Distillery Focus

Heart of the Community

Visiting one of the most distinctive distilleries in Scotland
By Gavin D. Smith
During the years following the end of the Second World War, the Scotch whisky industry began to experience more positive fortunes after half a century in the economic doldrums. Exports to the USA led recovery, so it was appropriate that one of the very first new distilleries to be built in Scotland post-war was created by a UK subsidiary of the US company Schenley Industries.

That subsidiary was Long John Distilleries Ltd, and after exhaustive exploration and water analysis a site was selected near the River Spey, close to the hamlet of Advie and alongside the main A95 road between Aberlour and Grantown-on-Spey. Water was sourced from the Achvochkie Burn, and the new distillery was christened Tormore - Gaelic for 'big hill.'

Keen to make a statement, Long John enlisted the services of celebrated architect Sir Albert Richardson for the project. Construction work on what was to be a showpiece distillery, dedicated to producing malt spirit for the Long John blend, began in 1958. No expense was spared, with the final bill coming in at some £500,000.

Even today, Tormore remains one of the most distinctive-looking distilleries in Scotland, with its mix of traditional and contemporary styling, including arched windows, stone balustrades and a copper roof, intended to turn green with time. Topiary was created in the shape of stills, and there was even a cupola, complete with a musical clock which originally played a variety of Scottish tunes when it chimed.

Due to its relative remoteness, Tormore was developed as a true distilling community, complete with a row of staff houses, a community hall and even a curling pond, which could also provide water in the event of fire, though it was ultimately drained for 'health and safety' reasons.

The distillery, equipped with two pairs of stills, first produced spirit on 18th October 1959, as was officially opened on 7th October the following year. As the US-led Scotch whisky recovery strengthened, many existing distilleries across Scotland were expanded, and Tormore was no exception, being equipped with four more stills in 1972.

The 1970s were also a time when a number of major brewing companies diversified into Scotch, and in 1975 what was by then Long John International Ltd, complete with its distilleries, was acquired by Whitbread & Co Ltd. Via ownership by Allied Lyons, later Allied Domecq, Tormore ultimately came into the hands of Pernod Ricard's Scottish distilling subsidiary Chivas Brothers Ltd in 2005.

In charge of Tormore, along with Aberlour and Glenallachie distilleries, is operations manager Neal Corbett, who notes: "Tormore is currently the third-largest malt distillery in the group in terms of capacity after The Glenlivet and Miltonduff, though it will move down to fourth when the enlarged Glen Keith distillery is back on stream. Tormore's capacity is now 4.6mla and we are working to that capacity."

In order to achieve such a level of output, Tormore was subject to a programme of expansion and upgrading during late 2011/early 2012, though as the distillery is 'Listed,' few external changes are ever possible. The expansion work involved converting the former evaporator plant into a third tunroom, where two new washbacks were fitted.

"This allowed us to increase from 17 to 25 mashes per week," says Corbett, "and at the same time we fitted thermo-compressors to both the wash stills and the spirit stills. We can develop up to 40 per cent of the total heat required for the stills with thermo-compression, and Tormore is the most energy-efficient malt distillery in the company, at below 21 megajoules per litre of alcohol."

The practice of using thermo-compressors to save energy during the process of heating stills was first employed by Chivas Brothers at Miltonduff distillery during the 1980s, and was subsequently applied to the wash stills at Aberlour and Glenburgie. Tormore was the first Chivas distillery to have all of its stills converted to thermo-compression, and Neal Corbett explains: "We looked at the possible impact by putting one on a spirit still at Allt-a-Bhainne and found it didn't alter spirit character. So we're now doing the same at Glen Keith and will also fit them to all the stills in our new distillery when it is built on the site of the old Imperial plant at Carron."

Unusually, all eight Tormore stills are fitted with purifiers, the effect of which is to increase reflux, and this distillation regime, combined with the production of very clear wort, aided by the use of a full lauter mashtun, leads to a fresh, fruity, new-make spirit character. Neale Corbett says: "Most Tormore goes into our Ballantines and Chivas Regal blends, and master blender Sandy Hyslop is looking for a light, sweet, fruity spirit."

All new-make spirit is tankered either to Chivas' Keith Bond for filling or to a warehousing facility in the Central Belt. Some Tormore spirit comes back to its 'home' distillery for maturation in the six on-site warehouses, along with that from several other distilleries in the group. An amount of Tormore is matured in first-fill ex-Bourbon casks as this produces the ideal character for use in some expressions of Ballantines.

In terms of single malt, small quantities were bottled in 10-year-old format during the 1970s, and then as a 15 Years Old under the Allied Domecq regime, with the current 12 Years Old expression being introduced by Chivas Brothers in 2004.

At its peak, the brand sold 7,000 nine-litre cases in 1987, and accounted for 2,800 cases in 2012.

Such figures illustrate that blending has always the real name of the game for Tormore, but this is a highly drinkable Speyside malt in its own right, and Neal Corbett notes that there is likely to be an interesting development with the Tormore brand to look out for in the not too distant future.