Founded at Alness, Ross-shire, in 1839 by Alexander Matheson of East Asia traders Jardine Matheson & Company, Dalmore Distillery began celebrating its 180th anniversary late last year and has been marking the occasion in a way that befits one of Scotland’s most highly regarded luxury whisky brands. In November, the company announced it would release three decanters of The Dalmore 60 Years Old 180th Anniversary Edition, which is formed of spirit matured in two sherry casks that were filled on 7 June 1951. This special bottling is significant not only for the milestone being marked but because the spirit is the company’s last remaining stock from the ‘Mackenzie era’, an important period of family ownership that saw The Dalmore brand come to be recognised across the globe.
The Mackenzie era began following the departure of Mr Matheson’s previous distillery tenants, the last in a succession of leaseholders who had all been unsuccessful in their whisky-making efforts. One Andrew Mackenzie, just 24 years old at the time, took over the tenancy of Dalmore in October 1867 and the site went into production under his management on 28 January 1868. Thus began the story of The Dalmore single malt Scotch whisky as we know it today.
Joined by his brother Charles, the pair formed Mackenzie Bros Ltd and, unusually for the time, focussed on the sale of Dalmore as a ‘self whisky’ (single malt), rather than selling the spirit to blenders as was increasingly becoming the norm. According to The Dalmore’s master blender, Richard Paterson, they also had ambitions to focus on whisky matured in casks. “What they wanted to do more than anything was to stop selling new spirit,” says Richard. “Andrew decided for the first time to start maturing in casks, saying, ‘we’re going to mature our whisky for 10, 20, 30 years.’ People said he was off his head because it’d not been done before. They were mainly drinking unaged spirit and maybe some three-year-old.”
The brothers doubled the capacity of the distillery in 1874 and the increased production, along with their landlord Matheson’s far-flung business connections, allowed them to expand into the Far East and Australia; in fact, Dalmore is said to be the first single malt Scotch whisky ever sold down under. The Mackenzies eventually took on full ownership of the distillery, its pier and associated farms in 1891. During this time, they had been exploring maturation in sherry casks, a practice that was seen as a key marker of quality at the time and is now Dalmore’s hallmark. Sources also suggest that, in 1887, they finally achieved their ambition of ceasing sales of new make for direct retail to consumers, though it’s unclear if this was due to falling demand, the result of a clear strategy, or because the company simply had an abundance of aged stock available during a challenging trading period.
It was around this time that the brothers were visited by Alfred Barnard, the ‘original’ whisky writer and author of the seminal text The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1887), and he describes the distillery set-up in good detail, right down to the layout of feints receivers and wash chargers. He explains that the distillery has its own branch of railway line, is situated in the centre of a ‘good barley-growing district’, and is close to an abundant supply of ‘fine peats’ – the latter of which he explicitly states are used in the maltings kiln, which leads us to assume that Dalmore was at least somewhat peaty in character at this point. Barnard records the annual production capacity as 80,000 imperial gallons, which is just shy of 364,000 litres. By 1895, the height of the late Victorian distillery-building boom, this had increased to an impressive 271,694 gallons, or 1.23 million litres, with 32 employees working at the distillery.
By this time there were very well-established links between the sherry and Scotch whisky industries, with the latter widely using sherry shipping butts for whisky maturation. Interestingly, there was a Mackenzie & Co. sherry business (linked to the port wine company Mackenzie & Driscoll of Oporto), though it’s unclear if that particular Mackenzie was a relation. Regardless, by the time the Mackenzie Bros were doing business at Dalmore there were certainly plenty of fellow Scots (one thinks of Sandeman & Co. and Gordon & Co.) running sherry businesses out of Jerez, Scots from whom they could source an abundant supply of excellent casks. “When Andrew Mackenzie started doing sherry cask curation, because the Mackenzie family had been down to Jerez, he noticed the difference and the influence from the wood,” says Richard. “So this sort of cask curation that went on during the Mackenzie era has been instilled inside of me and it’s what I’ve been carrying on today.”
In the 1880s, the brothers decided to push the brand further in London and it seems that they made tweaks to Dalmore’s spirit style at this time in order to better appeal to the Southern palate. It has been speculated that this could mean they reduced the peat influence or perhaps that they simply changed the way the stills were run. Whatever they did, it seemed to go down well, as a letter from their Glasgow agent attests: ‘We are very much impressed with its quality and think it should hold its own against the best Highland whiskies, it comes out so rich, sweet, fine flavoured, and is altogether we think a powerful whisky.’
This good reputation is backed up by price lists of the mid 1880s which show Dalmore new spirit being sold to the trade in cask for a respectable 4s 1d (four shillings, one pence) per gallon.
For context, the same list has the highest price for single malt spirit at 4s 10d for Glenlivet, Macallan for two pence less than Dalmore at 3s 11d, and Campbeltown’s distillers collectively bringing up the rear at 2s 9d to 3s 1d. (Ridley & Co.’s Monthly Wine and Spirit Trade Circular
, 12 March, 1885.)
Through various ups and downs, the brothers’ descendants retained ownership of the business until May 1960, when the company known as Mackenzie Bros, Dalmore Ltd was merged with one of its best customers: the blender Whyte & Mackay. At this time under the stewardship of Colonel Hector Andrew Courtney ‘HAC’ Mackenzie, the distillery became part of a new company called Dalmore, Whyte & Mackay Ltd. After weathering various mergers, sales and buy-outs, the distillery remains under Whyte & Mackay’s ownership to this day, albeit as a subsidiary of the Philippine drinks conglomerate Emperador Distillers Inc.
Although no longer family owned, ‘HAC’ Mackenzie remained with the company and was still involved when Richard Paterson first visited the distillery in 1972. To release a whisky at 60 years of age, which is a tangible link to the family that brought Dalmore to where it is today, certainly seems a most appropriate way to mark an impressive 18 decades of the distillery’s operation.
However, keen to emphasise that this is a year of celebration and not merely a flash in the pan, The Dalmore announced their next anniversary-year release in February at an intimate event at the illustrious Hotel Café Royal in London. Housed in a black sycamore-wood box that is lined with quilted leather, The Dalmore 51 Years Old comes bottled in a crystal decanter with a crystal stopper and the brand’s iconic 12-point ‘Royal’ stag crafted in sterling silver. This 51-year-old whisky was matured initially in refill American white oak ex Bourbon barrels, before being finished in a combination of 1938 vintage Colheita port pipes, first-fill Bourbon barrels; and The Dalmore’s signature Matusalem sherry casks from Gonzalez Byass.
“People are going to say, ‘Isn’t it going to be a bit woody?’ I say no,” asserts Richard. “Not if you use the right cask to get the right style and ensure that when you hold it in the mouth it goes down like silk.” He’s not bluffing. Having sampled the liquid, I can confirm that it has retained incredible vitality, even after over half a century of maturation, and the distillery character is remarkably pronounced. Amongst notes of dark chocolate, cigar tobacco, cherry sauce, vanilla cream cake, and plum wine, there’s also plenty of notable orange preserve notes, real spirit presence and fabulous mouthfeel. Richard compares this latter flavour to ‘old English marmalade’ and explains that orange is in fact the cornerstone of the Dalmore spirit style. What’s particularly striking is the superb integration of the influence from the fortified wine casks, which conventional wisdom would suggest could have quite easily overwhelmed this venerably aged whisky and dominated its character.
“The whisky has been brought together first of all in American white oak from the Ozark Mountain Range in Missouri, that’s 40,000 square miles of natural forest. When you talk about Bourbon casks, it gives a base for the whisky and allows it to settle down for three, four, five, 10, 20 years,” explains Richard. “But what we did with this Dalmore, as it went down that runway of maturation, we took it and decided we wanted to make something really special. So, we used port Colheita 1938, almost the war years (war wasn’t declared until 3 September 1939), so there were restrictions on this particular port Colheita. It’s full of body and character, and it was a great vintage in its own right.”
In Portuguese, Colheita translates literally as ‘harvest’ and refers to port wine made in a single year, from a single vintage of grapes, that has been aged in oak for a minimum of seven years (essentially making it a Tawny) before bottling, though it is often matured in cask for many decades. This differs from Vintage port, which is made using grapes from only one exceptional year and is not matured for more than two years in oak before being ‘declared’ a Vintage. At this point it is bottled ‘on the lees’ (that is to say, complete with dead yeast and grape skins etc.) and should be bottle-aged for many years before drinking. Colheita port, however, is very scarce and is said to make up only one per cent of total port production. Thus, the Colheita 1938 casks are exceptionally old, rare and imbued with some of the finest port flavours money can buy. “What these casks did was take that spirit matured in American white oak and give it body, along with notes of damson plums and morello cherries,” adds Richard.
“These are the kinds of styles that come in when you use casks that held port wines. We did a finish of four years to give us the style we were looking for.”
Next came maturation in The Dalmore’s signature Matusalem sherry butts, sourced from Jerez winemaker Gonzalez Byass. Unlike most of the sherry casks being used by the industry today, which are newly coopered American or European oak casks seasoned for a minimum of one year with (usually) young, dry Oloroso sherries, the Matusalem casks are actually sourced from the solera systems used to produce a very old and wonderfully sweet fortified wine.
“Matusalem means very, very old. It’s a biblical reference to Matuselah, grandfather of Noah, who lived for 969 years,” explains Richard. “Matusalem sherry is 75 per cent Palomino Fino, 25 per cent Pedro Ximenez grapes, 127g of sugar per litre, and minimum average age of 30 Years Old – none of that two or three-year-old sherry.” According to Gonzalez Byass, “The wines age individually for 15 years in order to develop their own character and complexity. Then they are blended and enter the Matusalem solera system where the wine ages for an additional 15 years. The time aged as a blended wine is crucial as it takes a significant amount of time to integrate all the different flavours: the nuttiness from the Palomino Fino, the fruitiness and sweetness from the Pedro Ximenez… as well as the alcohol. As the wine is only bottled to order, it will typically age much longer than the minimum average age of 30 years.”
Containing some of Gonzalez Byass’s most precious aged wines, the Matusalem soleras are made up only of very old American oak casks that have been used for decades – many are 30 or 40 years old, and some much older. It’s worth noting that a number of bodegas even boast of having solera casks that are 200 years old or more! Their great age is due to sherry makers’ desire for functionally inert casks that act as breathable vessels rather than drivers of maturation character. This is because, unlike in whisky, oak-derived character is not a key indicator of maturity in Jerez wines. Instead, sherry relies on biological ageing, for styles such as Fino, and oxidative ageing, for styles such as Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez.
Before being introduced to a solera system, a new American oak cask must first be seasoned with young Jerez wines in a manner similar to the widely practiced process used for the preparation of sherry casks for the whisky industry. In the past, new casks were first used as fermentation vessels for a number of years, a process that also functionally ‘neutralises’ them as far as wine maturation is concerned, but this has not been common since the 1970s when the industry moved to fermentation in stainless-steel vats. Either way, this extended ‘seasoning’ process extracts tannin and other aromatic compounds from the fresh oak that may strongly influence sherry as it ages. This need for neutral casks makes the process of introducing new wood to a solera an expensive and also very lengthy process, so it isn’t done regularly or unless absolutely necessary. Once in a solera, casks will continue to be used for as many decades as they remain intact. This means that, in normal circumstances, there’s very little old wood naturally being removed from the system unless a cask is damaged or no longer required. Due to this, sherry producers charge a very high price for their intact solera casks, with distillers reporting that the cost is higher than what’s paid for a newly coopered and seasoned butt.
However, their decades of use doesn’t mean that there is no wood interaction possible at all; these casks can still impart impressive character to higher-strength spirits like whisky and are certainly not to be compared to refill whisky wood. However, their influence on maturing spirit is unique, being largely driven by the sherry they once held and the way it has transformed the oak during its decades in the solera.
Because Dalmore’s Matusalem casks are made from very old wood and have actually held very mature, high-quality sherry for long periods of time, they are much more comparable to the traditional sherry shipping casks that would’ve been used by the Mackenzie brothers, than to the made-to-order, new oak sherry casks being filled by the industry today.
Notably, Matusalem cask maturation isn’t exclusively reserved for the most expensive Dalmore releases, but is utilised across the entire core range too. By nurturing this exclusive relationship with Gonzalez Byass, Richard has kept the legacy of Dalmore’s founders alive, while preserving an historic and now uncommon style of whisky maturation.
Precisely 51 decanters of The Dalmore 51 Years Old have been released for sale via selected retailers at RRP £55,000. “You’ll say that’s a lot of money, but I say that these whiskies are absolutely priceless. These bottles contain whisky that’s very, very special,” says Richard, who is clearly confident in the value of this remarkable release. “When we did The Dalmore Trinitas, three bottles, that went for £100,000 in Harrods for the first two bottles and the last bottle went for £120,000. I know they haven’t been drunk yet and they’re now valued at £1.3 million for the three bottles today, which shows how things have really changed dramatically.”
More than just a remarkable bottling, it seems The Dalmore 51 Years Old is something of a statement of intent, which brings together the brand’s heritage, luxury credentials and commitment to the costly and time-consuming practice of using rare old sherry, port and wine casks. By some metrics now the world’s fastest-growing single malt brand and a ‘top three’ whisky investment, one gets the feeling the Dalmore team’s sights are set on the horizon, that coveted number one spot, and their next 180 years.
The Dalmore 51 Years Old
Casks maturing in the dunnage at The Dalmore Distillery.
HAC Mackenzie in his office at The Dalmore.