The Dalmore is a sleeping giant but it’s starting to stir. Dominic Roskrow visited one of Scotland’s strangest distilleries
Early summer in the Highlands, and the scene outside the distillery is one of utter tranquillity.
The tide’s out so Cromarty Firth is a mass of sand dune and rivulets. A watery sun casts shadows across the estuary where sea birds are feeding at what turns out to be the end of one of the distillery’s waste water pipes, where fish are attracted by the protein and warmer water. Two boys nonchalantly throw stones in to the water. All, it seems, is well with the world. But not for long.
“We’re all doomed,” someone bellows from the still room in their best Fraser-like manner. There’s a cackle of laughter, a flurry of activity and a couple of shouts, and then silence falls once more like the whole incident never happened. Welcome to the eccentric world that is the Dalmore Distillery.
It might look like a beacon or serenity with its battered Highland stone walls and imposing coastal facade, but you don’t have to go very beneath the surface to discover that working at the distillery is akin to steering a speedboat through a gale. There are distilleries where the stillman turns up, presses some buttons and sits back with one eye on the computer screen and the other on the day’s sport pages, but Dalmore isn’t one of them.
Making spirit here is an edge of the seat experience, a daily challenge to tame the distillery’s production quirks and to sidestep the restraints nature imposes on it because of its location. Optimists would say there’s never a dull moment; pessimists, that making malt is a pain in the proverbial butt. No-one questions whether it’s worth it, though. It’s what makes The Dalmore what it is.
We don’t hear nearly enough about The Dalmore. It is arguably Scotland’s biggest sleeping giant, a spirit that ages better than almost any other malt and has commanded some of the highest prices ever paid for a bottle of whisky. It is characterised by its luxury and quality.
It is the best whisky in the Whyte & Mackay stable, but a succession of management changes and conflicting business strategies have done it few favours. The whisky exudes style and panache but it is rarely mentioned in conversations about iconic malts. And it should be.
Now, it seems, it might be set for a place in the sun. When Indian businessman Vijay Mallya purchased Whyte & Mackay he could afford to be sentimental about acquiring Isle of Jura – it was his father’s favourite malt – but his business head will have been focused on The Dalmore. The Dalmore range has been crying out for a reappraisal, and now it’s getting it.
And so it is that I’m at the distillery with David Robertson, the former distiller at The Macallan and the man now charged with putting The Dalmore to the fore in the premium whisky sector and with re-introducing it to serious malt drinkers across the world. And he’s about to try and explain exactly why distillation here is such a challenging and complex experience.
First, though, there’s the small matter of the sudden rush of panic that greeted us as we arrived. There is concern over the distillery’s water supply, but at Dalmore there’s always concern over the water supply. It is one of the first distilleries to be forced to close in times of drought. Last year it shut in early spring because of the lack of snow in the Highlands, though a wet summer saved it.
And it lives on a constant knife edge. Indeed as we stand outside the distillery buildings where the spring water enters the distillery we can see the water levels fall in the concrete waterways that guide the valuable resource through the plant. A wet water mark of about 15 centimetres shows how rapidly the levels have fallen. It’s like watching a canal lock empty.
The reason is a simple one. All the distillery’s water comes from a reservoir above the distillery and must travel over the top of a wall before descending down the hill and in to the distillery. When the water levels up there fall below the height of the wall the water just stops.
But that’s just the start of the problems because even with plentiful water this is no easy ride, and the reason is contained in the still room. Nothing can quite prepare you for it. It comprises two groups four stills are separated by a walkway and it’s clear at once that there can be no neat pairing of wash and spirit stills, or a uniform approach to distillation.
The four wash stills are a mix of shapes and sizes but you can see they are related because they have curious flat tops rather than swan necks. In stark contrast the spirits stills are more ordered but stand out as unique because they are coated in copper water jackets.
“This allows cold water to be passed over the outside of the copper,” David Robertson explains. “This helps reflux take place, increasing the amount of vapour that is turned back to liquid rather than pass through the system. The system ensures that the heavier and less positively aromatic spirits are returned to the bottom of the still.”
The mix of wash stills and the unusual cooling system are crucial to the development of the new spirit, which is complex and multi-layered with flavour. But the array of wash still sizes create a challenge to the still man here, and it’s compounded by the way the spirits stills are charged.
“After the first distillation the low wines from all four wash stills goes in to one receiver,” explains David. “The recycled portions from the spirits stills are also stored here. Whenever a spirit still needs filling for the next distillation it will take its charge from this holding tank, no matter what’s in there. But this makes it very complex.”
In practice the contents of the receiver will vary widely in alcoholic strength and it’s a hit and miss affair. What if, for instance, all four spirit stills are recycling foreshots at the same time? If low wines from the wash still with an ABV of 21% are mixed with the strong foreshots from the previous distillations, the mix will enter the spirits still at a relatively high strength. If, on the other hand, they are mixed with a high proportion of the relatively weak feints, the strength will be much lower.
It’s like throwing four dice: the scores will tend to even themselves out and fall between 12 and 20, but it is possible for a 24 to come up, or a four.
The end result of all this is that the spirit coming off the still does so at a range of different strengths, making the still man’s job a little like trying to fly a kite in a gale. And it’s possible to have a blank run – when the spirits charge has metaphorically thrown a four and even the very earliest foreshots barely reach the cutting strength, making the middle cut too weak to make collecting it worthwhile.
It’s a strange, archaic and demanding system but it not only works but it produces an oral rainbow of a spirit, one that is complex and aromatic but which can withstand long periods of maturation.
No less care is taken with cask selection, either, and a mix of first fill bourbon casks and aged sherry casks from the bodegas of Gonzalez Byass ensure that the quality of The Dalmore is never compromised.
And it’s just got better. As part of the repositioning exercise master blender Richard Paterson was given free rein to reinvent the Dalmore range and he has so with some aplomb. There are six bottling in the new range, from 12 years old to 40, and only one of them is anything less than truly exceptional. What started life as a feisty stallion of a malt has been groomed to perfection, and through stylish and luxurious packaging it has been dressed up as a thoroughbred.
The famous Royal stag emblem, bequeathed to the distillery’s owners by Alexander III after one of their clan saved him from a stag during a hunting incident some 750 years ago, is now highlighted but the bell-shaped bottles give the range a sense of style and gravitas.
Now David Robertson and his team are targeting the luxury market to put The Dalmore firmly back on the map. in the luxury market. He makes no bones about it occupying the very top end of the premium whisky market, with the 12 Year Old retailing at about £35, and the new 40 year climbing above the £1350 mark.
Anyone who has met David Robertson or Richard Paterson will know they’re not above gimmicks and having fun with their stock, either. In one of the warehouses there is a small sealed off area where some 60 year old plus whisky is being held. Expect to hear more about it later this year as Whyte & Mackay sets about breaking price records. Quite what they’ll do with it remains a mystery but no hair-brained scheme has been counted out yet, so undoubtedly it’ll be spectacular.
“If you look at the way all luxury goods are promoted then it’s normal to focus on the very exclusive top of the range items,” Robertson says. “You highlight the most expensive and luxurious BMWs in the hope that people will aspire to that but buy a car from a lower series because they want to be associated with the brand. So it should be with luxury whisky.”
These are exciting times for The Dalmore, and the deep-set company cynicism seems to have thawed as quickly as this year’s winter snow did. As we wander back through the distillery towards the offices to taste the new range the silence has returned. There is no further shouting from the still room. No more panic. The water levels seem to have steadied.
They’re all doomed? The Dalmore? Who do you think you are kidding…
The Dalmore 12 40%
Nose: Fresh oranges, some berry fruits, cake mix.
Palate: Very clean, with blood oranges red fruits and spices
Finish: Medium and warming
Gran Reserva 40%
Nose: Lemon and orange peel, tangy and more spice, dry fruits
Palate: Fuller on the mouth than the 12 year old, with orange marmalade, wood and spices
Finish: Rich and lingering
The Dalmore 15 year old 40%
Nose: Sherry, juicy raisins, church polish like a church on Easter Sunday morning
Palate: Bucket-loads of citrus and rich fruit, vanilla, cinnamon and sweet spices
Finish: A heady three way battle between fruit, tannins and spices
The 1263 King Alexander 111 40%
Nose: This is made with whisky from oloroso sherry casks, Madeira buts, vintage bourbon barrels and Cabernet Sauvignon barriques. It smells like it. Loads going on with lots of red fruit, vanilla, plum, red liquorice. Amazing.
Palate; definite orange but lots of stewed fruits too, with the red liquorice showing up and some maraschino cherry notes
Finish: Superbly put together. There’s a lovely rounded quality to itand a nice hint of wood. It isn’t in any hurry to leave, either
The 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon 45%
Nose: Oddly restrained with an almost musty note. Quite floral
Palate: Again, not as assertive as you might expect. Grapes, prunes, vanilla and liquorice all popping up in the mix
Finish: Medium, fairly fruity and a touch of wine and wood
The 40 40%
Nose: Rich orange and currants, pruney, venerable
Palate: Remarkably light-footed for its age, but with plum, oranges, nutmeg and dark chocolate. Wonderful
Finish Long, warming and stunning