As we explored Easter Ross from our base near Tain, my dad and I worked our way through the region’s cluster of distilleries. From Glenmorangie and Balblair, we proceeded to one distillery that has a lot of cachet in the United States: Dalmore. Cigar aficionados know their whisky well, but Dalmore also shines as one of the highest-end luxury whisky brands in the world. Case in point, the Dalmore Constellation Collection. It’s a range of 21 single cask whiskies from 1964-1992 that’ll run you £158,000 for a complete set. While that cost in unfathomable to me, this range will sell out.
Dalmore has fans. Voracious, zealous fans. I went to see what it was all about.
First thing one rainy, Friday morning, my dad and I drove to Alness where Dalmore distillery rests on the northern shores of the Cromarty Firth overlooking Oil rigs standing in the water, waiting for repair. We were greeted by Shauna and Morag, who would be tag-teaming for our visit. I could tell Morag was one of Dalmore’s senior tour guides by her warmth and comfort with Dalmore’s history and operations. We would see Shauna later for an epic tasting.
Since we had arrived so early, we had the distillery to ourselves as Morag led us through some beautiful passages with attractive accent lighting. Dalmore recently underwent a $1.6 million upgrade to improve the visitor experience, and the impact of that investment was on display throughout the tour. Unfortunately, in what’s becoming more and more common, I was prohibited from taking pictures or recording audio during our tour. It’s impossible to miss, however, the silver stag head that serves as the centerpiece of Dalmore’s brand. From massive wall decorations to small flourishes on doors to the bottle and box, the silver stag head is everywhere.
And it’s fitting. The stag iconography ties into the local history of Clan Mackenzie. It is told that in 1263 an ancestor of Clan Mackenzie saved King Alexander III from being gored by a stag with a single arrow. In exchange, the king granted him the right to bear the stag in his coat of arms. While Dalmore was founded in 1839 by Alexander Matheson, the Mackenzie family owned the distillery for almost 100 years, and the distillery’s connection to Clan Mackenzie is strong to this day. The romantic in me loves this.
One thing is certain: people love Dalmore. Their team is mashing three times each day, seven days a week. In other words: maximum capacity. This represents four million liters of spirit each year, and if they could produce more they’d sell it. As we moved into the stillhouse, I stopped dead in my tracks. Two identical pairs of stills, one smaller than the other, boiled away with the tops hacked off flat. I’ve never seen anything like it and it rivals Mortlach for strangest still design/setup in Scotland. But these stills also had water jackets around them, kind of like liquid tea cozies, that the stillman said effectively doubles the “height” of the still. If that’s true, it’s a brilliant way to save on copper and headspace in the stillhouse.
After a quick dash through a light rain, Morag brought us into the Dalmore Experience Room. I could smell the renovation in this gorgeous space lined with bottles of newmake Dalmore of ever-increasing strength. Each bottle was lit from beneath, and you could take off the stoppers to smell the spirit. The beginning and end of the line had a bit of the heads and tails in them, which provided the most concrete method of understanding “cuts” I’ve yet seen. The other wall contained a series of glass jars filled with the various flavor elements common to Dalmore. Once again I was able to lift the lids and inhale oranges, chocolate, and coffee. This is such an important implementation for whisky connoisseurs looking to build up their nosing abilities, and I think it should be a standard part of the visitor experience at every distillery. Hat tip to Dalmore.
As our private tour ended, Morag guided us through some very plush entertaining rooms, including the Alchemy Room where large tastings are typically held, to the inner sanctum where Shauna had arranged a very special tasting for my dad and me. Dalmore’s base range includes 12yo, 15yo, and 18yo expressions, but I wouldn’t be tasting those. Instead, Shauna had laid out the Cigar Malt Reserve, Castle Leod, and Cromartie, the latter two whiskies being part of a limited edition range thematically tied to Clan Mackenzie history. Proceeds from these special bottlings go toward the renovation of the Mackenzie castle and estate.
Before we got officially started, however, we enjoyed a small taste of the Dalmore newmake. At 63.5% ABV and unaged, it’s potent and robust. For coming straight off those crazy stills, there were loads of fragrant, fruity notes and a kind of beery unctuousness. Definitely one of the smoother newmakes I’ve tried, too.
The Cigar Malt Reserve is a new formulation of the old favorite Cigar Malt. Bottled at 44% ABV and with no age statement (though it’s between 12 and 14 years old), the Cigar Malt Reserve spends time in American white oak ex-Bourbon barrels, European oak ex-Oloroso sherry butts, and finishes off in ex-Cabernet Sauvignon wine casks. I perk up at the red wine mention. The nose is heavy with ripe and juicy plums, cherries, and golden raisins. Cinnamon and nutmeg, maybe some coffee fight through next. Apple butter. Promise is kept on the palate as those juicy fruits come through on a smooth wave, but here there’s orange zest, barley sugar, and caramel chews. The finish is drying and short with tannic woody notes, a pleasant counterpoint to the sweetness of the nose and palate. A delicious dram.
We move on to the Castle Leod, a limited edition of only 6,500 bottles and generally not available in the USA. Castle Leod ages in American white oak ex-Bourbon barrels and European oak ex-Sherry butts before being transferred into prestigious Château Lafite wine barrels. At 46% ABV, I found that a splash of water really opened up the aromas. Again, no age statement (though 14yo), but with whiskies of this quality it doesn’t really matter. The color is an amazing rich reddish-brown. Huge wine on the nose, lots of tannins and a bit of leather. Those delicious red fruits are all over the place. The classic wine flavors are there in the guise of juicy red grapes and plums, but also some bitter chocolate, cinnamon stick, and an interesting fatty richness like french toast batter.
Cromartie is the third in the line of Mackenzie-themed bottlings (the first, the Mackenzie, is sold out) with only 7,000 bottles. Bottled at 45% ABV with no age statement, Cromartie is a bit lighter in color than Castle Leod. It spent time in American white oak ex-Bourbon barrels and Spanish oak ex-Oloroso Sherry butts. Another huge nose with a salvo of sweet aromas, from brown sugar and honey to dried figs and raisins. There’s the orange marmalade, one of Dalmore’s signature flavors, and cocoa dust, too. On the palate the marmalade stands out amid a rich mixture of dark-roast coffee, cinnamon, loads of dark chocolate, and mission figs. Spicy and rich, this is an excellent dram with less of a kick on the finish than the Castle Leod. My favorite so far.
Unexpectedly, Shauna surprised us at the end with a dram of the 1981 Amoroso – only 484 bottles ever produced. This is one of those “treasures of the ancients” drams, impossible to acquire yet highly sought after. At 30 years old, this whisky spent its first 26 years in American white oak ex-Bourbon barrels and the final four years in old Gonzalez Byass Amoroso sherry casks. Shauna calls it “Christmas in a glass” and that’s a phrase I never get tired of. The rich golden whisky has a nose built upon tangerines and marmalade, fruitcake and all its component flavors. It’s a spicy dram with cinnamon and cloves cut by the sweetness of dried figs, dates, and raisins. Orange citrus and almonds and crème brûlée join the palate. The finish is slightly drying with a delicate floral, perfumed note beneath the sweetness akin to violets. It’s going in the little notebook of life-altering drams.
Under the guidance of Whyte & Mackay’s master distiller and whisky rockstar Richard Paterson, Dalmore is experimenting with some truly exciting high-end bottlings. Like the aforementioned Constellation Collection and the King Alexander, which is finished in six different casks, many of these expressions are largely outside the buying power of most consumers and will remain the dreams of the 99%. But as the industry moves away from aged stocks and toward creative finishes, more and more of these styles will descend into the realm of practical purchases.
Dalmore’s core range and the Cigar Malt Reserve are already there and well worth your attention. Just look for the gleaming stag’s head.
Disclosure: Dalmore provided a complimentary private tour and tasting. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.