On many occasions in the last few years, we have shared our stories traveling through the Speyside region with its omnipresent distilleries. It seems that every week, another of the existing ones are opening their doors to the public, create visitors’ centres and install good kitchens and lunchrooms to attract many visitors to the distillery grounds. Some however, are harder to get into, and only allow visitors during the Spirit of Speyside festival, annually held at the end of April. Tamdhu is one of these distilleries, and in 2016 we were lucky enough to obtain a pair of tickets and find ourselves en-route to the distillery, coming from Craigellachie.
After about 15 minutes, passing the red signs for the Cardhu distillery, we saw a small brown sign pointing at the Knockando Woolmill, a weavery operated by an actual waterwheel, and a lovely place to stop for a lookabout, buy a new woolen flat-cap or shawl, and have a bite to eat. They serve a great home made soup and a selection of mean sandwiches there. Sadly, we were early in the morning, so there was no need for us to lunch just yet, so we continued down the swerving single lane road, enjoyed the scenery of the green hills and beautiful forests, until we almost drove into the sign of the Tamdhu distillery, suddenly appearing around one of the many corners.
We turned right into the parking lot, snapped some pictures of the surroundings and walked a little down the road onto the bridge where we could see one of the many Speyside river side arms convert into the Knockando Burn where the distillery takes its water from. Back in the car park, we noticed the many different eras around us. The distillery cottages clearly originate from 1897 when the distillery was built, and from there we noticed a mixture of warehouses from the same period up to the 1950’s, when the large industrial building next to it was built. Walking down the large open square in between the various buildings, we were directed to the old railway house down the hill at the other side of the complex, where we could see and hear the river Spey roaring in the background.
The old Dalbeallie railway station opened in 1899 and changed its name to the Knockando station in 1905. It operated as a ticket office until October 1965, shortly after the railway got decommissioned and eventually removed. The station was kept upright and now serves as the Tamdhu Visitors’ Centre and one of the possible starting points of the Spirit of the Spey canoe journeys. We were invited inside and treated on a fully equipped high-tea, including a range of official bottlings and a sip of the distillery’s new make spirit, while distillery manager Sandy explained a little (a lot, actually) about the history of the distillery.
Tamdhu is mostly known with blenders and indie bottlers for their sweet and fatty, spicy whisky and has only recently become more available as a single malt. From the start, the distillery was built by a consortium of blenders to provide such single malt for their blends and assigned renowned distillery architect Charles Doig to build the most modern distillery of its time. It operated for the blending industry until 1927, when it had to close and went silent for two decades. When they reopened shortly after the second world war, major work was done to replace the floor maltings with 10 saladin boxes* in the beginning of the 1950’s, operating the maltings for their own use and Highland Distillers other distilleries. They eventually added two stills in 1972 and two more in 1975. Production was at a high point at those days, and operated until 2009 when the distillery was mothballed and sold in 2011 to its current owner, Ian Macleod distillers, who we know from the GlenGoyne distillery and several blended whiskies, including Pig’s Nose and Smokehead.
The new owners got the distillery operational again in 2012, but sadly refrained from restarting the Saladin boxes, even though they were upgraded only months before the mothballing. The mixture of old and new buildings may not look very attractive from the outside, but they reflect the industrial eras they were built in. If (when?) they demolish the maltings, the site will probably look a lot smarter, but the 10 operational Saladin Boxes to show the public or serve the smaller distilleries in the area with on-spec malt, will be lost forever.
Okay, enough blabbering about that, let us continue about the distillery itself. Since the takeover, a lot of work has been done to update the distillery to fully automate and modernise it to today’s standards, with the switch from crude oil to gas as an energy source as recent as 2016. A lot of work still has to be done for sure, but from the looks of it, they are getting there step by step, just as we ourselves are stepping out of the station building around the distillery to where the malts are taken in.
Tamdhu uses a malted barley specification with a small amount of phenols (peat smoke) added to the malting process, which adds the miniscule amount of smoke to the Tamdhu spirit. The 1967 Porteus mill processes 190 tonnes per week to feed the stainless steel semi lauter mash tun with a capacity of almost 12 tonnes at a time, producing 53.000 litres of clear wort. This wort is transferred into one of the nine 80.000 litre Oregon pine washbacks, where a creamed Mauri yeast is added and left alone for 59 hours, nowadays, a rather long fermentation time.
The tour takes us through various areas of the large complex until we reach the stillhouse, where we find the three sets of stills. Although the sets all come from a different time period, all wash stills have the same shape and size of around 22.500 litres each. The three spirit stills, also identical to each other, have a slightly smaller capacity of about 18.500 litres, and are neatly lined up in an L-shape, producing around three million litres of alcohol per year, all of which drizzles through the heavily declining and short lyearm and shell-and-tube condensers.
Taking us to the warehouses – they have dunnage, racked and palletised varieties, we were treated with a small tasting of cask samples taken from some of the casks on the list for bottling, all from ex-Sherry casks, a policy the present company likes to maintain. We also saw the oldest set of casks the company owns; a handful of casks collectively responsible for the recently released 50 year old Tamdhu, celebrating the 120th anniversary of the distillery. Sadly, these were unavailable for ‘testing’ although there were enough people suddenly born around the dates we could see on the casks…
This ended the tour more or less, but a small number of whisky-geeks (that is; the four of us, MaltKlaus, his brother Johannes, and ourselves) had requested to have a look at the Saladin Boxes at the other side of the square. The abandoned buildings could serve as the perfect spot for a whisky-themed horror movie, and we half expected Pennywise to pop up around the next corner when walking through the rumble, or to find the piercing yellow eyes from the hibernation cocoon of Eugene Tooms in one of the boxes when we arrived there.
When Sandy turned on the lights, we could see the modern labels and wiring of the automated machinery of the maltings, making it clear to us that these maltings were operating until the last mothballing in April 2010. For us, this was a very interesting place to visit and have the opportunity to snap some pictures of a place we are most likely never to see again, simply because more efficient and cost-effective malters have taken over delivery of on-spec malts.
Many thanks to Sandy for taking the time to educate and entertain a large group of information hungry whisky lovers and enrich our knowledge with some of the details and rich history of the production side of whisky and the passion behind the Tamdhu brand. It is a great place to visit, and we recommend to do so if you ever get the chance.
Time for us to drive the short trip up the road and have that late lunch at the Knockando Mill we promised ourselves before we get going to our next adventure at the other distillery down this same path…
Thomas & Ansgar
* A traditional malting floor has 30-40 cm thick layers of wet, steeped barley spread out across a room ready to germinate. This layer has to be turned by hand every couple of hours during a period of 2-3 days, to prevent the malting barley from entangling their growing sprouts. A Saladin box does exactly that, but with a layer of up to 1 meter high, making it more space efficient. Instead of turning the heavy barley by hand, a set of motors is put to work to operate large, vertical screws that go all the way down to the floor of the box, and rotate the barley automatically, moving from one side of the box to the other. The box has a perforated floor to control the temperature of the germinating barley. Modern day maltsters use similar techniques and ideas, but are much larger in scale and circular in shape.