Pouring the dram

Tullibardine distillery is the kind of distillery you drove past close to a hundred times and every time you say ‘next time I’ll have to stop’… On the side of the A9 up to Perth, it is tough to miss indeed but by the time you realise it is there, you missed the highway exit! But I finally did stop, mid-July 2017.

I had very little knowledge of this Highland Single Malt before paying a little visit to the distillery I have to admit, and for sure, I had never tried it before. So entering the visitor centre, I was expecting to get a little feel of what it was. And to be honest, I thought at the start ‘where am I?’. And it was a different feeling than at Diageo’s Glenkinchie: Diageo’s brands are quite famous so even if there was little feel of Glenkinchie identity, there was at least a very clear Diageo corporate identity. Here, at Tullibardine, I struggled identifying the core range of Tullibardine and got lost in the middle of whisky I had never heard of: Muirhead’s Silver Seal, Highland Queen,… I later learnt it was owned by a French wine company: Picard Vins & Spiritueux. It’s a family owned company started in the 1950’s in Burgundy and currently manages 140 hectares of Burgundy, Loire Valley and Rhône Valley vineyards, with some famous AOC’s: Montagny, Mercurey, Côte de Beaune, Chassagne-Montrachet, Pouilly, Sancerre, Condrieu and Châteauneuf-du-Pape… Potentially very good stuff there! Their spirit business unit is called Terroirs Distillers. They own 7 distilleries, all in France’s mainland but Tullibardine and a rum distillery in the island La Réunion. France is a major market for Scotch Whisky and not surprisingly, it was said that 90% of the Tullibardine production is exported.

So wait, where are Highland Queen and Muirhead’s distilled then? No clue… But mind you, Highland Queen is not only the £15 cheap Blended Scotch Whisky in ASDA, it can be some seriously expensive stuff! Well, to make an educated guess, those brand are most likely leaning towards Tullibardine (on the blends or on the single malts) but not advertising clearly the distillery allows more freedom (like changing the distillery if needed) and is not cannibalizing the brands between them. Also, if an independent single malt brand was to be sold, if the distillery was advertised, the new owner would find himself in an awkward situation, with potentially a stock and a marketing plan that is advertising a competitor’s distillery. There is a gentleman rule in the industry to avoid advertising a distillery you don’t own, unless specific contracts are in place of course: big companies wouldn’t want to do so anyway, but smaller companies, won’t take profit of a name they do not own. However, major independent bottlers like Gordon & MacPhail have often specific agreement in place and do indicate the distillery quite often indeed and very often do not compete with the core range of the distillery it actually comes from (special finish, special variation,…). To conclude on this subject if Johnnie Walker, Grant’s, Chivas Regal or J&B (most sold Blended Scotch Whisky) are obviously produced in majority by the company that own the brands, the blend may contain whisky that was produced by competitors’ malt or grain distilleries (make or buy analysis, adjustment of the capacity, stock gap and stock rationalisation,…).

Back to Tullibardine, apart from the NAS range, I failed to identify the core range and came to the conclusion that it may just not exist… The first identified standardly aged Single Malt was a 25 years old for £165 (which is not too bad pricing though). Sure there’s also a 1952 limited edition for £20,000 and a special bottle actually gave an educated guess of what is happening here. A £399 10 years old Single Malt special edition, distilled in 1993, bottled in 2003 after the distillery reopened. Indeed, it has been closed from 1994 to 2003! So there is strong suggestion that the distribution of the stock might actually be pretty ugly with a huge stock gap of 10 years starting more or less 15 years ago, very bad timing for a premium Single Malt Scotch Whisky. I’d be tempted to guess that a standard range with age statement will come in the next few years when stocks are rebuilt.

The NAS range might be pretty young then and is quite eclectic but it seems there’s a clear wine influence, not surprising considering the owner: a sort of cask synergy. Indeed, apart from the traditional advertisement on Bourbon (marketed as ‘Sovereign’) and Sherry (marketed as ‘500’), there’s a Sauternes finish (marketed as ‘225’) and a Burgundy finish (marketed as ‘228’). The market potential of unusual finish is outstanding, latest example is the 21 years old Glenfiddich Winter Storm (Experimental range), a Canadian ice wine finish, got sold out in a matter of days and was priced £200 or so and was said to be outstanding. So the Sauternes finish of Tullibardine is for sure on my ‘to taste’ list! And only between £30 and £45!

The tour guide was Gavin from South Africa. One of a kind. Absolutely brilliant, nice, fun, the romantic kind, anti-establishment in the sense that his moto was ‘drink what you like the way you like it’ and his lack of pretention in the approach of whisky tasting was quite enjoyable. Quite timely, there was a couple of Tweets of Anthony Bourdain that went trending early August 2017: ‘I have no “rules” for drinking Scotch. I have personal preferences. What you do with your drink is your business. All these cretinous websites suggesting I would tell people how to drink their Scotch are being wilfully disingenuous’.

Finally, Gavin was captivated by the magic of what is happening inside the cask, behind closed doors (well, close lid!) and he was for sure great for sharing the passion and the simple fact of meeting him has made the visit worthwhile.

The distillery was not operating when I visited. As I am slowly but surely starting to kind of know how Scotch Whisky is produced, this was not a big deal. It also had the advantage of being quiet, not crowdie, and pictures were allowed everywhere. Also, empty mash tun, empty washbacks and empty stills is something that is interesting to see to realise the actual size of the vessels.

Tullibardine started as a brewery. Operations can be retraced back to 1488 when it’s said that the future James IV of Scotland on his way to his coronation stopped by to purchase beer (later granting them the Royal Charter). But it’s only in the middle of the 20th century that the distillery officially started. So this is an old heritage but quite young operations in the grand scheme of things. The water is coming from Ochil Hills, drawn from the Danny Burn, and is widely recognised spring water. Highland Spring has a bottling plant next to Tullibardine and is bottling the same water in fact.

Tullibardine was owned by Whyte and MacKay, until it was mothballed in 1995 as Whyte and MacKay rationalised its production capacity and was facing challenging times with corporate structure and takeovers. Tullibardine was finally sold to a private equity fund in 2003 (for an alleged £1.1M according to the book Whisky Opus) and was sold to the current owner in 2011 (price rumour £15M).

Back to the visit. It is as often starting by the malting process. It was explained but really the best way to understand it is to visit a traditional malting floor (the best, almost unique, is the one in Balvenie) or a modern large scale malting plant. Barley is coming from the east coast of Scotland and malt is not peaty. The malt consumption was said to be 200T per week, it operates 24h day. There are 2 maintenance periods at Christmas time and right at the time of the visit. So let’s say 48 week’s production at a yield of 400L of pure alcohol, the capacity is 3.84M litres of pure alcohol, like 6.4ML of new make spirit. It sounds rounded up slightly over the top or the idle time may be longer. As a matter of fact, Master of Malt says 2.7ML of pure alcohol capacity.

The destoner will make sure that the mill is doing its job properly as a little rock could jam the cylinders and being a dusty environment it could easily lead to a fire or an explosion. The mill will output the husks, grits and flour and will be split by a sieving process. The tour guide liked the sieving process (so do I actually) finding it very romantic and magical. Then it is proceed to the mash tun, the first water is at 65 degrees, the second at 80 degrees and the last one (as usual it is used as the first water of the next batch) at 90 degrees. The wort needs to cool down to no more than 20 degrees, else that would kill the yeast. Once the yeast is added, the chemical reaction is then leading the wort to increase its temperature. The fermentation is stopping at 10% ABV. If whisky is in essence distilled beer, the ‘beer’ is at a much higher ABV and would actually be undrinkable but here, it is all about yield, not about the taste of the beer. The distillation would be much longer if the ABV of the wort was like 4% or 5%! On the other side, one could argue that a stronger wort would provide better alcohol yield. Yes, but the issue becomes physical and mechanical. Firstly, there is obviously a volume limit on the mash tun. To produce more alcohol the wort needs to be sweeter, it means a higher Original Gravity (OG), so more malt for the amount of water, but this would increase the viscosity and the engine of the mash tun would not be strong enough! The higher the gravity, the higher the required torque required from the engine is. The washbacks are in stainless steel, quite interesting to see them empty to realise how actually deep they are.

Then the first still, the wash still, taking the ABV to around 25%, the spirit safe is operated manually and then the spirit still: 20 minutes of foreshots, then the main cut is roughly 70%. This is basically all about the cut, for sure the OG, the yeast, and materials (copper, wood, stainless steel) have an impact on the taste of the new make spirit, but quite a lot is about the cut and this is what the master distiller can directly influence. As often, by-products are going to farmers and the water is recycled.

The standard visit also includes a warehouse tour. And the perk of a week day during a scheduled maintenance is that we were a total of 3 visitors, so the tour was extensive and the guide wasn’t rushed by any means. Totally worth the £8 fee!

Two great things here. There are two empty opened barrels with a trivia: to guess which one is the Sherry cask, which one is the Bourbon cask, which one is the wine cask. And this is so obvious by nosing them, no mistake possible! The second great thing is to see how casks are tipped, they are basically on rails and it’s much easier to rotate and to have access to the hole to empty it.

There are casks everywhere here, much more than in the previous distillery visited, it looks like a cooperage site! Maybe they were in a reorganisation process during the maintenance, no clue, but indeed, the omnipresence of barrels is striking. There are coopers onsite by the way and some are working there since 3 generations. Well obviously with a decade off!

One of the warehouses (palletised, with a nice pallet jack) has a cask on display marked ‘Cask No. 1’ dated 29/04/2011. This is the date of the wedding of Price William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine Middletown, Duchess of Cambridge. It’s a cask filled on the day of their wedding indeed and Tullibardine hope they will visit at some point, or they can still bottle sometimes and make an official present. They are most probably not the only distillery who thought about a such marketing stunt: small investment but should it work out (in other words, if there is some fuss about it at some point in the papers), this would give a great exposure to any distillery!

The dram at the end is always enjoyable as it gives an impression to have a taste of the history. The tasting room is nicely set up, just a bit dark but a nice and cosy atmosphere. And I was really looking forward to it as I never tried Tullibardine but also knowing there is a huge stock gap out there, to feel if the NAS range is well structured. The Sovereign seems to be the main one of the range. It almost look like white wine, and my colorimetry ‘expertise’ (inverted coma there, an actual guestimate based on spending time – probably too much – in pubs and bars) would lead me to believe it’s well under 10 years old. Quite creamy, there’s the vanilla, cocoa, and pear influence making obvious it’s coming from a Bourbon barrel, no doubt about it! It’s actually quite enjoyable and easy to drink. I tried then the Burgundy finished. In essence this is the Sovereign with a Pinot Noir wine cask finish, for 12 to 14 months. It is more complex, more colourful, it shows the power of wood: a small time in a different cask is drastically changing the profile. It also has the advantage to decrease the number of more expensive casks needed (ex-Bourbon casks are usually the cheaper indeed)! But to be fair, much longer on a wine cask would probably lead to a flavour profile that would be counterproductive as far as what whisky drinkers are expecting.

Gavin made an interesting vocabulary point talking about how casks are blended to reach the recipe (and a scalable volume). He pointed that the use of the word blend is confusing as Blended Scotch Whisky is something obviously different. When casks are tipped they go in a large vat (basically a large tank) and it would be more appropriated to say different casks are ‘vatted’ (the word actually do not exist) to avoid confusion.

To conclude, very worthwhile visit, very nice staff. Although I am usually reluctant to NAS, I left with the appetite to taste more, especially the Sauternes finish… I have left with a bottle indeed! I am also confident (it is pure speculation though) that in a few years another more classic range will be released and the UK exposure will become bigger.

Further reading:

Tullibardine Website : http://www.tullibardine.com/

Tullibardne Distilery Profile: https://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/tullibardine.html

Terroirs Distillers : http://www.terroirsdistillers.com/

Highland Queen Website: http://www.highlandqueen.com

Muirhead’s Website: http://www.muirheads-whisky.com

So, Anthony Bourdain Doesn’t Care How You Drink Your Scotch: https://www.bloombergquint.com/pursuits/2017/08/09/so-anthony-bourdain-doesn-t-care-how-you-drink-your-scotch

Predators circle Tullibardine distillery: http://www.scotsman.com/business/predators-circle-tullibardine-distillery-1-1434958

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