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An Exclusive Distillery

What do Edinburgh and St Andrews have in common? The answer is, I know where all their whisky shops are, and I have been harrassing staff in every single one of them in the last fortnight. A Fringe Festival visit with mates and a partial move-in were all the opportunities I needed to browse, faun and covet the latest whiskies available but, as my money is promised to others, I regrettably can only confess lustful glances at the Kilchoman 100% Islay (£80) and a Signatory cask-strength Dalmore 1990 (£60).

Dalmore Distillery-exclusiveIt is on the subject of The Dalmore, in fact, that I intend to expand. I don’t often receive phonecalls from people in distilleries but I certainly look forward to them because almost invariably it is good news. I lifted the phone on Thursday and found The Dalmore distillery on the line, the same distillery that has recently undergone a significant overhaul of their entire visitor-dedicated operations with the renovation project for the visitor centre beginning in March this year, and now with the official announcement of a distillery-exclusive bottling.

In truth, The Dalmore is somewhat late on the distillery-only scene. While it has been flogging achingly stylish and ancient bottles of whisky from auction houses, companies such as Diageo and Edrington Group have been rewarding dedicated individuals who have taken the time to venture to their distilleries with a unique bottling that encapuslates their visit. Such whiskies – whether already packaged or as part of a hand-bottling initiative – are not gimmicks. For those who are passionate about provenance and the total spectrum of a distillery’s nature, a pilgrimage to the distillery itself is essential to gain a more complete understanding of the place. It is not enough simply to drink the whisky: they believe that only by approaching the site, sensing its flavours, learning its history, observing and even participating in the production process as generations have done before them, the true extent of the whisky’s personality will be revealed and will enhance the tangible product. The distillery-exclusive, then, is not the sole reason for making the journey; rather, it is adopted as an embodiment of particular values and sympathies, purchased to express one’s conviction that whisky is so much more than what is in the bottle.

This is why visitor centres – and well-appointed, imaginative and sensitive visitor centres in particular – are so important. They induct the visitor into the workings and heritage of the distillery, and provide a rubric from which to commune with it. Visitor centres demonstrate with particular power that this whisky could not be made anywhere else. Single malt Scotch whisky is a located entity: place and people matter.

The Dalmore distillery, on the shores of the Cromarthy Firth.

The Dalmore distillery, on the shores of the Cromarthy Firth.

I applaud Whyte & Mackay, therefore, for twigging on this point. Yes, the sales figures across international markets are impressive – record-breaking, even – but none of it would have been possible without the buildings and passion spread over a few acres on the Cromarthy Firth. As my informant told me: ‘we had an Italian gentleman visit us the other week, and there he was sitting in the manager’s office enjoying a dram of the 1263 King Alexander III and I said to him: “there really is nowhere better to drink The Dalmore”.’ I was assured that there were aspects of the new visitor facilities found ‘nowhere else in Scotland’. The extent to which this is fundamentally true is neither here nor there; the critical sentiment is that the company have put sufficient investment into this far-flung, beautiful part of Scotland. The local community are encouraged to make a fuss about their distillery again and impress upon visitors how much the surrounding culture impacts upon the spirit which you will find throughout the world.

With this new single cask release, every fan of The Dalmore is implored to bring their passion home to Alness, Ross-shire, where it was made possible in the first place. To visit a distillery with the attitude of a devotee is to reveal an affinity for the locality and community, to manifest and recognise a relationship with the distillery which was inspired by the social and environmental traces the origins of a whisky invariably superimpose upon it. It is a reconnection. ‘Come to The Dalmore distillery,’ this latest launch declares, ‘and discover there this unique, limited whisky which epitomises all the qualities you hold to be unique about The Dalmore in general.’

It is time to re-establish the link between bottlings like these, a decoration for the few, and the distillery on which a whole community and legacy was built.

It is time to re-establish the link between bottlings like these, a decoration for the few, and the distillery on which a whole community and legacy was built.

It is my belief that Whyte & Mackay recognise that, in these euphoric times for whisky, authenticity is crucial. If you premiumise your product then your front-of-house facilities and experiences on offer must mirror this. I am hopeful that now The Dalmore, like its arch rival The Macallan, will endeavour to make tangible for the visitor the marketing and image-making associated with the brand. With the interest that the ultra-premium releases have generated, people arrive at The Dalmore expecting to be physically enfolded in this notion of the superlative: the best, most-exclusive whiskies demand a corresponding attention to detail in the demonstration of the plant that created them. The Dalmore has a lot to live up to as it strives to put the style back in to the substance.

There remain just under 250 bottles of this 20-year-old single cask ex-Sherry Butt, from an initial limited release of 450. The strength is 46% abv. and the price is £150. Reservations can be made with the distillery, but purchasers must collect their bottle from the distillery itself.

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The Dalmore

Not one design scheme, but several. Some Czech folk who were touring found it a little claustrophobic and noisy.

Not one design scheme, but several. Some Czech folk who were touring found it a little claustrophobic and noisy.

Alness, Ross-shire, IV17 0UT, 01349 882362. Whyte & Mackay. www.thedalmore.com

NB: Due to large-scale refurbishment of the entire distillery, there will be no tours until the first week in May.

The coveted 62YO Dalmore.

The coveted 62YO Dalmore.

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      Higgledy-piggledy is a good way of describing this distillery. For those who don’t know this term, the general feeling is one of fitting things in any-old-how, with architecture adapting to accommodate as and when required. There are a number of ramshackle buildings and odd connecting corridors and extensions. In short, it is the archetypal farm distillery gone big. The location right on the bansk of the Cromarty Firth is truly lovely. The Black Isle glowed and emerald green on the day of my visit.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £2. See ‘My Tour’ below, but best to contact the visitor centre prior to your visit for full details and options.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      Wait and see: current as of the 26/01/2011, four casks are under consideration for a single cask release. Richard Paterson will get the final say-so as to what will be bottled, but it will be available only at the distillery. Early price indicator is between £100-200. TBA.

My Tour – 30/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      The spirit run at The Dalmore must be a complicated one to co-ordinate. The still house is in two parts, and there appear to be a whole range of different-sized stills. The spirit stills have waterjackets and the wash stills have flat tops. In both cases the reason behind their designs is due to the cramped conditions: ceiling height is low so the tops of the wash stills have effectively been lopped off and the waterjackets, by cooling the neck of the still, effectively replicate the conditions found in a much taller still as only the lightest vapours can travel up the neck without condensing and returning to the bottom. The warehouse is stupendous: all of those exotic woods holding big, rich, Dalmore spirit right by the tidal firth is quite an orgy of aromas.

I could not be trusted with the key to this vault of delight.

I could not be trusted with the key to this vault of delight.

GENEROSITY:      * (1 dram)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      7/10 *s

COMMENTS:      It was a joy to finally arrive at this distillery whose profile has risen since the sale of the 62YO for a record figure and the work of master blender Richard Paterson. The distillery is right down by the Cromarty Firth, and its construction is wonderfully hap-hazard. It started off as a farm distillery and grew and grew when money allowed. The tour did not disappoint, either. The still house is deeply unusual: a mixture of short and tall wash stills. The spirit stills have their waterjackets, which trick the alcohol vapours into thinking the still is taller than it really is. As I said above, the unusual dimensions of the equipment was due to considerations of space and it is one of the most idiosyncratic distilleries I have come across so far. It was a little too idiosyncratic for my fellow tourists from the Czech Republic. As I ate my lunch in the blazing sun by the shore, the butter I’d purloined from my B&B melting fast, one of the gents came across and asked if I could recommend somewhere for them to visit that was a bit less noisy and more open. For them, they found it difficult to hear and understand over the noise of production and couldn’t follow the chain of the process I got the map out and pointed to Glenmorangie. My first request for advice! The warehouse visit was very special for me, and was the first time a guide has ever mentioned that most significant of extra ingredients: terroir. The melange of casks used by The Dalmore added greater complexity to the delicious, sweet fug of the darkness. There were the Matusalem butts that go into my beloved 15YO – the first filled in the new millenium. There was a big party to mark the occasion, apparently, and volunteer rates to police the event were at a higher level than normal. Their oldest barrel was on the bottom level of a rack just in front of us: a 1951 Bourbon hoggie. They weren’t there for my tour, but normally there are casks to nose. This is a tour worth taking, although maybe not if you are Czech and new to the process! As an aside, not even The Macallan can match this distillery’s self-promotion as a luxury brand. The opening DVD is sumptuous and very professional, but you are left in no doubt as to the lifestyle element in The Dalmore marketing. When they deal with the range, only the most expensive are dealt with. They also talk about that famous 62-year-old. You look to the front right, and there’s a bottle, kept for posterity. Oh yes…

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