Although there are numerous angles I could have taken with this review – festival bottlings getting out of hand, for example. (Although I do think we are now in an age where a master distiller could literally wee into a bottle as a festival exclusive and people would gush over it – but festival bottlings are what they are.) But the most cutting-edge and hipster introduction to this piece is going to be about Victorian railways.
The Tamdhu Dalbeallie Dram is about honouring “Dalbeallie train station and the vital role the Victorian railway played in receiving Tamdhu’s precious sherry oak casks from Spain”, so the press release tells us. But marketing being what it is today, there’s no real story for you – in fact, it’s a little misleading to place the emphasis on the sherry casks in that story. The railway wasn’t vital for bringing a bit of wood to Tamdhu – it was Tamdhu’s lifeline.
The railway that Tamdhu plugged into made Speyside what it is today. That’s not an overblown statement. Yes, you need a good supply of water like a river and all that jazz to help create a whisky region, but the fact that a railway connected the new Speyside distilleries to the blending houses down south literally made Speyside the important Scotch region it is today.
You see, the 1860s was a perfect storm for the whisky industry. You had Andrew Usher’s pioneering work into blending, the phylloxera disease striking the French grape harvest, so whisky became the drink of choice across the UK. That meant more distilleries had to be built to meet the nation’s demand. Where are you going to build them? How about the place where an all-new railway line was about to be extended.
The Great North of Scotland Railway was consolidated out the Keith & Dufftown Railway and Strathspey Railway, which could bring barley, coak and barrels to the distilleries, and take away the casks down south. The boring – to our modern sensibilities – planning debates that occurred for the following half a century pretty much carved out the architecture of whisky in Speyside. All the big names wanted a piece of the action.
And there are lots of interesting details if one cares to rummage around in the history books: the Grants of Glenfiddich thought that the train vibrations had a “disturbing effect” on maturing whisky stocks as the engines rattled by the warehouses (look on old maps to see just how close the line went to the distillery). There had to be armed guards on some of the train journeys – as carriages laden with casks drifted slowly along the remote Scottish landscape at night, a sitting duck for anyone who wanted to steal whisky (although those who worked on the lines knew a thing or two about theft themselves). Much, much later on – after WW2 – road transport began to replace the railways, and today these old lines and stations became quirky little tourist attractions. You can walk along the old lines still, and see the old carriages stashed away here and there nearby the distilleries if you’re on the way to Dufftown. And to be fair to Tamdhu, they’re one of the few distilleries who has actually preserved parts of this heritage as part of the visitor experience.
But to have a bit of marketing fluff – “this whisky has something to do with trains that carried a few of our fancy casks” – is a bit of a letdown, because there is proper heritage here and it deserves to be explained. The psychogeography of modern Scotch is entirely down to the railway. But no one cares! Because railways are boring, and I’ve just bored you.
Let’s have a drink then.
Today we’ve got two whiskies. Tamdhu Dalbeallie Dram is the festival bottling for the Spirit of Speyside festival. It costs £90 and only 1,000 are available. It’s bottled at an eye-watering 62.1% ABV, but there seems to be no detail about the cask types or age of whisky.
Tamdhu Single Cask Distillery Team Edition is a revolution in action, in which the distillery team at Tamdhu usurped their master blender and declared that the people should decide what tastes good. I just completely made that up. It’s basically a single cask whisky, chosen by its staff, to celebrate the distillery’s 120-year anniversary. It’s a 15-year-old whisky that’s been matured in a first-fill European oak ex-oloroso Sherry butt. Bottled at 59.3% ABV, it’ll cost you a cool £250.
Tamdhu Single Cask Distillery Team Edition – Review
Colour: cola. Crazy-dark.
On the nose: prunes and figs, with blackberries, raspberries and elderberry. Port. Tiramisu and molasses. Heather honey. Dried oranges. Ginger– all in all, very Christmassy.
In the mouth: softer, sweeter, more rounded than the Dalbeallie, but again – it needs water. Barbequed meats, HP sauce. Plum jam, dried raisins and prunes, but drifting towards hoisin sauce with some sourness. Ginger warmth. Cloves. A very, very long finish, with cloves and pepper, and maybe just a shade too much woodiness.
Tamdhu Dalbeallie Dram – Review
Colour: henna. Very dark indeed.
On the nose: very woody, with pencil boxes and bung cloth aromas. Needs time to open up before the dark fruits arrive. Black Forest gateau. Cherries, and blackcurrant juice (Ribena, undiluted). Bitter dark chocolate and coffee, with cinnamon and prunes. Muscovado sugar.
In the mouth: aggressive flavours, and needs water to tone down the heat and bitterness. The wood lingers a long time, with bitter dark chocolate (85% and up). Then it echoes the nose quite a bit: the cherries, the blackcurrants, with molasses, with the sherry notes then dominating. The wood lingers; hot, peppery, astringent, with some balsamic vinegar edges to it. The wood has dominated this; it’s become too one-sided, just not quite the finesse of the other.
Well, they clearly like their wood at Tamdhu. But I’ll be honest, they’ve completely overcooked the Dalbeallie Dram. It’s been left in something for too long; someone looked away, the smoke alarm went off and the chef burst out and started wafting the tea towel to make the noise stop. Keep in mind that I actually like sherry bombs, it’s unusual for me to think this sort of thing is a bit too much.
The Single Cask Team Edition, however, is rather charming. £250 is a lot of money – I think it’s getting on for £100 too much for the whisky itself if I’m honest (it’s lost a point because of that). But, that said, this is clearly the better of the two. Given it’s their anniversary, I think I can’t begrudge Tamdhu an expensive whisky.