Thursday, January 19, 2023

Distillery Visit / Dalmore

The Dalmore distillery and its range of single malts are held in high regard by whisky drinkers and collectors alike. Sitting in a gorgeous location on the shores of the Cromarty Firth and looking across to the Black Isle, this north Highland distillery is currently closed to the public. 

The reason - a combination of the recent Covid pandemic and forthcoming planned extension work that will see the production capacity doubled. We were delighted to receive an invite to visit last November.


Dalmore was founded in 1839 by Alexander Matheson and is located in the small Highland town of Alness, which is around 35 minutes drive north of Inverness. The name translates from the local Gaelic as 'big meadow' and the water used in production is taken from the nearby Loch Morie. This flows the 10 miles from the loch to the distillery via the River Averon.

However, maybe the most significant date in Dalmore's history came in 1867. This saw Andrew and Charles Mackenzie begin work at the distillery. The brothers would eventually become sole owners in 1891. With them they brought their family emblem - the 12-point stag. This has become synonymous with Dalmore and stems from a story dating back to 1263. Then the Chief of the Clan Mackenzie, Colin of Kintail, saved King Alexander III from a marauding stag. The King was indebted to the Chief and awarded the Mackenzie family the symbol of the beast.

A copy of a painting showing Colin of Kintail saving King Alexander III is on display in the visitor centre.

Other historical interest centres around the First World War when the Royal Navy commissioned Dalmore for the manufacture of explosives. Its remote location and close proximity to the Cromarty Firth, the deepest sea loch in the UK, made it a perfect spot. Dalmore is currently owned by Whyte & Mackay, part of the larger Phillipines-based Emperador Inc. They own the Whyte & Mackay blended whisky brand, plus the single malt distilleries of Fettercairn, Jura and Tamnavulin.

The day of our mid-November visit to Dalmore was what the locals describe as driech - think of a mix of dreary and bleak. As we set off on the distillery tour under a heavy grey sky, the wind and rain were being channeled straight down the Cromarty Firth at us. We were definitely glad of our warm clothing, that was for sure.

A driech day on the Firth.

Dalmore's building look very traditional from the outside with many dating back from the late-Victorian era. Most will thankfully remain after the site has been renovated and expanded over the next couple of years. First stop is the old red Porteus mill, which has been in situ for 75 years but will shortly be retired. These mills are so sturdy and rarely break down - this was to the detriment of Porteus, who actually went bust due to the longevity and reliability of their products.
Porteus mills - they never break down.

Up a short flight of metal stairs is the mash tun. This is large and made of stainless steel, and sits in a room that looks like it was built to house two of them. Each mash, of which there are currently 23 per week, uses 10.4 tonnes of milled malted barley. This is all sourced within a 50-mile radius of the distillery, especially from the nearby Black Isle, and is malted at Bairds Maltings in Arbroath. Three temperatures of water are added for maximum sugar extraction, with the first being at 63.5°C - the golden number for enzyme activation. The final water goes in at 85°C and each mash takes five hours.

The mash tun and underback.

Each batch of wort from the mash tun is sent ot one of eight wooden washbacks. These are made of Oregon pine and have a capacity of 48,000 litres. Once the creamed yeast is added, Dalmore ferment the liquid for 50 hours. The result is a wash that sits at around 8% ABV and resembles (and tastes like) a strong weissbier. Unusually, there are no switch blades connected to the washbacks. This device spins around to cut through and knock down the foam created by the fermentation process and is found at most distilleries.

The wooden washbacks.

The short trip brings you into the still house in an unusual way - you walk in directly over four of the stills giving a unique bird's eye view. This is even more unique given the design of Dalmore's stills. They have copper water jackets surrounding the neck of the stills. These are filled with water and have coiled tubing immersed in it. This design increases reflux and copper contact within each still by around 20%. This system is incorporated on each of the four spirit stills.

Water jackets on the spirit stills (back left and front right).

The pair of original stills were installed when the distillery was founded in 1839. They were joined by two exact copies in the late Victorian era and by four further stills in the 1960s. These are twice the size of the originals and take longer to produce the final spirits run - 8-9 hours versus 4-5 hours for the small stills. Each still has an unusual horizontal tube condenser, which acts in a similar way to a traditional wormtub. We have not seen this before. The combination of the water jackets and horizontal condensers contribute to Dalmore's robust and fruity character.

One of the horizontal condensors

It is at this point that our tour takes a different direction to the regular distillery tour. Our group was taken to one of the warehouses - Warehouse No.4 to be exact - and were joined by Richard Paterson OBE, the legendary Master Blender and figurehead of Dalmore, and Gregg Glass, Master Whisky Maker for owners Whyte & Mackay. This was a real treat. The warehouse is located right next to the sea and the coastal environment and dampness works its way into the pores of the wooden casks.

Gregg Glass and Richard Paterson OBE.

Richard explained to us that November was a particularly good time to assess casks in the Dalmore warehouses. The climate and humidity is perfect for analysing the maturing liquid. After this time the warehouse becomes too cold in the wintery conditions and they cannot get the same sensory performance. 

The warehouse is filled with traditional styles and sizes of cask, as are all of Dalmore's warehouse. These are predominantly ex-bourbon or ex-sherry casks made of American oak and ranging from hogshead to butt in size. All Dalmore spirit starts life in ex-bourbon for an average of 5-6 years before being transferred to a different type of cask. All whisky destined to be bottled as Dalmore are matured at Dalmore or at Invergordon single grain distillery, which is located a short distance up the coast.

A sample straight from a Matusalem sherry cask.

We were also taken to Warehouses Nos. 2 and 3. These also sit right on the shores of the Cromarty Firth. Richard and Gregg treated the group to some samples from differing casks with highlights being sips of whisky matured in ex-Port, vintage sherry and Matusalem sherry. The latter is the result of a relationship with famous sherry bodega Gonzalez Byass in Jerez, Spain. This has spanned over a century and sees Gonzalez Byass send Dalmore some of their oldest, rarest and finest casks. The drams certainly warmed us up on a freezing cold day.

Our final treat was a tasting of the two new Vintage 2022 Editions in the original Mackenzie Brothers office within the distillery. These were released shortly after our visit. Both are limited editions and used casks hand selected from the warehouses by Richard and Gregg during November 2021. To read our full review with tasting notes of the Dalmore 2003 Vintage and Dalmore 2007 Vintage - click here
The Dalmore 2003 Vintage and 2007 Vintage.


Visitor Information

  • Dalmore is currently closed to visitors due to planned renovation and expansion work. It is not due to open for tours until 2025.

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