Tullibardine Distillery sits just off the longest and one of the busiest roads in Scotland. At 273 miles long I’m comforted that I’m only driving a small portion of the A9 from Inverness and turning off into the village of Blackford, in Perthshire.
The Tullibardine distillery site predates the modern road by some 435 years or so, with its origins as a brewery being traced back to 1488, although it wasn’t until 1947 that renowned distillery architect William Delme-Evans (also known for designing GlenAllachie and Jura) bought, what was at the time, a disused brewery. By 1949 spirit began to flow from what was now Tullibardine Distillery.
What had initially attracted Delme-Evans to the site was the quality of the water that was to be found there. Sitting in the shadow of the Ochil Hills the site was well placed (no pun intended) for a source of quality water. In fact the mineral water company Highland Spring bottles the water from the same area and has its headquarters just along the road from Tullibardine.
By the early 1950’s the distillery was sold to the Glasgow based whisky brokers Brodie Hepburn and Delme-Evans involvement ended. Whyte & MacKay, due to a series of mergers within the whisky industry became owners of the distillery in 1971 and by 1973 had increased production by adding a further two stills.
By 1993 however the distillery was closed and remained so until 2003 when a consortium of businessmen bought the distillery with a view to financing the resurrection of distillation operations by utilising areas of the land around the distillery as a business park.
By 2011 Terroirs Distillers aquired the distillery, themselves a subsidiary of Picard Vins & Spiritueux which is a company of French origin that owns several prestigious vineyards and French spirit brands. PV&S had already acquired the Highland Queen brand of Blended Scotch from Glenmorangie some years previously and had sourced a large amount of spirit from Tullibardine for the blend so it was really only a matter of time and economic sense before they became owners.
If you are owned by a French wine company with access to top quality wine casks then why not use that your advantage? Evidence of this is all around, especially in the warehouse – more on this later.
The area previously used as a business park now houses the Tullibardine warehouses, bottling plant and small scale cooperage, making it one of the few distilleries in Scotland to distill, fill, mature and bottle all on a single site.
The new warehouses mean that there are now 20,000 casks maturing on site which has increased the previous capacity four fold. In fact nearby Strathearn Distillery matures its stock within the Tullibardine warehouses.
The distillery aims to have its entire barley supply to come from within a 20 – 50 mile radius of the distillery but in years of bad harvests will always guarantee that if it is not as local as it wants it will be at least of Scottish origin.
The industry stalwart Porteous mill greets us as we enter the distillery and head up the steep stairs to what is both the mash room and the still house. Based in just one large room the distillery is certainly making efficient use of space. There are 9 stainless steel washbacks, curiously two of which still have their wooden lids. The lack of a swisher arm at the top often sees the fermenting mash (left for 52 hours for those who want to know) bubble up over the top, explaining the need for the grated flooring.
Tullibardine run a 2 pairs of spirt and wash stills to distill approximately 2.5 million litres of spirit per year. 70% of which is used by Tullibardine themselves and the remaining 30% sold on to other companies. Two of the stills were replaced a couple of years ago and you can see the wonderful patchwork of welds and differing patina if you look closely.
From the main building we head towards the nearby filling store and the warehouse.
Moving through the oldest warehouse spying barrels from other distilleries, sherry casks, wine butts and industry standard bourbon barrels I’m lead into the newly refurbished and very impressive tasting room for an overview of the Tullibardine core range.
I am lucky to be led through the entire range by Keith Geddes who has been Tullibardine Master Blender since 2017. In fact Keith is the first person to hold such a position at the distillery.
The appointment of a Master Blender is another indication that the brand are taking big steps to improving its reputation and ensuring that it is producing a quality spirit, no longer just mass producing blending constituent.
Having such a large amount of different casks to experiment with must be one of the key benefits to Keith of owners PV&S’ diverse wine and spirits portfolio. I note that PV&S also own a Cognac company (Louis Royer) perhaps a new Tullibardine Cognac finish in store at some point in the future then? (A question that I should have asked at the time but annoyingly only pops into my head as I travel home)
Interestingly Tullibardine have pretty much eschewed age statements. Their entry level expression The Sovereign is a NAS expression matured exclusively in bourbon barrels.
All of the other expressions in the range are of a broadly similar age to the Sovereign but finished in a different cask type, which gives a horizontal, flavour led tasting experience, rather than a vertical, age led experience. Each expression is named after the capacity of the casks they were matured in.
The 225, finished in Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes Casks.
The 228, finished in Chateau de Chassagne Montrachet Pinot Noir Casks.
The 500, finished in Sherry Casks.
At the higher end of the range there are two age stated expressions:
The 20 year old, which is fully matured in first fill bourbon.
There is also a 25 year old (which I forgot to take a photo of but later found one in the visitor centre) which is fully matured in sherry casks.
There is a lot to be said for being guided through flights of whisky by the person responsible for creating them, it really gives an excellent insight. My thanks to Keith for giving up his afternoon to do just that.
After a nosing of each of the expressions it is back to the visitor centre to collect a few samples (reviews coming soon) The visitor centre itself is airy, bright and a really nice space. It has been open since 2008 and so far this year has attracted in excess of 12,000 visitors.
My thanks to tour guide Linzie, to Keith for the tasting and all the other staff at the distillery for making me feel so welcome.
In the meantime, if you happen to be one of the 142,000 vehicles who travel the A9 every day then why not pop in for a look around?
Details of the various tour options can be found here.
You can find more of my tasting notes in the Amateur Drammers Archives.
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**This was a tour organised on my behalf, however the opinions in the article are mine and neither Terroirs Distillers, Picard Vins & Spiritaux or any of their associated PR companies have had any input or creative control in this article**