The Dalmore: A Scotch whisky highland tale

The distillery has a storied history and an iconic crest, but its 12-year-old offering doesn't quite measure up to its potential

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scotch whisky dalmorePORTLAND, Ore. Oct. 3, 2016/ Troy Media/ – The Dalmore is a quintessential Highland Scotch whisky, with a long and storied pedigree.

The distillery in Alness, 32 km north of Inverness, sits on the shores of the Cromarty Firth. It overlooks the Black Isle, which is neither an island nor black. In fact, it’s a peninsula that separates the Cromarty Firth from the Firth of Inverness, both extensions of the Moray Firth. The peninsula is a flat, rich meadowland. The name Dalmore, derived from Norse and Gaelic, means “big meadowland.”

The distillery was founded in 1839 by Alexander Matheson, the nephew of Sir James Matheson, one of the co-founders of Jardine Matheson, the famous Hong Kong trading house. Like his uncle, he made a fortune in the Chinese opium trade and at the ripe age of 34 retired to Scotland. Matheson built the distillery and leased it to the Sunderland family. They operated it until 1867, then leased it to Alexander, Andrew and Charles Mackenzie.

Alexander Matheson died in 1886 and his son Kenneth Matheson sold the distillery to the three Mackenzie brothers. The Mackenzie family operated it until 1960, when it was merged with Whyte and Mackay. After a long succession of owners, Whyte and Mackay was purchased by Philippine spirits company Emperador in 2014.

The Mackenzie family lore is responsible for The Dalmore’s iconic crest. Legend has it that in 1263, Colin of Kintail, the hereditary chief of the Mackenzie clan, saved Scottish King Alexander III from a charging red stag. The stag had 12 points on its antlers and was termed a “royal stag,” since animals of that size were reserved for the king’s hunting pleasure. A grateful Alexander III bestowed on the Mackenzie clan the right to use the 12-point royal stag as the clan crest. The emblem, or caberfeidh, has been on every bottle of The Dalmore since 1867.

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The Dalmore has a number of notable firsts. It was the first single malt exported from Scotland to Australia in 1870. Historically, it has been ranked among the largest distilleries in Scotland. Its current production capacity of 4.2 million litres of pure alcohol still places it among the top quartile of distilleries.

Dalmore has also bottled some of the most expensive Scotch whiskies ever sold. These include a 62-year-old (YO) Dalmore, a blend of casks from 1868, 1878, 1922, 1926 and 1939. The 12 bottles produced were sold for around $64,000 each. In 2010, the distillery produced three bottles of Dalmore Trinitas. Two bottles were sold for around $200,000 each that year and the last was sold for about $240,000 in 2011. In 2013, The Dalmore created a 12-bottle collection in honour of Whyte and Mackay’s longtime blender Richard Patterson. Priced at around $2 million, it was the most expensive Scotch whisky collection ever offered for sale.

The 12-YO is aged in bourbon barrels for the first nine years, then half of the spirit is aged for three more years in butts that previously held Matusalem Oloroso sherry, while the balance continue aging in previously used bourbon casks. Matusalem Oloroso sherry is sweetened by adding a little Pedro Ximénez (PX) sherry. PX is produced from partially raisinated grapes and is intensely sweet and syrupy. To qualify as a Matusalem, the sherry must be produced from a solera whose blend averages at least 30 years old. The name is derived from Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah, who, at 969 years of age, was the longest-lived person in the Old Testament.

The Dalmore is a rich mahogany colour. On the nose are pronounced aromas of cooked fruit, mincemeat tarts and Christmas fruitcake; this is followed by raisins and tropical spice aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, allspice and a hint of cloves, as well as lighter floral aromas. There is a rich note of new saddle leather and wood wax in the background that imparts a sense of oiliness and weight to the whisky.

On the palate, the whisky is drier than its aroma. There is a hint of residual sugar that adds texture and weight in the mouth, and is otherwise well integrated. The usual vanilla and wood spice notes are present, as are the nutty and dried fruit contributions of the sherry butt aging. The pronounced cooked fruit and raisin notes that show prominently on the nose are subdued on the palate, however. There is a background creamy cereal note reminiscent of fresh-baked croissants, as well as citrus notes of marmalade, candied orange zest and hints of triple sec.

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The alcohol has just a bit of an edge, as if it could have used another three or four years of barrel aging or maybe a bit more sherry sweetness to polish its texture. Its sophisticated range of flavours notwithstanding, it seems thin, washed out, lacking the intensity that the colour and aroma would have promised. It begs the question of how much of The Dalmore’s rich colour is from the sherry butt aging and how much from the liberal use of caramel colouring.

The finish is of moderate length with notes of almonds, sweet marzipan, candied orange, and hints of vanilla and tropical spices in the background. It ends on a slight espresso note.

On balance, though, it lacks the nuance, depth or sophistication that would have been suggested by its aromas.

This is a good but not great whisky. It is well made with no obvious technical faults but it fails to deliver on its initial promise, or measure up to the distillery’s pedigree.

Rating: Appearance: 9/10. Nose: 27/30. Palate: 22/30. Finish: 22/30. Overall: 80/100

Joseph V. Micallef is an historian, best-selling author, keynote speaker and commentator on wine and spirits. Joe holds the Diploma in Wine and Spirits and the Professional Certificate in Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (London). Bottoms Up is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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