Distillery Focus

Distillery Focus: The Sherry Cask Speysider

Hidden amidst woodland on the banks of the River Spey at Knockando, Tamdhu has emerged from the shadows and been established as the quintessential sherry cask Speysider
By Gavin D. Smith
Casks maturing in Tamdhu's dunnage
Casks maturing in Tamdhu's dunnage
Although now established as home to one of Scotland’s premier sherry-influenced single malts, Tamdhu distillery was originally created to help slake the thirst of the late Victorian blended Scotch boom, like so many of its Speyside compatriots. For more than a century its output continued to fulfil the role of ‘blending malt’, most notably as a component of The Famous Grouse.

Remarkably, of the 33 distilleries that opened during the final expansive decade of the 19th century, no fewer than 21 were on Speyside. This was partly due to the blenders’ stylistic preferences, but also because the fertile agricultural land of the north east of Scotland grew high-quality malting barley, had abundant pure water and supplies of peat, and coal could be imported relatively easily by rail, with casks of mature spirit exported by the same route.

Indeed, Michael Moss and John Hume note in their seminal book The Making of Scotch Whisky (1981):
"The local railways, the Highland and the Great North of Scotland, were both by the 1890s efficiently run companies and were anxious to attract new traffic. Many of the distilleries of the period had their own sidings. The Great North’s route from Keith to Boat of Garten, with the branch to Elgin via Rothes, served large numbers of the new distilleries, and sidings and stations were opened for some of the older distilleries without direct rail links."

The still house at Tamdhu Distillery

Situated beside the Knockando Burn, just north of the River Spey, Tamdhu was one of the distilleries whose location was chosen partly for its proximity to the railway network. It was served by a spur line to Dalbeallie Station on the Strathspey Railway, which opened in July 1899. The name of the station was changed to Knockando in May 1905 to avoid confusion with Dalbeattie in south-west Scotland. After the railway closed in 1965, Knockando Station was used as Tamdhu’s visitor centre for some years.

The distillery was constructed during 1896–97 for a consortium of leading whisky blenders, operating under the name of the Tamdhu Distillery Company, and William Grant, director of the Highland Distillers Company, raised £19,200 (the equivalent of some £20 million today) from 15 partners to build and equip the facility. It was constructed to the design of Charles Doig, the Elgin architect responsible for so much of Scotland’s traditional distilling landscape. Writing in 1898, journalist and proto ‘distillery-bagger’ Alfred Barnard declared that Tamdhu was “perhaps the most efficient and designed distillery of its era.”

The initial distillation of 64 proof gallons (290 litres) occurred on 21 July 1897, and, despite early disputes over the rights to water sources, by June 1898 Tamdhu had produced 214,476 gallons (972,000 litres) of spirit. Later that year, the Highland Distillers Company acquired Tamdhu – named after the Gaelic for ‘black hill’ – principally to provide the firm with spirit for blending, as it had lost a significant amount of maturing stock in a fire at its Glenrothes distillery.

Tamdhu was subsequently silent between 1911 and 1913, a dozen years after boom had turned to bust for the entrepreneurs of blended Scotch, and again for two decades from 1928 to 1948 when the fortunes of Scotch whisky were once more at a low.

Selecting the correct cuts of oak

A year after the distillery re-opened, the existing floor maltings were replaced with Saladin maltings. This system comprised long concrete troughs, or ‘boxes’, with perforated floors through which air circulated, and the barley in the troughs was turned on a regular basis, latterly by computer-controlled mechanical turners.

For many years, Tamdhu had the distinction of being the only Scottish distillery still operating Saladin maltings, with no fewer than 10 in place (each holding 22 tonnes of malt) when the distillery was at its most productive. In addition to preparing malt for Tamdhu, the maltings also supplied other Highland Distillers sites, at one time providing some 30 per cent of their overall malt needs. Toward the end of its operation, Tamdhu maltings supplied malt to The Macallan Distillery, processing the golden promise barley grown on its Easter Elchies estate.

The 1970s saw renewed expansion in Scottish distilling, and Tamdhu’s single pair of stills was increased to four in 1972 and from four to six three years later. Ultimately boasting a theoretical capacity of four million litres per annum, Tamdhu was a substantial distillery, and one of the Highland Distillers’ assets acquired in 1999 by The Edrington Group.

With Edrington deciding to concentrate on its Highland Park, The Macallan and Glenrothes Distilleries and their single malts, Tamdhu was mothballed in 2009. However, a saviour emerged in the shape of independent whisky makers Ian Macleod Distillers Ltd (IMD), which acquired Tamdhu in June 2011. “We already had a Highland distillery with Glengoyne, and Tamdhu added a Speyside. The previous owners had started to lay down some incredible oloroso sherry cask stocks, which was another attraction,” explains brand director Iain Weir. “We purchased Glengoyne in 2003 and successfully developed the distillery and brand. When Tamdhu came up for sale in 2011, it was the right time and fit to further expand our distilling portfolio.”

The old Dalbeallie train station

Edrington had been good custodians of Tamdhu and were helpful in aiding IMD’s efforts to get the plant up and running once more, but the distillery was a two-man operation, with a mashman and a stillman on each shift, and the existing automation equipment dated from 1972. Accordingly, it was replaced with a totally new computerised system, which increased the degree of automation so that one operative could control all aspects of production per shift.

One element of Tamdhu that had to go was the Saladin maltings, described as being “…held together with sticky tape and love!” Over time, all nine wooden washbacks and four of the six condensers were replaced, the stills refurbished, and no fewer than 23 new warehouses, two filing stores and a cooperage built. Additionally, a VIP accommodation and entertainment centre has been created, the old station renovated and a gas main installed. The team even found time to do its bit for wildlife conservation by installing a ‘fish pass’ on the nearby Knockando Burn, which allows salmon and trout to spawn upstream.

Since 1997, Edrington had been filling Tamdhu new-make spirit into very high-quality oloroso sherry casks, many of them first-fill, with a substantial number being part of the inventory acquired by the new owners. IMD made the strategic decision to carry on the policy of filling into sherry wood and has committed to only releasing sherry cask-matured whiskies as single malt under the Tamdhu name, though bourbon casks are also filled when spirit is destined for use in the company’s ‘house’ blends, and uncasked new-make spirit is exchanged with other distillers, as per industry custom.

Distillery manager Sandy McIntyre explains: “Tamdhu for single malt is filled at 63.5% ABV into sherry casks – both American and European oak, either first or second fill – and matured in dunnage or racked warehouses, but mostly dunnage. All other Tamdhu is filled into ex-bourbon wood and matured mainly in palletised warehouses on site.”

The on-site cooperage at Tamdhu distillery

For the production of Tamdhu’s bespoke oloroso sherry casks, IMD strengthened its relationships with the Tevasa, Vasyma and Huberto Domecq cooperages, in addition to sherry makers Williams & Humbert and Bodegas Baron. Today, the distillery fills a mixture of European and American oak casks, all of which have been built from air-dried staves and seasoned with oloroso for a minimum of 18 months.

IMD relaunched Tamdhu single malt into the market in 2013 with a 10-year-old expression, which was subsequently replaced with a 12-year-old. Since then, the range has been extended and sales have grown dramatically across a wide range of markets. With Tamdhu marking its 125th anniversary this year, celebrations are in order, and Weir says that they will include a big launch for the new Tamdhu 18 Years Old and further new and exciting rare product releases targeting passionate global connoisseurs and collectors. “We will also be opening our Tamdhu Customs House VIP facility, we will have a comprehensive Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival events itinerary, and a brand events tour of a number of our key global markets,” he adds.

As the distillery celebrates its anniversary, lovers of sherried whiskies can rest assured that Tamdhu’s future is secure and that its spirit has now claimed a place in the pantheon of first-class sherried single malts.