The Dalmore today is associated with high quality and an aura of luxury that the current owners, Whyte & Mackay, have worked hard to establish under the guidance of Master Blender Richard Paterson. It’s difficult not to be dazzled by the bling of some of the Dalmore’s recent releases including a 50-year-old expression in 2017 to celebrate Paterson’s 5 decades working in the industry. This very limited bottling was a product of several types of casks being used during its maturation, a favourite ploy from their master blender, before being finished for 50 days in Henri Giraud Champagne casks. The price tag for this luxury item? Yes, just £50,000 to keep the numerical theme alive.
For all the fanfare and slick branding associated with Dalmore today, it’s hard to believe that it started out in 1839 as a farm distillery. Founded by Alexander Matheson, he leased out the enterprise to the Sunderland family until 1867, when a trio of Mackenzie brothers took over the reins having previously been local farmers. This region of Scotland is dominated by arable farming landscapes, clean water and transport links to Inverness and beyond with a nearby railway. The regional capital harboured a trio of distilleries, while closer to Dalmore you have Glenmorangie and Balblair, with Teaninich a short walk from the distillery.
Dalmore itself is set on an idyllic spot, overlooking the Cromarty Firth and on the fringes of the village of Alness. It’s just off the major A9 road and is very accessible if you are in the area looking for a distillery tour. Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed within the distillery, but outdoors there are plenty of photo opportunities including the view across the Firth towards the Black Isle.
The distillery was sold to the MacKenzie brothers in 1886, who set about enhancing its growing reputation as a single malt. Unfortunately, during the First World War the distillery was used as a facility by the United States Navy to manufacture deep sea mines and this played a part in a fire that ravaged the distillery. It wasn’t until 1922 that production resumed once again on the site partially due to the legal wrangle between its owner and the government regarding compensation. Thankfully a deal was struck and the distillery returned to production with the onset of the Great Depression and Prohibition.
Since this period Dalmore has gone about its business and has often been seen as the jewel in the Whyte & Mackay crown, who became owners in 1960 with an amalgamation of companies. Prior to this in 1956 a Saladin Box was installed on site to remove the more traditional and yet labour intensive method of floor malting. The number of stills were doubled to 8 in 1966, which remains the current number with an annual output of around 4 million litres. The stills at the distillery are of particular note, being an assortment of styles and featuring the use of water jackets on the necks of the spirit stills. This promotes reflux and the style that Dalmore seeks and the uniqueness of the distillation doesn’t stop there, as the condensers are horizontal. These quirks go back to the roots of the distillery and much like Mortlach, Springbank and their kind, these wouldn’t be deemed as efficient or practical today, but the resultant character is key.
Since Whyte & Mackay took ownership, its parent company has changed on countless occasions; enough to warrant an article on its own. However, the current owner is Philippine firm Emperador Inc. that purchased the distillery in 2014 along with Whyte & Mackay and the Jura distillery for the fee of £340 million having beaten off competition. It immediately gives the company a firm foothold in the whisky realm and one of the most prestigious names in the form of the Dalmore.
The whisky style of Dalmore is dominated by the favoured use of casks beyond mere ex-bourbon barrels, whether it is the finest sherry or wine casks, these are used by its master blender to layer and transform the spirit, the core Dalmore range is well presented and perfectly pleasant. The staple age expressions are the 12, 15 and 18-year-old offerings with a special limited version at 25 years also being occasionally released. Other editions including the Cigar Malt and King Alexander III have been well received and come at a slightly higher but affordable premium. If money is no object, then Dalmore can cater for extravagant tastes including a 35-year-old and the Quintessence. Also worth investigating are the independent releases that showcase the distillery in a new light and a more natural form; often with surprising results.