News

Back with a vengeance

Tullibardine shut its doors in the 1990s. Now, as part of a retail complex, it is back. Charles MacLean went to the triumphant reopening
By Charles MacLean
Although it only opened in 1949, Tullibardine was the first distillery to be commissioned in the 20th century. Its creator was William Delme-Evans, a Welshman with a dream. Within four years he sold his distillery; it changed hands a couple of times and was then mothballed in the 1990s. Sad and dilapidated, it was bought and rescued in 2003, and was officially opened towards the end of 2004.This is Tullibardine’s story in a nut shell. Let’s look at it more closely.The distillery is located on the busy main road between Stirling and Perth, in the village of Blackford. The famous Gleneagles Hotel is nearby and ‘Britain’s favourite mineral water’, Highland Spring,
is drawn from the edge of the village.For Blackford has been famous for its water since time immemorial. The first public brewery in Scotland was established here in the 12th century; King James IV ordered a barrel of beer from
here for his coronation celebrations at Scone in 1488, and granted the brewery a Royal Charter in 1503.When Alfred Barnard visited in 1889, the brewery, which included buildings dating from 1610, was owned by R. & D. Sharp Ltd.By the 1940s these ‘neat and lofty’ buildings had become derelict, and in 1947 they were offered for sale. The site was bought by William Delme-Evans, a Welsh land surveyor and estate manager,
with a keen practical interest in brewing and distilling.In 1940, aged 20, Delme-Evans had contracted tuberculosis, and during his recuperation had designed what he called ‘an up-to-date gravity-flow distillery.’ In 1947 he was staying with an old
school-friend in Blackford, John Barratt, whose father was a retired excise officer.When the brewery came up for sale Delme-Evans obtained a sample from its famous well. “The result came back and I knew the water was almost perfect for distilling. By the end of the week I had
purchased the building,” he told Whisky Magazine in issue 28. He went into partnership with John Barratt’s dad (who was appointed distillery manager), and with a couple of other gentlemen. By 1949 the distillery was completed and in full production.“There was much demand for the spirit, but, foolishly, I sold over half of the production to one firm. In 1952 they stopped their order and tried to buy the distillery at a cheap price”.He resisted selling, but his health was badly affected by overwork, and next year he sold his distillery to Brodie Hepburn, the Glasgow firm of whisky brokers. Delme-Evans went on to rebuild
and manage Jura Distillery and to design Glenallachie Distillery on Speyside for Mackinlay McPherson.Tullibardine passed to Invergordon Distillers when it bought Brodie Hepburn (1971), and within three years the new owner had doubled capacity (to four stills). Then Invergordon was swallowed
up by American Brands/Jim Beam Brands/Whyte & Mackay in a hostile takeover in 1993. Tullibardine closed the following year.There the distillery stood for nearly 10 years, increasingly shabby and unloved, embarrassingly conspicuous beside one of the main tourist routes in Scotland. It attracted the attention of Doug Ross, a former director of spirits supply with United Distillers. He bought an option, and contacted his friend, Michael Beamish, who had just left Drambuie, where he had been sales and marketing director.They brought in two others, Alan Williamson (chairman) and Alastair Russell (finance director), put up some capital and put together a plan, with which they went to the bank.Buying a distillery is many a big boy’s fantasy, but “between the idea and the reality,” as T. S. Eliot so rightly observed, “falls the shadow.”“The problem is revenue,“ explains Michael. “If you’re starting from scratch, you can’t expect to see any significant income from the whisky you have made for about 10 years. Filling orders [i.e. selling
new make whisky to blenders] are almost all done today by reciprocal arrangements – no cash changes hands – and anyway, the big blenders have no requirement for additional whiskies.“So you have to buy enough mature stock, of good quality and with a reasonable spread of ages. But even then, it is difficult to achieve a level of sales which will provide a revenue stream sufficient to
finance you day to day production costs, to cover new stock requirements.”The novel solution to the revenue problem was to develop the site adjacent to the distillery as a major, up-market retail park, using part of it as a distillery visitor centre, with a large and well stocked giftshop (more than a distillery shop, although this forms part of it) and a restaurant, serving traditional meals, with a Scottish flavour, and also fresh sandwiches and snacks.Doug Ross sees this solution as “securing the future of the distillery and the brand by generating revenue from the sale of the adjacent land and the creation of a major visitor attraction.”This is the first venture of its kind in Scotland. It makes sense, given the distillery’s position beside a road used by around 20,000 cars a day, many of them tourists on the way to and from the Highlands.The new owners have pulled off a coup in persuading the hugely experienced John Black to come out of retirement and manage Tullibardine. Starting at Cardhu, John’s first managerial appointment was Ardbeg. Subsequently he managed Tormore, Miltonduff, Scapa, Imperial and Ardmore. At present he is sticking to the distilling regime set up by Delme-Evans, with some adjustments to the cut timings.Together with Trevor Cowan, former master distiller with Mackinlay Macpherson (and thus very familiar with Tullibardine in the old days), I was privileged to nose around 120 casks filled in
the 1960s, 70s, 80s and early 90s. The make was quite extraordinarily consistent, cask to cask, decade upon decade.My summary tasting note reads: “Fresh and light – not a big nose, nor heavy. Ears of corn, with some sweet malt; light vanilla toffee. The flavour likewise fresh and pleasant, with some acidity. A medium length finish, with honeycomb”.The new owners plan to bottle in ‘vintage editions’ rather than at specified ages, the vintages chosen in line with stock availability. So far they have bottled batches from 1993 (at 40%) and 1988 (at 46%), and single casks from 1964 (at 44.6%), 1973 (at 47.5%), 1987 (at 46%) and 1991 (at 46%). The latter two only available at the distillery.