Tormore is one of the loveliest-looking distilleries in Scotland. But to appreciate it fully, one needs to drive by the site on the A95. I say to drive, because Tormore is such a piece of architectural magnificence, that at speed you can take in the entire site and get a true sense of scale and proportion, condensed into a space of a few breathtaking seconds. (Just a couple of seconds, if Whisky Rover has his BMW in sport mode.)
Distillery buildings, auxiliary structures, ornamental gardens, topiary hedges, disused fountain, workers’ cottages and manager house, all whiz by to give a very palatial impression. It is a very unusual and impressive distillery to behold. And the next stage of appreciation is to park up and explore, looking at all of those details. Gardens that are so precise, and draw the eye in unusual places. Elegant, sizeable cottages that feel far older than they actually are. The striking green-copper roofing that covers many buildings on the site. And the fountain that – when full of water years ago – would freeze over in winter and be used by the workers as an ice rink.
And, when confronted with this amazing place, consider this fact: most whisky drinkers have never heard of Tormore. There seems to be a huge dissonance between the ambition of the architecture, and the distillery’s actual fate – which is not so much that it hasn’t been a success, but rather that no one really thinks about it.
Tormore is the forgotten whisky palace.
It may appear like something far older, but Tormore distillery was in fact completed in 1959, with its whisky coming online a year later in 1960. It was designed by the celebrated architect, Sir Albert Richardson, who was responsible for structures like the Manchester Opera House as well as a great deal of new and restoration work for ecclesiastical buildings. The owner since 2005 has been Chivas Brothers, which is part of Pernod Ricard, but originally it was Long John International who commissioned the construction. The distillery does not permit tours – however, we were very kindly permitted in by the folks at Chivas Brothers, and shown around by Euan Henderson, Distilleries Team Leader. And why were we permitted? Well, a few of us were at the Spirt of Speyside festival and were actually staying in one of the former distillery cottages, which is now a holiday cottage. It was a case of: either you show us around, or we’re going exploring at night… (It wasn’t, actually. Polite emails were exchanged.)
Despite its elegant charms, Tormore is not some quaint distillery – and Euan was honest and open about the fact. Tormore is a huge whisky producer, and hidden behind its facade is an industrial-looking whisky factory. It has expanded considerably since its construction, its stills doubling from 4 to 8 in 1972. Its stainless steel washbacks now total 11, and are scattered about in different buildings – split 4, 4 and 3. Steel pipework crisscrosses the site, moving liquids in various states back and forth. Simpsons Malt lorries drive around the rear to disgorge many tonnes of Concerto barley. It is a busy place.
There’s a wonderful, very British run-down quality to many of the rear buildings and the interior. There’s no pretentiousness, and in some ways that feels much more genuine. Because it’s such an industrial site, it’s easy to understand why tours are not usually permitted. Letters or signs are just out of alignment. Doors could do with a new coat of paint. A leaky roof somewhere had let in a few drips. These are not the prime concerns of a major distillery whose output largely goes into blends. But actually, I quite liked that. Tormore is at the business-end of the whisky industry, and not some charming little start-up. Say what you want on a bottle: Tormore is the big industrial reality.
As for production, Tormore uses a Lallemand yeast – Mauri Cream. I asked Euan about the yeast types here, as there’s quite a lot of debate about whether the yeast variety has much impact on the final spirit. (In beer production, some companies can be very secretive about their yeast.) And indeed, Tormore had been experimenting with different strains recently. But Euan suggested that all the team could really conclude was that the variety had no impact on the final quality of the spirit at Tormore. Fermentation time was greatly more important, of course, but not the yeast.
The distillery produces between 4-5 million litres of spirit each year. Its 8 hefty stills are heated by steam, via a gas-fired boiler. You can see from the image that there are little arms attached beneath the bigger lyne arm on the stills – these are purifiers, which contain copper plates that ensure additional copper contact. The still room is one of the most impressive places on site, with a wonderful period window sitting above a long double spirit safe. Once distilled, the majority of the spirit heads off at about 68-69% ABV into ex-Bourbon casks.
Now, Tormore does not actually store any whisky on site (don’t worry, we saw to that ourselves and had a huge collection at our cottage) but Euan was kind enough to bring a recent bottling as well as some new make spirit at 68.9% ABV. It possessed a lovely nutty quality, which makes a change from the ‘fruity’ new make that 99% of distilleries declare for their own spirit. We sampled this in the manager’s office, a room that reminded me of some old school headmaster’s office, the whiff of a bygone era. There are suggestions, around the main entrance and offices, that more had been intended for Tormore: wood panelling, a fantastically carved chair, a coat of arms on the wall. But it was not meant to be. Today, given the limited number of releases, Tormore is not really sought out by many single malt aficionados, and certainly unheard of by a good number of casual drinkers. Yet, the place feels too contemporary for their to be many ghosts lingering. It’s a weird and wonderful place.
So there you have it. A remarkably beautiful distillery from the outside, but a practical, rugged whisky-making factory on the inside. Again, Tormore does not allow tours, but it’s well worth simply stopping off at the location to get a sense of the marvellous architecture. It’s easily one of the most impressive distillery sites I’ve ever visited. Though there are just a couple of official bottlings on the market right now – a 16 Year Old for France, and a 14 Year Old for the UK – a few bottlings have appeared as official releases and by independent bottlers over the years. I mentioned that we brought our own to the cottage – at some point, I’ll have to summon the will to review all of these…