such positive on-site developments, an impressive core single malts range and growing international sales, not to mention a new super premium single malt to launch the Custodians' Collection, there is clearly much to be positive about at Scotland's first post-war distillery.
Malt: Unpeated - Concerto barley variety
Mashing: Semi-lauter mash tun - 6 tonne mash - 26 mashes per week
Fermentation: 9 stainless washbacks, 30,000 litre capacity, minimum 56 hour fermentations
Distillation: 2 wash stills (15,000 litres capacity), 2 spirit stills (12,000 litres capacity)
Distillery capacity: 2.7 million lpa
Tullibardine Sovereign, 43% ABV
Nose: Floral, with vanilla fudge and freshly-cut hay.
Palate: Fruity, with malt, marzipan, milk chocolate and soft spice.
Finish: Vanilla, cocoa powder and a hint of citrus and cinnamon.
Tullibardine 1952, 40.2% ABV
Nose: Brandy-like as it opens, with emerging marzipan, pepper and linseed oil. Bung cloths, and rich old sherry.
Palate: Super smooth delivery, dry sherry, dark berries and spices.
Finish: Very long, with more spice, plain chocolate, bitter orange and liquorice.
Tullibardine Distillery, Stirling Street, Auchterarder, Perthshire PH4 1QG
Tel: +44 (0) 1764 661 800