Ian Buxton, Whisky Advocate contributor, takes a look at Tamdhu: the past, the present, and a re-opening.
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 Speyside distillery, located close to the River Spey, near-neighbor to Knockando (and, not so very far away, Cardhu and The Macallan), probably deserves to be better known. But its luck is changing.
We haven’t heard very much about it in recent years, apart from the bad news of its closure. That’s because this Speyside malt was, for the most part, operated by its previous owners Highland Distillers to provide 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 dark grains plant represented a problem; another would-be buyer got close to the finishing line but couldn’t quite raise the finance.
Then, to some raised eyebrows, it was smoothly 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 represented quite a step up in scale. Glengoyne makes around 1 million liters of spirit annually; a fully-operational Tamdhu can produce around 4 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.
That will finally get underway at the forthcoming Speyside Whisky Festival when Tamdhu will open its doors (for one day only; there is no visitor center yet, though given Glengoyne’s success in that field it can only be a matter of time). That’s on Saturday, May 4 (noon to 4 p.m.), when a Victorian-themed “Whisky Fete” will take visitors through the history from 1897 to the present day.
So what will you see and do? For the technically minded, Tamdhu has a twelve-ton semi-lauter mash tun, nine Oregon pine washbacks, three pairs of stills, and those 14,500 casks maturing in five warehouses. The tours will be led by the distillery workers themselves (no work experience students here) and, best of all, visitors will be given a rare opportunity to experience one-off tastings of some single casks, handpicked for the occasion.
There is, of course, a special Limited Edition whisky of which only 1,000 bottles will be released worldwide (price TBD). Festival visitors will be the first to taste and have the chance to buy.
With continued growth and increased numbers of international visitors, the Speyside Festival event will certainly sell out. But, if you’re not lucky enough to snag a ticket, don’t despair; Tamdhu 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.
Once Ian Macleod Distillers get this project behind them, we can only look forward to the next distillery they decide to bring back to life…