The last time Whisky Magazine caught up with the team at Tullibardine, back in 2017, the Perthshire distillery was riding high. Investment from its new owners Terroirs Distillers (which acquired Tullibardine in 2011) had brought most processes on site; there was a new focus on owned wood; a new master blender in Keith Geddes; and plans for a visitor centre.
When I catch up with general manager Mike Elliott in mid-2021, despite the challenges of Covid-19, the Blackford distillery has just as much positive news to talk about. “I guess the headline is ‘quite a lot’,” is his response to my asking what they’ve been up to over the past four years. In fact, he and his team are gearing up to welcome back visitors to the site, which has remained largely closed (except for retail which reopened on 26 April) over the past 12 months or so.
New products, a refreshed look, tweaked processes, another new blender, and more, mean visitors to the distillery have even more to look forward to now the doors have reopened. Four years on, things have certainly changed.
Literally speaking, the product looks different. In November last year, the brand released new brand design and packaging for its Signature range, using lighter cardboard made from responsibly sourced materials from local forests. It’s also incorporated coloured headbands on the finishes. “The redesign was our response to market trends and also a look at our environmental footprint,” explains Elliott. “We wanted to raise the profile of the brand and we used the redesign to bring it back to the craft and character [of Tullibardine].”
There have also been some exciting additions to the portfolio too. As well as a tasting collection of four of its Signature range expressions last summer, earlier in 2020, it launched the Tullibardine 15 Years Old (which Elliott describes as “a real standout”) as part of its Fine Aged Collection, and has continued to release new expressions in its Marquess Collection, most recently The Murray Double Wood edition in March 2021. The single malt has been aged in first-fill bourbon casks before being moved into first-fill sherry casks.
Being able to create these limited-edition whiskies is a treat not just for consumers, but for the team too: “It’s a great avenue to show our versatility, and getting that balance between a fantastic taste profile and doing something innovative – it’s really interesting for everyone on site.”
There has also been the launch of the distillery-exclusive bottles, with the latest being its third. These are a chance for the team to experiment with different cask types, are non-chill filtered and are only available at the distillery. They are also deeply entwined with the team at the distillery, with each bottling named after a team member who also gets to choose the cask.
And then there’s the Custodian’s Collection. Made using inventory from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, these single malts are some of the rarest and most valuable on the market. In 2020, the Tullibardine 1964 joined the range which already included bottlings of spirit distilled in 1952 and 1970. Elliott confirms more will be coming, although not this year.
What we do know will be coming soon is the long-awaited Tullibardine 18 Years Old, which is launching in early 2022. “We are already monitoring the casks now,” reveals Elliott, who admits he and the team are rather excited about the release.
These new products are also the manifestation of the work that has been going into the distillery’s production methods over the past few years. Elliott informs me that back in 2017 there was a lot of work going on in terms of mashing cycles, and now the team’s key focus is on optimising processes and increasing capacity, while maintaining Tullibardine’s profile. In 2017, the alcohol output was around 2.3 million lpa per annum; this year, the team are aiming for close to three million.
The spirit safe
Of course none of this would be possible without the distillery’s new blender, Robert 'Rab' Sorman. Previously head blender for Glenmorangie, Sorman brings with him a huge wealth of experience working in-house and as a consultant. He has also been working closely with Elliott on the future of Tullibardine’s inventory.
Ever looking forward, the distillery has also had a new addition with the introduction of the Tasting Bond, where visitors end their tour with a tasting. Some changes have also been made to the route of the tour, while a new tank facility is due in July.
Those without easy access to the distillery are increasingly getting to taste Tullibardine, too. This year, it launched its Artisan Single Malt and 12 Years Old single malt in the US, and more international exports are in the pipeline too.
While Covid may have put a stop to visitors and certain partnerships with the on-trade, it’s fair to say that the Tullibardine team have more than weathered the storm. And, as the doors reopen to its many fans, Elliott is keen to impress how fortuitous the circumstances of the past few years have been and how grateful they are: “Covid has been challenging but it has made us feel very lucky to be in the industry we’re part of. From an industry sector perspective, we’re very lucky to be excited about reopening .”