Pouring the dram

That’s a second stamp on my Diageo Classic Malt Passport! Indeed, at the end of July 2017, I visited Dalwhinnie, which is in the Classic Malt range of Diageo. Unsurprisingly, the same rule applies as in Glenkinchie: no picture. The policy was extreme, worse than in planes, every electronic devices had to be actually switched off and a some point, the tour guide properly shouted after a visitor who has forgotten to switch off the screen of his DSLR camera! This time I was equipped and I had a notepad and a pen… Good old fashion! Cannot really reread myself but hey, this is another story!

The Dalwhinnie Distilery is remote, really remote. As a matter of fact it is said to be the highest distillery in Scotland (326 meters, and the water source, Allt-an-t’sluic spring, is also the highest source at 610 metres, the water is pure and clean and do not need any treatment as snow is melting into Lochan-Doire-Uaine). However, Braeval distillery could just be slightly above as it is said to be at 355 meters above sea level… Game is on!

Situated in the Cairngorm National Park (as well as Balmoral Castle, but it’s not right next door to be honnest), Dalwhinnie is a small village (it means ‘Meeting Place’ in Gaelic) sitting at an altitude of 351 meters. And even the Scots would say it’s Baltic over there! The average highs are 9.8 degrees and average lows 2.7 degrees… From November to March, it is not rare to see -15 degrees (or colder)… As a matter of fact, it is the coldest place below 500 meters in the UK. Why is it of interest? It surely has an impact on the taste of the whisky (it is known as the ‘gentle spirit’, it is soft and smooth indeed) and it is probably captivating to study the impact of the temperature on maturation loss. But also, it snows. So it can lead to operational issues, if malt or yeast cannot be delivered by truck, no whisky can be produced! Rumour has it some staff spent days unable to leave the distillery by road!

The distillery was set up in 1897 as Strathspey Distillery. It is right next to the River Spey (but till in the Highland producing region), hence the name (Strath meaning valley in Gaelic). The production began in 1898 but the initial partnership (a triumviri including John Grant of Glenfarclas) collapsed and it was purchased by A. P. Blyth & Sons and John Somerville & Co, it was then renamed Dalwhinne and the new partnership had great plans… It was however sold to a US company a few years later, then goes back to Scottish ownership when the prohibition hit the US… And changes hands again in 1926! And was greatly damaged by a fire in 1934 and it took 4 years to bring it back to operations. The fire hazard was omnipresent as until the 1930’s, there was no electricity, therefore, workers were working with oil lamps. Anyway, it returned to operation with a bad timing as during the war there was restrictions on the barley use… A hectic 20th century for sure! But stability came and in 1987 it became part of United Distiller and subsequently, 10 years later, Diageo.

A good thing, holding a Classic Malt Passport makes the visit free (seems like the basic visit is £12 so that’s a nice save! There are also different tour options) but not only: a free welcoming dram! The distillery is operating on week days so the week-end visits are a bit duller I guess (although washbacks would be fermenting).

The tour guide said the operations were fully integrated in the sense that the barley is coming from Diageo’s farms and is malted by Diageo. The do use a pinch of peat but it is light enough to keep the peaty reluctant drinkers on its side. No comparison with Talisker or Lagavullin! It is actually quite close to Glenkinchie in the style and it’s actually sold alongside it in Classic Malt Gentle Collection.

Malt is milled and 7T is needed for a mash, 34,000L for the first water, 16,000L for the second, the third one as usual is looped. 10 mash per week, this is so 70T per week, this is outputting something like 1.5M litres of pure alcohol, this make sense, the distillery is relatively small. The draff is pelletized and sold to animal feed (the pot ale is also used for animal feed).

There are 6 washbacks, 34,000L each, in pine. Contrary to a lot of distilleries, they are not opened for visitors to smell the distinguishable small and how it hurts the lungs when taking a big breathe above as the resulting CO2 emissions are high. There’s a window and a light though, so one can see inside.

The still room consist in only 2 stills (one wash still, 17,000L and one spirit still, 16,000L). The foreshots are let run for 20 minutes, then come 4 hours of spirit collection then the feints. Foreshots and feints are reintroduced, as usual into the next batch. We start to be quite familiar with the process!

One of the great thing about Dalwhinnie is that it is using worm tub rather than the now most common shell and tube (only a few distilleries are still operating with a worm tub, including Glenkinchie but the tanks are on the wrong side of the building and could not be seen during the tour and on top of this, the tanks are in steel while they are in more traditional wood at Dalwhinnie, it is also more difficult to maintain a wooden tank that size for sure), basically a 120 meters copper coil plunged into water tanks and they can be seen in front of the distillery. If stainless steel condensers are widely recognised to remove less sulphur and create a more ‘meaty’ spirit, there is still argument on which of the worm tub or the now more common shell and tube condensers is removing more sulphur. Most probably the answer is in the total surface of copper in contact with the vapours and spirit during the condensation.

The visit is ending by a visit of a warehouse. One great thing is a mark on a cask to give an idea on how much Angle’s Share is going after 10 years, 12 years of 15 years. Bourbons casks, with some finish in sherry casks, nothing out of the ordinary. Then the little drams, offered in little samples bottles if required, this is nice to take away when driving. So I have been trying the Winter’s Gold and the 15yo. The Winter’s Gold is very smooth and spicy, smells like gingerbread. The 15yo is more powerful, probably a longer finish in Sherry cask while the Winter’s Gold is leaning much more towards ex-Bouron.

Nice visit but nothing out of the ordinary around there. The distillery however won the Drink International’s Distillery Experience Challenge in the category ‘Best Distillery Tour’ early 2017, based on the chocolate pairing tour. This is obviously very arguable, however, considering its remote location, it surely deserve a little marketing help to attract tourists. But there’s a clear trend in the industry to move from just a tour and visit approach to an experience. Only pathetic geeks (like me) are keen on visiting tens of distilleries, normal tourist will visit one or two so they need to differentiate the experience, and whisky pairing and whisky master classes (or blend your own) are the trend (Glengoyne partnership with Highland Chocolatier is a perfect example of a success story)… But the quality of the tour and the maintenance of the grounds is however essential. Scottish Field’s Whisky Challenge awarded on its side the ‘Visitor Experience of the Year’ 2017 title to Glenfiddich and my Glenfiddich visit is in the agenda for very soon so it will be interesting to compare and judge by my own…

Further reading:

Dalwhinnie Website: https://www.malts.com/en-row/distilleries/dalwhinnie/

Dalwhinnie Distillery – Whisky for Everyone: http://www.whiskyforeveryone.com/whisky_distilleries/scotland/dalwhinnie.html

Whisky Distilleries and Families – Scotland: https://www.geni.com/projects/Whisky-Distilleries-and-Families-Scotland/14451

Distillery Experience Challenge 2017 results – Drinks International: http://drinksint.com/news/fullstory.php/aid/6734?current_page=4

How Much CO2 is Produced from Brewing?: https://lifefermented.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/how-much-co2-is-produced-from-brewing/

For Some Distilleries, Worm Tubs Leave Just the Right Amount of Sulfur: https://thewhiskeywash.com/whiskey-styles/scotch-whiskey/distilleries-worm-tubs-leave-just-right-amount-sulfur/

How do worm tubs create sulphur notes?: https://scotchwhisky.com/magazine/ask-the-professor/6549/how-do-worm-tubs-create-sulphur-notes/

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