Over the years I’ve very much become a city dweller – in a few months time I tip over into having lived in London for over half of my life. With that comes a specific hole in my otherwise huge list of talents: I don’t know how to drive. As such my recent sojourn in Scotland has been full of buses and trains, and my distillery visits have been selected around a restriction of using public transport. Pleasingly I was finally able to make it to one of the easiest distilleries to get to by train – Dalmore.
Dalmore was founded near Alness as a farm in 1839 by Alexander Matheson, local MP for Ross & Cromarty, and owner of a variety of companies and properties in the area. He built the original two still distillery and then leased it out to the Sutherland family, focusing on being a businessman rather than a distiller. They ran it until the 1860s (sources vary as to exactly when), with production dropping and Margaret Sutherland taking over as ‘occasional distillery’ from about 18602, at which point the Pattison family took over the lease. They didn’t take particularly good care of the distillery and only hung around for a few years.
The modern era of Dalmore starts in 1866, when the Andrew Mackenzie and his brothers took over the lease and started to refurbish the distillery1. Much of the heraldry associated with Dalmore comes from the Mackenzie family, with the 12 pointer stag that sits at the centre of the distillery’s branding being the family crest. It was, so the legend has it, granted to Colin Fitzgerald, a putative ancestor of the Mackenzie clan and veteran of the Battle of Largs, by King Alexander III of Scotland in 1266, after he saved the King from being gored by a stag while on a hunt. It’s become a well-known story in part thanks to Benjamin West‘s giant 1786 painting of the scene, commisioned by the clan, now hanging in the National Gallery of Scotland – The Death of the Stag. Along with the Mackenzie links come the previously mentioned stag crest, their ancestral home of Castle Leod (now a commonly mentioned place in much of Dalmore’s marketing) a few miles up the road from Dalmore at Strathpeffer and the family motto: Luceo non oro – I shine not burn.
Working with Alexander Matheson, and certainly using his business connections, the Mackenzies grew the business and started exporting whisky, claiming the honour of first single malt exported to Australia in the early 1870s. They added another pair of stills in 1874, but the antipodean whisky market shrunk later in the decade and Dalmore’s production fell with it. The Mackenzies stuck at it, continuing to run the distillery after Alexander Matheson died in 1886 and purchasing it from his heir, Sir Kenneth Matheson, in 1891. The market for whisky worldwide was in a slump in the 1880s, despite brandy, the most popular spirit of the time, still reeling from the wine blight. Production began to increase in the 1890s, but due to what was to become a common theme, previous overproduction leading to a glut of spirit, the market collapsed again towards the end of the century and Dalmore’s production fell again.
The distillery grew slowly into the 20th century, with most of their spirit being sold to blenders, including Whyte & Mackay and Dewars. In 1917 production halted, as the admiralty took over the distillery and turned it into a mine assembly factory as part of First World War munitions production, with the Mackenzie’s finally getting it back, in bad shape, in 1920 – the fight for compensation carried on until the House of Lords heard the case in 19253. The whisky slump continued until after the end of US prohibition in 1933 but was quickly followed by the Second World War in 1939, and the distillery closed again in 1942. They reopened in 1945 and the outlook started looking much better.
In the 1950s Andrew Mackenzie’s grandson, Major Hector Mackenzie, encouraged by shareholders looking to realise some of their investment, investigated a merger with long-standing customers Whyte & Mackay, and the two companies joined in 1960. The new Dalmore, Whyte & Mackay Ltd doubled the number of stills in 1964 and continued to develop the distillery, building it into Whyte & Mackay’s flagship brand through the 1990s. Their bottlings now rival Macallan for prices, with the £150k Trinitas from a few years back joined by the more recent Paterson Collection, sitting in the Harrods spirits department and a snip at just under £1million for the set of twelve bottles. It does come with a very nice cabinet…
While the Dalmore brand is pushed as being super-slick and ‘premium’, the distillery itself is surprisingly compact and traditional. They may be down to two-man operation, with one stillman and one mashman on at a time, and are driven by an aggressive 24 hours a day production schedule, but there is a lot that harks back to ye olden dayes of whisky production.
The distillery’s water supply comes, at the source, from Loch Morie, about 15 miles to the north-west of Alness. The water more directly comes from the River Alness (aka Averon) via a mill-lade – having been originally set up as a farm they’ve always had a decent water supply.
They had their own maltings onsite until 1982, Saladin boxes that replaced the floor maltings in 1956, and since then have bought in their malt from commercial maltsters. They are currently supplied by Baird’s at Inverness and are using Optic barley with a phenol level of 1-2ppm – low enough to be considered unpeated by the time spirit is produced. They use (unsurprisingly) a Porteus mill to grind the malt, with a fairly standard 10:20:70 mix of flour:husks:grist.
They use 9.88T of malt per mash and have a semi-lauter mashtun. The first water is 42kL at 64ºc, second 14kL at 75ºc and the third, recycled and used as first water on the next mash, is 36kL at 82ºc. The mash takes about 7 hours and they run three per day, with the first two waters yielding about 48kL of wort.
The wort is cooled to 20ºc and pumped into one of the eight Oregon pine washbacks. These each have a capacity of 66kL and are about 5m deep – as they only use 3/4 of the capacity of each washback there’s lots of headspace for the fermenting wash to foam up into if it wants to, meaning that they don’t need to use switchers. The washbacks are about 80 years old, although are repaired piecemeal as needed.
They use 150kg of distillers’ yeast per batch, currently solid Kerry yeast, and fermentation lasts 50 hours, producing an 8% wash. They steam clean the washbacks between charges, and there is some micro-flora related activity in the fermentation. Each fermentation produces enough wash to fill all four of the distillery’s wash stills, and is pumped to them via an oregon pine wash charger.
It’s at the distillation stage that things get a little more interesting. There are eight stills, four wash and four spirit, each a different size and shape although based on the original pair of stills installed by Alexander Matheson when the distillery opened.
The wash stills are reminiscent of Pulteney’s, cut off suddenly at the top so as to fit the low ceilinged farmhouse building that they were housed in. Other than that they are all variations on a lampglass-shaped still, although varying a lot in size, from the original small stills up to the large newer stills installed by Whyte & Mackay in the 1960s.
The spirit stills are also something different from the norm, with a copper water cooling jacket wrapped around the heads of each. While the middle cut of the distillation is being collected a ring pipe at the top of the jacket sprays cold water onto the head, causing more reflux and emulating a much taller still. Other than the cooling jacket arrangement, which is also in use at Whyte & Mackay stablemate Fettercairn, they are quite squat stills with a squashed boil bulge at differing heights.
When distilling they mix the output of all the stills together between stages – ie. all of the low-wines are collected together and then divided up between the spirit stills rather than pairing up stills, and all of the collected spirit is combined before filling into cask.
The big wash stills take 5-6hrs per run and the smaller stills about 3.5-4hrs, each producing low wines at about 25%. The spirit run takes a middle cut from about 83% down to 60%, giving an average currently of about 78% ABV. They use shell and tube condensers (although there are still the remains of the old wormtubs on site), with warm waste water pumped directly into the sea.
The stills, as with much of the distillery, are operated via a control panel but are not computerised. The stillman also still needs to manually switch the cuts and monitor ABVs across all eight stills, a fairly complex multi-tasking operation. With three mashes a day going into the eight washbacks, which in turn feed a single wash-charger and then four wash stills, there are quite a lot of moving pieces in their schedule and not a lot of room for manoeuvre – every 7-8 hours a mash is done and all the steps further down the line (with some buffering provided by the wash-charger and low wines receiver) need to be in sync.
Despite their place as Whyte & Mackay’s premium brand, only about 20% of their spirit goes towards single malt, with the remaining 80% going into the company’s wide range of blended spirits. The single malt is matured on site, with more complicated operations (such as vatting before they refilling into casks for finishing) being handled three miles up the road at the Invergordon grain distillery.
They have nine warehouses on site, five dunnage and four racked with a number of them covering several floors, giving a total capacity of 65k casks. They fill a variety of types of cask, with most of their releases being a combination of several different types. Their mainstay is bourbon casks from a variety of different producers (I saw Heaven Hill and Jim Beam casks while I was wandering around the warehouse), but they also have a strong relationship with Gonzalez Byass, with exclusive rights to casks used for their range of 30yo sherries – Apostoles Palo Cortado, Noe Pedro Ximenez and Matusalem Oloroso.
The wood obsession is probably best shown in the King Alexander III, a combination of bourbon cask matured whisky with spirit finished in Madeira, Marsala, Port, Sherry and Cabernet Sauvignon casks. However, it extends to the rest of their releases, with the regular age range all being finished in sherry casks – the 12yo spends 9 years in bourbon and 3 in sherry; 15yo: 12 years in bourbon, 3 years in 3 different styles of sherry cask; 18yo: 14 years bourbon, 4 years in sherry.
An excellent and fairly thorough tour, with most of the random information above given to me by my tour guide. It’s also the easiest distillery to get to from the train that I’ve been to so far – turn left out of the station, use the bridge to cross over the tracks and then follow the road for about 10-15 minutes as it turns into the Silver Jubilee path and then rejoins the main road, just beside the distillery driveway.
The future of the distillery is currently unknown, with Diageo owning a controlling stake in Whyte & Mackay’s parent company, and sell-offs of many of their assets in progress to ensure that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission are satisfied. Originally Diageo stated their desire to keep Dalmore and Tamnavulin (the big brand name malt and a ‘spirit factory’), while divesting themselves of Jura, Fettercairn and Invergordon, but more recently the sale has started and bids are being taken for everything.
Whatever its future, the eventual owners would be foolish to get rid of the tour, or even change it all that much – it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re nearby.
The Dalmore distillery tour costs £8, lasts about an hour and includes a dram of the 12 year old at the end – you do need to book in advance. They also have a distillery only bottling available – a Matusalem sherry finished release costing £90.95. Annoyingly they don’t allow any photography inside, hence the lack of indoor pictures above.
If you’re hanging around in Alness before or after the tour you can also pop down to Teaninich distillery, on the other side of the river. All you’ll currently see is a building site, as they’re massively expanding their output, and they don’t offer tours, so great for killing time but not much else.
Café Sixty Six round the corner from the station have good sandwiches if you want to find somewhere out of the rain. They also have free wifi, which is useful for posting anonymous articles about NAS whisky…
1For more details on the history of the Mackenzie brothers’ business arrangements there’s a great page in the University of Glasgow archives
2You can find more about Margaret Sutherland and the Sutherland’s tenure at Dalmore in Fred Minick’s book Whiskey Women, which I’ve, shamefully, still not started reading.
3Info from the Alness business directory.
How to get there: