Distillery Focus

Return of the Big Tam

Gavin D Smithlooks at the comeback of a Speyside classic
By Gavin D. Smith
Optimism abounds in the world of Scotch whisky right now. The apparently endless potential of markets such as China and India is causing analysts to predict a future shortage of spirit and consequent price rises. Faced with a likely dearth of whisky, distillers throughout Scotland are cranking up production at existing distilleries, making plans to build new ones and dusting down plants that are currently silent.One of those distillers is Whyte & Mackay Ltd, which has cause for real optimism with regard to the Indian market in particular, now that the company is owned by Bangalorebased United Breweries Ltd. Whyte & Mackay’s response to the perceived long-term shortage of whisky has been to resurrect its silent Speyside distillery of Tamnavulin.Tamnavulin is situated in breathtakingly beautiful countryside close to The Glenlivet, and its splendid location only serves to emphasise the strictly functional nature of the distillery itself. Constructed in 1966 for Invergordon Distillers Ltd at the height of the mid-20th century whisky boom, few concessions were made to aesthetics.At that time, nobody, apart from William Grant & Sons of Glenfiddich, believed that the public might have any interest in visiting a distillery, though Tamnavulin – the mill on the hill in Gaelic – did go on to develop a visitor centre in a nearby former wool carding mill, complete with working water wheel.With three pairs of stills and a capacity of four million litres per annum (lpa), Tamnavulin is a comparatively large facility, with approximately the same potential output as Glenmorangie, and is the biggest malt distillery owned by Whyte & Mackay. It came into their possession when Invergordon Distillers was acquired in 1993 after a bitter and prolonged takeover battle, and was mothballed in May 1995, though some 2,000 casks were subsequently filled during a six week period of distillation in 2000.The real prize for Whyte & Mackay was the Invergordon grain distillery, and along with Tamnavulin, both Bruichladdich and Tullibardine distilleries were also closed as surplus to requirements around the same time. The renaissance of both in private hands has been well documented, but Tamnavulin has had to wait considerably longer to begin working once again.Resuming production at a silent distillery may seem just a matter of going in, switching on the lights, firing up the boiler and taking delivery of a consignment of malt, but the reality is very different.Overseeing operations at Tamnavulin is Dave Doig, also manager at Whyte & Mackay’s Fettercairn distillery, where he has worked for 26 years. “Everyone is requiring spirit, there is an overall shortage,” he declares. “We’ve tried to extend the output from our Dalmore, Fettercairn and Jura distilleries, with seven-day working and so on, but that gives us an extra one million litres per annum at the most, whereas Tamnavulin will give us four times that.“We’re also short of Tamnavulin specifically. The distillery never worked that hard, Invergordon never did huge productions at any of its distilleries. Whyte & Mackay has actually looked at reopening it on four different occasions in the past, and the distillery was also nearly sold two or three times while it was closed.” Doig says that his target is to produce one million litres of spirit before Christmas, working on a five day week basis. “That allows us to get everything fully up and running, deal with staff training, and iron out any teething troubles. We will gradually build up from two or three mashes a week to 14 by the end of this year, and then we’ll work for seven days a week in the New Year. Our aim then is 21 mashes per week, which should give us four million litres in total. It may be that we could even produce more than that in future.” He points out the positive affect the recommissioning of Tamnavulin has had on local employment, noting “There’ll be ten permanent new jobs, and while work has been going on there have been 50 or 60 people on site at any one time. We have six operators to start with, but after Christmas we will have an additional two. Each shift comprises a stillman and a mashman, and they will all be dual-trained so they can do both jobs. “Some of the men we’ve taken on have experience of distilling and others don’t.Diageo hired about 45 or 50 staff just before we began work on Tamnavulin, so there’s not too many experienced distillery operators looking for jobs in the area just now.“We have a brewer, an engineer and three warehouseman, in addition to the men on shift. Kevin Macpherson is our brewer, it’s his first job as brewer, but he has a lot of distillery experience.” Macpherson lives just a few miles from Tamnavulin, in Dufftown, and certainly boasts a sound distilling pedigree.“My father was a distillery manager for Chivas,” he says, “and I worked for Chivas in their warehouses. Then I was on shift for five years at Glen Keith distillery and I was also at Allt-à-Bhainne. After that I was taken on to work in the warehouses at Tamnavulin in 2000. Although the distillery wasn’t in production, we had casks coming in from other distilleries to be stored here and casks going out, and we did all the necessary maintenance work on the site. The warehouses were full when I came here.“Getting the job as brewer offers a great challenge, and I’m really enjoying it so far. It’s an exciting time because we are working out the best ways to run the distillery, and it’s a learning curve for everyone involved. In some ways, it’s a blank canvas. It’s good to see the place up and running and not just rotting away.” The first Tamnavulin spirit began to flow during August, and on a practical basis, much of the work required to get the distillery up and running again was comparatively unspectacular, a great deal of it necessary to meet ‘health and safety’ requirements that have become considerably more stringent during the distillery’s dozen years of silence.Dave Doig explains that “The project has a total budget of around £2 million and we got final approval to go ahead at the end of January. The biggest single item of expenditure was total rewiring and instrumentation of the site, followed by work that needed to be done on the effluent plant.“We’ve put a system in place with cooling towers to reduce the amount of water we extract from the river, as basically, a lot of it is recycled. We’re only using eight per cent of what we otherwise would use, but on the other hand, this way we use a lot more electricity. We’ve also put some pretty basic computerisation into the place. The facilities are there to add to the system at a later date if we want. But for now, the work is all still fairly manual and hands on.” Remarkably, Tamnavulin’s six original stills, made by Blair’s of Glasgow, remain in place after more than 40 years.Doig says “The wash stills are quite thin, andmay need to be replaced after the first year of operation, while the spirit stills should be okay for a couple of years.” Doig adds “We will be tankering a lot of new spirit to our blending facility at Invergordon grain distillery, and most of what will be filled into casks and matured on site will be destined for single malt bottlings or older blended whiskies. The two warehouses can hold a total of 39,000 casks, and are currently around two-thirds full, but not all of it is Tamnavulin. The oldest Tamnavulin we have was distilled in 1966, the first year of operation. The plan is to fill the spirit into first fill Bourbon casks as far as possible if it’s going to be used for single malt bottlings.” Dave Doig may be charged with managing Tamnavulin distillery, but another person central to the Tamnavulin story is Whyte & Mackay’s master blender, Richard Paterson. According to Paterson, “Tamnavulin is a typical Speyside malt. It possesses the charm, elegance and finesse that are hallmarks of Speyside whiskies. I think we are seeing a general revival of Speyside malts – people are looking away from some of the heavier whiskies and instead seeking natural elegance.“From a blending perspective, Tamnavulin will always add warmth, charm and much needed elegance and sensuality. It’s the perfect malt to bring balance and harmony to a blend. It is a beautiful woman waiting to seduce its counterparts.“It’s good to have the place back in operation, and I hope it won’t just be a case of having the distillery in production, but that we can eventually get the visitor centre up and running again, too.” Dave Doig makes the point that “A lot of people were involved in the project, it’s been a huge team effort, and it gave us all a great deal of pleasure to see the distillery working again, but I think in a way the challenge is only really starting. The work is not all done. It’s an ongoing process, and every year there will be new stuff to do. It’s really just the beginning in terms of expenses.“Seeing something that’s been unused for so long coming back to life is great. It’s good to see the ‘warmth’ coming back into the place. Distilleries are living things, and it’s fantastic to see the steam rising from the plant again. The steam disappears very quickly into the air, and once it’s not working, a distillery can evaporate very quickly, too.”TASTING TAMNAVULIN
Tamnavulin 12-year-old
40%abvDelicate and floral on the nose, with light malt and fruit gums. Light to medium bodied, fresh, malty and spicy, with a whiff of background smoke. The finish is medium in length, with lingering spice, smoke, and notes of caramel.Tamnavulin Stillman’s Dram 30-year-old
45%abv
Big and attractive on the nose, with sherry, caramel and figs. Lively sherry on the palate, with warmleather, a hint of smoke and stewed fruits. The finish is nutty, with steadily drying oak.