Distillery Focus

Small and perfectly formed (Dalmore)

Great whisky, great scenery, great climate. Dalmore has just about got it all, as John D Lamond reports.
By John Lamond
Richard Paterson is a gentleman – a gentleman of the old school. He is the master blender of Whyte & Mackay, as was his father before him. Richard has a passion. That passion is the spirit produced at Dalmore distillery.And a lovely little distillery it is, situated on the north shore of the Cromarty Firth, with its toes dipping into the sea strand. The proximity of water raises the site’s humidity which beneficially influences the maturing spirit. Its location gives it a wonderful southerly aspect with views over the sparkling Cromarty Firth and the Black Isle to the snow-sprinkled Cairngorms. As such, it receives the warmth of the sun’s rays all day and, when it rains, it has a softness normally only found over on the west coast. People spend lifetimes searching for such a site and then pay several small fortunes to build a home on it. It has that indefinable something which city-dwellers label ‘quality of life’, a laid-back, loosening of the shoulders, kind of quality.

Searching for the distillery, which is built on the hill slope, you almost stumble over it. The ground falls so steeply to the shore that heavy lorries off-loading grain do so at the top of the slope and supplies have to be conveyed down to the distillery. There is, of course, a second entrance, through the so-called golden gate at shore level, to enable empty casks to be delivered and full barrels shipped out.The distillery was originally established in 1839 by the then landowner, Alexander Matheson, who had been a partner in the far eastern trading conglomerate Jardine Matheson, which made its early fortunes in the opium trade and the export of tea from China. As with most distilleries, the history of its early years is shrouded in some uncertainty. Records are imprecise and, some have been destroyed during changes of ownership. However, it is known that Dalmore was originally established to take advantage of the abundance of local Easter Ross barley.In an advanced state of dilapidation, Dalmore was leased to the Mackenzie Brothers, Charles, Andrew and Alexander, who entered the plant at Martinmas 1867 and spent the next months renovating the distillery and farm, with production finally starting exactly a year later on 27 January, 1868. A bullish and ebullient Andrew sought, and took, orders from inn-keepers as far south as Grantown-on-Spey. On the following day, several casks of ‘fresh whisky’ were sent out to these new customers.By the end of their first season (late March, 1868), they had produced almost 16,380 gallons of whisky. A season’s distilling had used the previous autumn’s harvest and when that was finished, so was distilling for the year.In a bid to improve their distilling practices, the adventurous and innovative Alexander visited other distilleries. By 1874, production had risen to 44,214 gallons and the whisky was widely established as one of the finest quality. Due to the brother’s efforts – and the link with Matheson & Co, Dalmore was the first malt whisky to be exported to Australia. By 1 January, 1877, Andrew could congratulate himself that Dalmore was achieving a higher price than any of their competitors in both Australia and New Zealand.A second stillhouse was added during 1874 and, within three years, production had risen to 90,650 gallons. Their landlord, who was now Sir Kenneth Matheson, offered to sell the brothers the distillery, which they bought, together with its farms and the Belleport pier in 1891 for the knock-down price of £14,500. Investment in the plant, together with a new agent for the south of England saw output and sales soar. During the season of 1895, the brothers were employing 32 people in the distillery and production had reached 271,694 gallons.Although not immune from the Pattison scandal of 1898 (Pattison’s of Leith was one of the largest blenders in Scotland, but its owners had been running the company fraudulently. The Pattison brothers went to prison but brought down nine of their suppliers), the Mackenzies were able to control their stocks and insisted that Dalmore should not be sold below eight years old. Often the only way the Mackenzie brothers could prevent this was by buying their own whisky back at auction. Despite their careful controls, the 1897/98 season saw production drop to a mere 81,000 gallons and no spirit at all was produced between 1909 and 1911.In 1917, towards the end of the World War One, the distillery was commandeered by the Royal Navy and used as a manufacturing facility for mines. The casks, then valued at more than £1 million were all moved to neighbouring distilleries for safe-keeping. When the Mackenzies finally took control of their distillery again in 1920, the casks were returned to their original warehouses, safe and undamaged. On the other hand, compensation for the loss of production for three years was a long, drawn-out battle. Andrew’s claim against the ‘damned swine’ of the Admiralty was to continue long after his death. He passed away on 23 September, 1923, and one of the provisions of his will was that the family business be turned into a limited company in order to cushion them from the cyclical nature of the trade.His son, Major W.F. Mackenzie, took over the reins and, having obtained a licence to bottle their whisky at the distillery, actively promoted mature Dalmore in many British cities. But in 1945 he became seriously ill and died the next year. Hector, his son, who won the Military Cross and also rose to the rank of major, took over enthusiastically and saw production rise to record levels on the back of worldwide demand for Scotch after World War Two.Three generations of hands-on management by the Mackenzie family ended when, in May, 1960, the holding company, Mackenzie Brothers (Dalmore) Ltd was merged with Whyte & Mackay Ltd and, in 1964, the distillery was redesigned amid the industry’s general euphoria of the 1960s.This restructuring did not greatly alter the distillery’s operating processes and it remained steam-powered as late as 1970. Much of their earlier equipment, including the mill wheels, is either still in place, or else the site of their installation can still be quite clearly seen. The semi-Lauter mash tun was installed in the 1970s when computer controls were also introduced. Like many distilleries, Dalmore has maintained its eight wooden washbacks and retains a great deal of its original charm. But it is Dalmore’s stillhouse which makes it stand out technically from its peers. There are three pairs of very unusual stills which appear to have had the top of their swan necks abruptly, and very bluntly, truncated, with a lyne arm
installed below the summit. The top half of each spirit still is surrounded by a tulip-shaped copper cooling jacket. This jacket contains a series of tubes through which a stream of cold water flows, serving as a condenser and causes a large proportion of the heavier fusel oils, which would normally evaporate along with the spirit, to fall back into the still, resulting in a purer spirit flowing into the receivers. As if emphasising Scottish distillers’ reluctance to change, the top half of one of these spirit stills dates from the enlarging of the stillhouse in 1874. The unkind among you may think that this just displays the Scots’ inherent tight-fistedness.Alongside the stillhouse there runs a lade which is really quite deep in relation to its width. In the past, instead of a worm tub, the evaporate was piped upstream and back down again beneath the water’s surface. The condensate was then piped back into the stillhouse to flow into the spirit safe. Nowadays two of the condensers are located outside the stillhouse wall, while one remains inside.Although the mill wheels are now defunct and have long ago been dismantled, in an overgrown backyard area, scoring, made by the wheels on the stonework of the buildings, can still be clearly seen, before the lade tumbles beneath the building to empty itself amongst the oyster catchers, sandpipers, shelducks and seals sporting on the sands of Dalmore Bay.Drew Sinclair is the current curator of this little gem of a place. Having been at Dalmore man and boy for 34 years, he is as passionate about his whisky as is Richard Paterson, but, whereas Drew waits patiently for his audience’s opinion before beaming with contentment when one’s appreciation of the whisky’s finesse is voiced, Richard leads you through impatiently, urging the taster on to the next, even more
superior, sample.Dalmore 12 Years Old is the brand owner’s only bottling which is currently widely available. It has very good body, with a solid masculine note, a touch of sweetness with delicate oaky vanilla and an almost grapey fruitiness; the peatiness, while present, is elegantly knitted into the flavour and far from obvious, and the finish is smooth, almost dry and very distinguished. But if you are ever fortunate enough to be with Richard at precisely the right moment, ask to see a cask of Dalmore which was filled in 1939. This reveals just how wonderfully whisky can age when the perfect cask is in harmony with its contents. Soft, gentle and smooth with a dark nuttiness, a slight, delicate smokiness and a liquorice character at the back, it is very complex and has maintained a freshness reminiscent of hedgerows. This drink is truly magnificent and an eye-opener, making liars of those who claim that Scotch whisky is past its best by the time it has reached 20 years old.