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A resurgent Tamdhu Distillery
By Ian Buxton
Tam who?

Tamdhu. It's not a name that comes easily to mind, or trips off the lips of even a hard-core malt enthusiast. Which is a shame because this classic, late-Victorian distillery, located close to the River Spey, nearneighbour to Knockando (and, not so very far away, Cardhu and The Macallan), definitely deserves to be better known. Right now, though, its luck seems to be changing.

But we haven't in recent years heard very much about it, apart from the bad news of its closure. That's because it was, for the most part, operated by its previous owners Highland Distillers to provide Speyside malt fillings for their blends and to exchange in the market for other whisky they needed. Then they decided that their priorities had changed and decided to mothball it.

That was in April 2010. To my knowledge several potential buyers expressed an interest in taking it on. But, one by one, they dropped out: the distillery was too large for one group to operate cost-effectively and the old mothballed Saladin malting and light grains plant represented a problem; another buyer got close to the finishing line but couldn't quite raise the finance.

But, to some raised eyebrows, it was smoothly and quickly acquired in June 2011 by Ian Macleod Distillers, an independent, family-owned firm of distillers, blenders and bottlers until then best-known for reviving the Glengoyne distillery and for their Isle of Skye blend. Macleod had, of course, previously purchased Glengoyne from Highland Distillers so perhaps the purchase wasn't quite as surprising as it seemed at the time.

However, successful though they had been with Glengoyne, Tamdhu represents quite a step up in scale. While Glengoyne makes around one million litres of spirit annually, a fullyoperational Tamdhu can produce around four times that, making it a very different challenge. What is more, the brand had less previous exposure than Glengoyne giving them less of a foundation to build on.

But Macleod's blended business is in good shape and, with pressure all round on stocks, it made commercial sense for them to secure a second source of supply to ensure their continued independence. In January 2012 Tamdhu was quietly brushed up; eight full-time employees taken on and the distillery made ready to go back into production.

The plant has been quietly gathering speed since then. But there was a lot to do: 14,500 maturing casks to evaluate; new packaging to design; distributors to appoint and brief and a relaunch to plan.

For the technically minded, Tamdhu has an 11.85 tonne semi lauter mash tun; nine Oregon pine wash backs (three of which have been replaced); three pairs of stills and those 14,500 casks maturing in five warehouses. Already around £250,000 has been spent on a new process control system and other refinements and six new warehouses will be erected by September; four more are due to follow.

Visiting Tamdhu, three things strike you: firstly, it's pretty functional in appearance - this is a working place, with uncompromising architecture unlikely to feature on any picture postcards; secondly, they haven't yet got the paint pot out yet, preferring to concentrate on changes which affect the whisky (MD Leonard Russell was at pains to explain that work on the decoration will follow soon enough), but thirdly, there is a determination and authority about the place. A quiet confidence that speaks well of Tamdhu's future prospects.

I've seen this change before when a distillery gets new owners. To an anonymous whisky factory producing largely for blends, the new blood brings energy, investment and a real sense of purpose. The workers move with a fresh spring in their step; the sunshine seems brighter; even the birds seem to sing a happier song.

Tamdhu now has a sense of its own identity again; its pride restored; the faith and confidence of its original owners vindicated.

There's a can do feel about the place, best expressed in the commitment to 100 per cent maturation in Sherry casks for the signature single malt (around £35 in UK specialists) which will shortly be available in world markets, giving malt enthusiasts a long-lost chance to add this grand old lady of Speyside to their drinks cabinet.

There is, of course, a special Limited Edition, restricted to 1,000 bottles for worldwide release (£100). This is available only online from Tamdhu's website. Matured exclusively in first fill Sherry and bottled at 46% abv it's a blockbuster; which I firmly believe will set a new benchmark for Tamdhu. At the Speyside Festival Open Day I was delighted to see the distillery restricting sales to one bottle per visitor; hopefully that means more to go around and fewer bottles in the hands of speculators looking for a quick profit.

The distillery will keep producing for blending, of course. Previously it was used in The Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark and, while that may continue (little was said of continuing filling contracts), I expect much production will shift to supporting Isle of Skye and Macleod's private label business. But a new backbone is provided by the single malts which give credibility and respectability and will rightly boost Tamdhu's profile.

Now all we need is for the old visitor centre to re-open and malt enthusiasts can add a new name to their Speyside itineraries. I'd urge you not to miss it.

Tasting Notes

Tamdhu 10 Years Old 40% ABV

Nose: Rich and inviting; a very classic sherry aroma.

Taste: A good medium weight; dried fruit, chocolate and ripe bananas.

Finish: Alluringly complex, develops tiny whiffs of smoke.

Tamdhu 10 Years Old Limited Edition 46% ABV

Nose: A real block-buster, packed with enticing flavours. Very rich, dark fruit cake and honey.

Taste: A massive, classic, old-fashioned Speyside sherry cask, with the wine notes to the fore but never dominating. If you like Aberlour, Glenfarclas or The Macallan (Sherry Oak) you'll love this.

Finish: Rolls on and on; sensuously caressing your tongue. A malt that keeps on giving.