Distillery Focus

Tullibardine triumphant

After overcoming many challenges, there’s a bright future ahead for Blackford’s distillery
By Christopher Coates
It’s fair to say that Tullibardine has had some ups and downs over the years. The brainchild of famed distillery developer William Delmé-Evans, who was also responsible for the Jura and Glenallachie distilleries, it was completed in 1949 and is often said to be the first distillery to be built in Scotland after the infamous ‘Pattison crash’ of the late 19th century. While it’s true that this event precipitated a slump in the industry that led to many casualties and an end to that particular wave of distillery building, there are in fact two 20th-century projects that predate Tullibardine – Malt Mill (1908) and Inverleven (1938).

The site chosen by Delmé-Evans was that of an old brewery in Blackford, a village in Perthshire that’s just off the A9. The area has a long brewing tradition that stretches back at least as far as 1488, when records indicate that King James IV stopped to purchase beer from a brewery in the area. Later, there was a maltings and a number of breweries. Today, Blackford is also home to the bottled water company Highland Spring, which gives an inkling as to the quality and abundance of the water coming off the nearby Ochil Hills.

In the early days, Tullibardine produced at full capacity and business flourished. That is, however, until its principal fillings customer attempted a hostile takeover by slashing its orders and squeezing the distillery’s cash flow. As predicted, this forced the sale of the site and their intention was to acquire it at a cut-down price. Fortunately, Delmé-Evans received a more reasonable offer from the Glasgow-based broker and blender Brodie Hepburn, to whom the sale was completed in 1953.

There’s been a flurry of investment at the distillery that has seen the company take control of almost all areas of production, from malt delivery to distilling, warehousing to packaging.

Less than two decades later, in 1971, this new owner was bought by Invergordon Distillers, who added a second pair of stills to the distillery during a renovation in 1973, before they too were subject to a hostile takeover, this time by Whyte & Mackay, in 1993. Sadly, it saw Tullibardine as an unneeded part of the acquisition and mothballed it in 1994, beginning just under a decade of silence at the site.

This sad period in Tullibardine’s history lasted until it was purchased by a group of private investors led by Mike Beamish and Doug Ross in 2003 for £1.1 million. The purchase was part of a £10 million redevelopment of the site that saw the addition of 55,000 square feet of retail space that was sold on to a property developer.

Unfortunately, the latter venture was unsuccessful and in recent years the site had been vacated and was becoming a bit of an eyesore.
Then, in 2011, Tullibardine was acquired by Terroir Distillers, a subsidiary of the French drinks group Maison Michel Picard. Starting off as a small wine company, Michel Picard bought the business from his father when it was still in its infancy, invested in vineyards and bottling facilities, and built up the business.

Later, the company, which is still family owned and now counts the third generation of the family among its management, began producing own-label pastis for supermarkets before moving into other spirits. In time, they began bottling private-label Scotch whisky for France, before acquiring the Highland Queen and Muirhead brands from The Glenmorangie Company Ltd in 2008. After initially buying mature stock for those products, Terroir Distillers soon began commissioning their own fillings, including from Tullibardine, which made purchasing the Blackford site a key step in securing whisky supply for the future.

Since then there’s been a flurry of investment at the distillery that has seen the company take control of almost all areas of production, from malt delivery to distilling, warehousing to packaging. After buying back the adjacent retail space, the company has systematically converted these buildings for distillery use. Some of this space is now used for racked warehousing (approximately 20,000 casks can now be stored on site), while other areas have been transformed into a new blending, bottling and packaging facility by virtue of installing a fully-automated bottling line, a chill filtering system, and a number of blending vats.

With the exception of malting, everything can now be done on site.
An on-site cooperage (with a full-time cooper in residence) was the logical next step in the company’s push for independence in its whisky operation as, naturally, wood is a key factor in any distillery’s future. This is particularly true at Tullibardine, however, because of the distillery’s past focus on third-party fillings, which means much of the wood being disgorged on site was not owned. In response to this, the second area of heavy investment has been in owned wood. Of course, as the distillery now counts a number of vineyards among its wider family, there’s no shortage of wine casks from prominent estates. Among these are those used to produce the 228 Burgundy Finish expression, a release that's the result of transferring the first-fill Bourbon matured Sovereign expression into Pinot Noir barriques from Chateau de Chassagne Montrachet for 18 months.

Thankfully, what was filled by the previous owners went into quality wood. “It was almost exclusively first-fill Bourbon, some sherry, some wines,” says John. “They also bought back quite a lot of older stock of Tullibardine too.”

The final area of focus has been what every strong whisky brand needs – expertise. A graduate of Heriot-Watt University’s famous Brewing and Distilling course, John Torrance’s studies first took him to Tennent Caledonian Breweries in Glasgow and The Glenmorangie Company’s Broxburn site. Soon after came a series of jobs with Diageo that spanned lab work at Port Dundas, operations roles on Speyside, and bottling-site management at Shieldhall. It was a résumé that made him a perfect addition to Terroir Distillers’ plans for Tullibardine, where he started as distillery manager in December 2013. “I cover everything from malt purchase to cased goods going out to market,” he explains. “There’s not much in between that I’m not covering. I love getting that variety!”

The one area not being covered by John, however, is blending. It’s for this reason that in May this year Tullibardine appointed its first ever master blender – Keith Geddes. An industry veteran who starting out in production positions at Chivas Brothers' distilleries, Keith later moved to work for that company’s blending team alongside Colin Scott and, later, Sandy Hyslop. Nine years ago, he then moved to Dewar’s and has been working there alongside Stephanie Macleod, most recently on the Last Great Malts series.

Since joining Tullibardine, Keith has spent the past few months assessing the distillery’s inventory, building filling plans and gathering his thoughts for upcoming expressions. Of course, this will be no easy task on account of the gaps in the stock portfolio that are the legacy of many years of low production, a historic business focus on sales of spirit to third parties, and the distillery’s decade of silence. Thankfully, what was filled by the previous owners went into quality wood. “It was almost exclusively first-fill Bourbon, some sherry, some wines,” says John. “They also bought back quite a lot of older stock of Tullibardine too.”

This existence of this high-quality aged stock is what has led to the release of 20 and 25 Years Old expressions, and the highly praised Custodian Collection releases, which included the 44 Years Old, 1970 vintage release that picked up one of the highest blind tasting score of any whisky reviewed in this publication for the past five years (See: Whisky Magazine #139).

Undoubtedly, this sets a daunting precedent for high standards, but Keith is clearly optimistic about the years ahead. He seems especially intrigued by the prospect of experimenting with wood sourced from elsewhere within Maison Michel Picard but is adamant that his primary focus is safeguarding the future of the existing expressions. As for new releases, he remains tight-lipped about what's around the corner.

What we can be sure of, however, is that we’ll be seeing a lot more Tullibardine on the shelves in the future. Terroir Distillers have big plans for the brand’s expansion and are laying down more than enough stock to supply its growing UK and international markets. In fact, the distillery is now operating close to its full production capacity. Nevertheless, there are no plans for big changes to the production equipment, which has remained largely unchanged since its refit in the 1970s. “We’ve added in a couple of select bits of automation to ensure we’re getting the consistency we want, namely still run-off rates and mashing temperature control,” says John. “But most of what we do is still very hands on, this isn’t distillation via computer screen!”

Instead, the next cheque to sign will be for the new visitor centre, which will mark the final phase of redevelopment at the site. What’s beyond doubt is that the Picard family are playing the long game at Tullibardine. They’re spending with the knowledge that the big return isn’t coming tomorrow or even next year. Instead, they’re laying strong foundations that will secure what’s shaping up to be a bright future for this once-neglected distillery and its people.
Taking a break in the warehouse
Taking a break in the warehouse
Dumping the spirit
Dumping the spirit
Checking the still
Checking the still
The spirit safe
The spirit safe
Sampling whisky from the cask
Sampling whisky from the cask