Drink Magazine

A Trip to Dalwhinnie

By Boozedancing @boozedancing

As we are hunkered down with the threat of coronavirus, I am reminded of a time when we could travel freely about the globe.

On my trip to Scotland with Benita and the Urchins, we booked a Hairy Coo trip up to the Highlands. While traipsing around Inverness and Skye, we passed signs for Deanston, Ben Nevis & Talisker and just as my hopes of visiting a distillery were thought to be dashed, the bus stopped at the Dalwhinnie Distillery. Okay, fine, I knew the bus was stopping at Dalwhinnie. Our bus driver provided the rundown on the tickets. The urchins would be £6 each and Benita and I had a choice 2 samples for £8 or 6 samples for £20. With a brief moment of hesitation, we selected 6 samples for £20.

At the start of our tour, our guide Davy provided a bit of history on both the Village of Dalwhinnie and the distillery. Dalwhinnie is located at the head of Glen Truim and the north-east end of Loch Ericht, on the western edge of the Cairngorms National Park. The village of Dalwhinnie is the coldest village (by average daily temperature) in the United Kingdom and the distillery operates at the highest elevation in all of Scotland. Both the elevation and the cold shape the flavor of the whiskies. So much so, that the distillery had just restarted production as the prior two weeks were so warm (for the area) that the water temperature was too warm and the yield was so un-Dalwhinnie like that the master distiller halted production until the heat wave had passed.

The distillery was established by John Grant in 1897, moved into liquidation prior to opening in 1898, was held by a variety of companies until it was purchased by Distillers Company in 1926, burned down in 1934, was rebuilt in 1937, merged into United Distillers in 1987 and, then incorporated into Diageo in 1997. It was the United Distillers who combined six different expression to the Classic Malts (the Dalwhinnie 15 joined by the Glenkinchie 12, the Cragganmore 12, the Talisker 10, the Oban 14 and the Lagavulin 16). Diageo has continued to package those expression together and it is not uncommon to see the six bottles side-by-side at the bar.

Davy limited photos during the tour (no electronics near the oh, so flammable liquid gold) so I am unable to properly capture the sheer size of the inner workings of the distillery. The distillery once employed 40 men between the work on the malting floor and the production of the whisky. Now with automation, the distillery employs 6 people (5 men and their female master distiller). To put that into perspective, there are 22 people employed in the visitors' center.

We were led into the lobby and given a quick lesson on the malting process and given good visual (and nasal) aids to assist with the lesson. Then, the use of peat in whisky was explained. And, then we were taken up along flight of stairs and led into the mashing room They have a neat little window that allows the visitor to see what goes on in the tun as the clear, cold water and the malted barley are combined and heated. Leaning into the tun, you can feel the heat (about 80 degrees) emanating from within the tun. Davy gives us another lesson on Scottish ingenuity. After the liquid wort is piped into the fermentation tanks next door, the leftover mash is taken into another processing room and dried and compressed into hard pellets that are then sold to alternative feed producers who in turn sell their product to livestock farms.

Once out of the mashing room, we see the massive fermentation tanks made of the very dense Siberian Larch (that should last about 60 yrs.) and the Distiller's yeast is added to the wort. This gives off a sweet aroma throughout the room and you pick up notes of honey and citrus as the fermentation brings the ABV of the wash up to about 9%. Additionally, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released within the well-ventilated room. Davy has indicated that there are operations in the works to try and capture the gas which would then be sold off as an additional source of revenue.

The wash is then piped into the still room where the massive Scottish-made copper stills (recently replaced in April and expected to last 15-20 yrs.) stand. There are two stills; one slightly taller than the other. First distillation takes place as the wash is heated in the shorter of the two stills and the resulting low wines (at an ABV of about 22%) are then run a second distillation in the taller still (up to @64% ABV). The resulting alcohol is then run through the spirit safe and the impurities are taken out (foreshots and feints or heads and tails). The feints are then sold off as industrial and medicinal grade alcohol.

With modernization, the process allows for three separate and distinct products to be captured, packaged and sold before a single drop of whisky is bottled. These alternative products help to defray some of the costs of production.

The next stop on the tour was one of the two racked warehouses. The area is not very high as the barrels are stored no more than 3 racks high, but it is fairly wide. The combined capacity of the two warehouses is around 5,000 barrels. Three takeaways from the barrelhouse.

  • Once again, do not use flash photography as the flash could ignite the fumes and that would be bad.
  • The whisky held in the barrelhouse is not all produced by Dalwhinnie as they will lend space to other distillers who are in need space at no charge. I saw barrels stamped with the names of at least 5 other distillers from all over Scotland.
  • Lastly, there was barrel only stamped with a year, 1960. As the whisky had no discernible distiller and the whisky is owned by the government until it is bottled and the distiller pays the taxes (about 75% of the cost of whisky is the tax), this orphan barrel will sit at Dalwhinnie and continue to lose its angels share until someone can determine the provenance of the barrel. As Davy rocked the hogshead, it seemed to be about half full. There is still a lot of whisky that at 60 years must be awfully good.

While in the warehouse, we received our two samples. This was kind of a neat presentation where we stood amongst the barrels and had a sample of the Dalwhinnie 15 and the Winters Gold. Both are bottled at 43%. I've had the 15; the Winters Gold was a spicier version of the 15. Nothing out of the ordinary; just solid whiskies

Our last stop, like any good tour or Disney ride, was to the gift shop. With the bulk of Dalwhinnie production set aside for other Diageo blends Buchanan and Black & White, it is rare to find many Dalwhinnie bottles in NJ. I was like a kid in a candy store. Unfortunately, with the restrictions on how many bottles I could bring back to the US, I had to take some time and make an informed purchase. While I was meandering around the store, Dalwhinnie set up a table for a special guest. The recently retired Liz Stewart, Scotland's first female operator in Malt Distilling was posing for pictures and signing bottles of Lizzie's Dram, a limited edition released in her honor. What a treat to get a chance to meet a whisky icon!

Having been to a couple of distilleries and breweries, I jumped at the chance to visit a Scottish distillery. While Dalwhinnie might not have been my first choice (they just don't send enough of their own expressions to the US to have made me a fan), it was a really well-done tour. Between, the history, the whisky and the gift shop, the tour checks all the boxes and I would recommend it to anyone traveling up to the Highlands.

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