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It’s difficult not to miss the village of Dalwhinnie as you venture northwards through Scotland amidst a stunning kaleidoscope of iconic views and backdrops. Situated alongside the main road that links the central belt to the Highlands and beyond, the A9 road suddenly parts into an epic glen, adorned by mountains and a small village just minutes from the motorway. Perched behind the village, as if on a pedestal, is the Dalwhinnie distillery with its classical looks completed with whitewashed exteriors and a pagoda roof.
Today, the distillery is the highest in Scotland although this may change with the current whisky boom, as Scotland is seeing with new producers coming onto the market. In essence Dalwhinnie only trumps its nearest rival (Braeval distillery) by a matter of metres. Being situated near the main route into and away from the Highlands, Dalwhinnie as a perfect site for a distillery and could also utilise the railway line that runs through the village. Built by the Strathspey Distillery Company Limited in 1897, the distillery was designed by the famous genre architect Charles Doig, with the company being a collection of local businessmen and entrepreneurs.
The initial project was not success, as if you have been reading many of these distillery introductions on Abbey Whisky, you’ll know that the end of 1898 marked the arrival of the Pattison Crash that befell the whole industry. Only the financial strong survived, and unfortunately for this fledging consortium of locals, it proved disastrous timing as they went into liquidation shortly afterwards. The distillery was purchased in 1905 by American distilling giant of the time, Cook & Bernheimer, for the modest fee of £1250 which included all of the assets. A subsidiary company took over the reins and was renamed the Dalwhinnie Distillery Company. It was a short period of ownership as just after the end of the First World War, Dalwhinnie was sold to blending firm MacDonald Greenlees in 1926, before the Distillers Company Limited took over as a forerunner to the Diageo ownership that we see today.
In terms of existence Dalwhinnie has endured a fairly quiet history, the exception being a fire in 1934 that badly damaged the distillery. It was reopened in 1938 with 2 stills, which remains the same number on site today. These were replaced in 2015 and are a rarity in the Scottish whisky industry nowadays, as both utilise worm tubs that are immediately recognisable if you arrive at the distillery. The stills themselves were replaced in 2015 and a little known fact is that despite the rigorous effort that goes into replicating the existing shape, size and features, one of the stills wasn’t producing the required Dalwhinnie style of spirit. So after several weeks, it was deemed that the new still wasn’t suitable and a completely new replacement had to be requested; meaning after a few weeks in essence a still was effectively written off. That’s how important and vital the style of Dalwhinnie’s spirit is to Diageo and its blends and its single malt presence.
The maltings on site were closed in 1968 and this requirement is now delivered by lorry as is the case with many distilleries. Sadly, no actual whisky is matured on site nowadays and its dispatched to a central facility to be filled into casks and laid down. This is a shame as given the unique altitude and geographical environment of the distillery, whisky compelety matured on site would make for an interesting comparison. In 1992, a visitor centre was opened and Dalwhinnie is now a popular tourist destination with an extensive distillery shop featuring a wide range of Diageo releases from several distilleries.
Most of the whisky produced at Dalwhinnie goes towards supporting Diageo blends such as Buchanan’s. Traditionally it has a light and refreshing style with fruits and honey apparent, which makes it an ideal aperitif or introductory whisky to someone wishing to explore single malts. The classic release remains the 15-year-old that now sells on average a million bottles per year; thanks partially to its approachability as a whisky. A recent addition to the range is the No Age Statement Winter’s Gold that features spirit distilled only during the winter period, and a luxurious 25-year-old expression. For visitors to the distillery, there is currently an exclusive release, bottled at 48% and a limited edition of 6000 bottles. This distillery exclusive is superior to the 15-year-old and Winter’s Gold and comes highly recommended.
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