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Dalwhinnie Whisky

Dalwhinnie whisky distillery, sitting between the Grampian and Monadhliath mountain ranges of Inverness-shire is Scotland’s highest working distillery at 327m or 1073 ft above sea level. That means it gets really cold up there. It has the lowest average temperature in the UK at around 6°C and the distillery often gets cut off during the winter. That cold weather has a distinct effect on the whisky’s character, as we shall see. Though it is close to Speyside, Dalwhinnie is classed as a Highland distillery.


Despite its lofty location, the distillery is well-connected thanks to the railway that links Speyside to Perth, Aberdeen, and central Scotland. Which is exactly why three entrepreneurs Alexander Mackenzie, John Grant, and George Stellar decided to build a distillery here in 1897. That and the pure local water and plentiful peat. They called it Strathspey and it began distilling the following year but ran into financial difficulties, and closed not long after. The owners were forced to sell soon afterwards to John Sommerville & Co and A P Blyth & Sons, who changed the name to Dalwhinnie which means ‘meeting place’ in Scots Gaelic. The new owners employed the famed Charles Doig of Speyside to redesign parts of the distillery, including his trademark pagoda-shaped maltings.


In 1905 it was sold again, this time to an American company called Cook & Bernheimer making it the first – but not the last – time a Scotch whisky distillery would be bought by a North American distiller. Then in 1926 Dalwhinnie was bought by the Distillers Company, a forerunner company of Diageo, where it remains to this day. But the excitement didn’t end there as it closed in 1934 following a fire in February of that same year, reopening once more in 1938. The distillery lost its floor maltings in 1968 and then in 1987 the distillery was treated to a thorough modernisation. Only things didn't quite go to plan when the traditional worm tubs were removed and shell and tube condensers installed, because the new make just didn’t taste the same. So eight years later the distillery was refitted and (hooray!) the traditional worm tubs were reinstated.


Nowadays when you visit the distillery, which is open to the public, the first thing you’ll see when you come in are those two famous worm tubs and they are vital to the Dalwhinnie flavour for reasons that will become clear. The rest of the set-up consists of a stainless steel, full-lauter mash tun, one Oregon pine, one Douglas fir, and four Siberian larch washbacks. Usually a lightly-peated malt is used and fermentation takes place slowly over around 60 hours. Distillation occurs in two large stills shaped like onions.

As the coldest whisky distillery in Scotland, condensation in the worm tubs is extremely quick, which means less copper contact and therefore more heavier elements in the whisky. Consequently Dalwhinnie in its raw state is powerful and sulphury, and takes many years to mature which is why the flagship expression is 15 years old. It’s aged in bourbon casks and is one of the six of Diageo’s ‘Classic Malts’ series. There is also the Distillers Edition finished in oloroso casks, the Winter’s Gold, an NAS single malt which is designed, whisky purists look away now, to be served chilled, and various older expressions as well as independent bottlings.

For most people the classic Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old whisky is the best place to start. The heavy sulphurous new make has been tamed by long ageing to produce something gloriously smooth and honeyed, with just a little smoke and an underlying meatiness.

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