Distillery Focus

The Mill on the Hill

Speyside’s teenager comes out from under the radar
By Gavin D. Smith
In 2016, Tamnavulin Distillery celebrated its 50th anniversary by launching a new single malt. It was really more a case of launching a single malt, as few people could remember the last time one was on the market, though apparently it was a 12-years-old and sold well in France, achieving annual sales of some 30,000 cases.

In many businesses, half a century in existence would be an impressive feat, but this is Speyside, this is the Scotch whisky industry, and you will find 20 distilleries with origins in the 19th century within 20 miles of Tamnavulin. As brewer Sam Douglas puts it, “We are very much teenagers as far as Speyside is concerned!”

Tamnavulin – from the Gaelic for ‘mill on the hill’ – is located in wildly beautiful country between Dufftown and Tomintoul, though the distillery itself is probably best described as ‘functional.’ It was a product of the 1960s Scotch whisky boom, being established in 1966 by the Tamnavulin-Glenlivet Distillery Company, a subsidiary of Invergordon Distillers Ltd. Its principal purpose was to supply private label bottlings, which made up much of Invergordon’s business.
In 1993 Whyte & Mackay Ltd acquired Invergordon, principally for its eponymous grain distillery on the Cromarty Firth in the eastern Highlands, and May 1995 saw Tamnavulin mothballed. The distillery was not to fully reopen for 12 years, finally making spirit again in the summer of 2007, though in 2000 some 400,000 litres were distilled during a six-week period by employees of nearby Tomintoul Distillery in order to maintain stock levels of the malt.

While Whyte & Mackay has invested substantially in its Dalmore and Jura brands, and has also paid attention to the traditionally low-profile Fettercairn, Tamnavulin has continued to play its role as a supplier of malt for blending.

As Whyte & Mackay’s head of international malts, Kirsteen Beeston puts it, “Tamnavulin is a whisky that has been very much under the radar, but during the last 18 months to two years, we’ve been very successful with it. We launched Double Cask in 2016, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the distillery. We wanted to recognise that and to give the distillery a chance to shine within the overall Whyte & Mackay portfolio.

“It’s positioned at an affordable level. Effectively our single malts range from Tamnavulin to Jura to Fettercairn to Dalmore – the super-premium. The intention with Double Cask was to offer a signature Speyside single malt at an affordable price and with excellent spirit quality. Drinkers have responded really well. It attracts those looking for an everyday malt and also blended whisky drinkers looking to treat themselves. The repeat business is very good, so people clearly like the whisky.”

All Tamnavulin new-make spirit is filled into first-fill ex-Bourbon casks, and as Beeston says, “We wanted richness and roundness as well as the sweetness and elegance of a classic Speyside to make it most appealing to the largest number of people, so we finish it in sherry casks.

Brewer Sam Douglas adds, “We have two warehouses on site and most new-make spirit goes to Whyte & Mackay’s Invergordon grain distillery and warehousing complex, where the sherry cask finishing takes place. The finishing period is from six months to a year. Sometimes it only takes six months to be ready, and other times it takes longer.”

Crucial to the emergence of Tamnavulin as a single malt of quality has been a major programme of re-casking, with Douglas noting that, “Since 2015, we’ve re-casked some 7,000 out of a total holding of nearly 40,000 casks. We’ve re-casked everything that wasn’t in first-fill Bourbon wood, and the whisky is definitely benefitting from that. The quality of the first-fill casks we’re filling into is very good.

“We changed the shape of the spirit stills before we reopened in 2007, making them shorter and squatter, in order to create a richer, less light whisky, with more depth of flavour.”

The Tamnavulin distillery team consists of eight operators, two warehousemen, Sam Douglas and manager Gareth Morgan.

Douglas explains, “I started out at the opposite end of the whisky business, as it were, working on shipping cased goods to international markets with Diageo. I became really interested in making whisky, and was on secondment to Speyside. The passion of the guys making it got me interested.

"It’s a beautiful part of the world, and I decided to stay. I worked for another whisky company and a brewery before this opportunity with Whyte & Mackay came up, and I’ve been at Tamnavulin for two years now.”

As for the future of Tamnavulin, Kirsteen says that revival of a visitor centre is on the ‘wish list.’ She also declares, “We plan to roll out a new product in time for the Speyside Festival, named Tamnavulin Sherry Edition. There will be more beyond that, but we are committed to offering affordable whisky.”

Master blender, Richard Paterson is of the opinion that red wine finishes suit Tamnavulin, and in the summer of last year a Tempranillo Cask Edition was launched in travel retail.

Kirsteen says, “We have a desire to put Tamnavulin on the single malt map, particularly the Speyside malt map.”