The Best Single Malt Scotch You’ve Probably Never Heard of
When we think of whisky, we think of Scotch. More specifically, we often think of Speyside, that heartbreakingly picturesque valley in Northeastern Scotland. This sparsely populated landscape of hill, glen and barley fields is Scotland’s undisputed whisky capital. It is home to the most legendary of distilleries: Macallan, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich amongst countless others. It likewise plays host to a small number of relatively unknown distilleries who are only too happy to keep a low profile.
One such distillery is Tamdhu. Nestled away in a sweeping meander of the River Spey, its unassuming locale is reinforced with cover from the dense forest which runs along the banks of Scotland’s finest Salmon river.
Whilst many of Speyside’s greatest distilleries were founded immediately after the mass legislative liberation of the whisky trade in the 1820s, Tamdhu came along a little later. It is one of the ‘railway distilleries’ which were built as train tracks began to reach the most rural parts of Strathspey. Indeed, a railway siding serving just the distillery and a local goods yard was built in 1899, shortly after the distillery was constructed and right in time for Tamdhu’s first matured stocks to be sent to market.
Tamdhu’s founders knew exactly which style of Scotch they wanted to craft. Ex-sherry casks made of European oak were imported early on to impart the maturing whisky with a rich and fruity profile. Their foresight paid off; Tamdhu quickly became the darling of Glasgow’s blending houses which favored it for its weightier, more wintery style of distillate that added a much needed heft to the leading blended scotches of the day.
The early ’70s saw an expansion of the distillery followed by the release of Tamdhu as a single malt, meaning that no other whiskies were blended into the recipe. And, as with many distilleries, the increasing availability of American oak, ex-bourbon barrels from the United States meant that Tamdhu’s wood policy shifted to favor bourbon casks and the vanilla-driven notes they impart on their contents.
Thankfully, though, Tamdhu’s original, sherry-driven style was revived in the early ’90s by its owners at Highland Distillers, which later became Edrington. Tamdhu’s spirit was increasingly laid down in bespoke sherry casks from Highland’s choice bodega in Spain which also supplied wood for the other distilleries in their stable, including Macallan. This made Tamdhu and Macallan sister distilleries, the latter sitting a mere seven miles or so downstream on the Spey. It is hardly surprising, then, that comparisons are being drawn between their respective flavor profiles, or “distillery character” to use industry parlance.
Around that time, both distilleries were producing that meaty, sherried style of single malt credited with Macallan’s ascension to whisky royalty. Indeed, few names carry as much reverence and respect in the trade as Macallan’s. But this is not undeserved nor merely the product of “good marketing.” Instead, it is the product of that ingenious wood policy and a staunch refusal to artificially color their malts that has seen Macallan win the hearts and minds of a generation of malt drinkers.
However, as the good word has spread, those with a penchant for that “old school” style of Macallan are finding it harder to track down. Consequently, as demand has skyrocketed, age statements on entry-level bottlings have all but vanished, and have been replaced with a confusing series of retail-esque releases. Similarly, their traditional weathered stone distillery buildings have been replaced with new, ultra-futuristic distillery buildings that house no fewer than 36 stills sitting beneath a striking lattice of modern timber beams.
Tamdhu, however, has taken a much quieter path. After Edrington closed it in 2010, it was rescued by the Russell family of Ian Macleod, the bottling and blending firm known for owning Glengoyne Distillery in the highlands. Under the Russells, Tamdhu has remained a working distillery. There are no commercial tours, and no gift shop. Whilst the Russells are smartening things up, Tamdhu is still very much a working distillery.
As for the whisky, the Russells are dragging Tamdhu out of obsolescence. No longer will Tamdhu exist merely for blending; the family has spared no expense in repositioning Tamdhu as a single malt with its own identity once more. Specifically, the Russells have doubled down on producing a spicy and fruity whisky; maturation is now exclusively in sherry casks once again.
After decades in the whisky wilderness, known only to blenders and industry bods, Tamdhu now has a very respectable presence in the world of single malts. It boasts an approachable core range of ten, twelve and fifteen-year-old malts alongside higher-proofed batch strength releases, all of which can be readily tracked down and afforded. And it has worked; new releases have earned a plethora of gold and double gold awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and International Spirits Challenge. As for older and more limited bottlings, the liquid is equally superb; a single cask of 2003 vintage Tamdhu was crowned the World’s Best Single Cask Whisky at the World Whiskies Awards in 2020.
The new bottlings hark back to that rich and meaty style of Tamdhu from the days of old. They are packed with notes of Christmas spices and stewed fruits and, texturally, are once more showing that heft which, decades ago, first got single malt connoisseurs hooked on Macallan and other giants of Speyside. Correspondingly, those drinkers have taken notice. Those faithful to fireside Scotches which are blood red in color and treacle-driven on the nose have now turned their attention to Speyside’s most underrated distillery.
Moreover, even the top-shelf bottlings stand at a fraction of the cost of the equivalent wares from Tamdhu’s long-lost sister. Most pleasingly, Tamdhu is once again doing exactly what her founders wanted; crafting a rich and traditional single malt that is now finally getting the credit it is due. It may very well be the new Macallan but, more importantly, it is indisputably the old Tamdhu.