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Monday, 31 October 2011

Please Sir, Can I Have Some Dalmore?

Say what you want about easyjet, at least they fly to Inverness. A bonus if you want to visit some of the more northerly extremes of whisky making on this Fair Isle (and beyond). Plus, they don’t have the audacity, as with some other budget airlines, to pretend that where they’re going isn’t actually where they’re going. Honestly, if the Scotch Whisky Association were given overview of Ryanair’s airport naming policy and applied the same rules they have for whisky labels, we’d all be in safer hands!

As a football fan, I take great delight in visiting new grounds (hopefully to see Oxford play) and this season alone has already yielded another four grounds to my list, with such glamourous locations as Morecambe, Plymouth and Macclesfield penned in the diary. Thankfully Swindon has been done. In more ways than one.

This passion for visiting new grounds, new places and meeting new people has been carried over to distilleries; I love visiting new ones, meeting the people who make the liquid as well as discovering the individual and unique processes that make each distillery distinct. ‘Every day is a school day’, when going around a distillery. You always, without fail, learn something new. So it was with gusto that I jumped at the chance of visiting the newly refurbished Dalmore distillery.

With Scotch whisky exports up by 20% in the first 10 months of 2011, interest in the product has never been higher and people don’t just want to consume, they want to imbibe. Not just the liquid, but the history, the stories and the folklore. This means that when people do go to Scotland, they’re keen to see where their favourite dram is made and how it goes from grain to glass.

The Dalmore has invested £1 million in creating an experience for visitors which guides them through the spirit-making process using clever lighting; the Washbacks are lit with neon strap lights, creating a Tron-eque environment, while the Stills are bathed in flashing lights, recreating the boiling of the liquid and the separation of water and alcohol. The whole experience is a visual delight, half Science Museum, half Coldplay gig.

For the uber-geek however, the real fun comes away from the Still Room. The more time I spend at distilleries, the more I appreciate the ‘cut point’ of the spirit:

The cut point is one of the essential aspects that gives a distillery’s New Make its unique flavour. During the second phase of distillation, the spirit runs off the still and must be captured, placed in a cask and matured. However, you cannot use all of it. The foreshots, the first section of distillate, contains some volatile compounds which can make you ill and the feints, the latter section of the distillate, is too low in alcohol. And doesn’t taste great! This leaves the middle section, known as the ‘heart’, to be saved for maturation. Every distillery chooses which section of the distillate to select as their heart and this will have a profound effect on the profile of the whisky. Thus, the points where the distillery selects to start and finish collecting the heart, are known as the ‘cut points’.

At The Dalmore, the cut is made at around 70 – 72% alcohol. One of the new installations at the distillery is designed to show why this is. A display of 12 bottles of new make spirit are open for nosing. Each bottle has been filled with spirit from a different ‘cut point’, so each has a differing level of alcohol. The range runs: 61% / 64% / 67% / 70% / 72% / 74% / 78% / 80% / 81% / 82% / 83% plus a bottle containing the feints and one containing the foreshots.

This fantastic display allows visitors to nose the difference in aroma between the spirits. Some of which are very nice (closest to the heart) and some of which are not so nice (closets to the foreshots); it highlights the huge importance of taking only the best spirit away for maturation, or else you’ll end up with a pretty bad dram!

In the same area, there is a fantastic sculpture of barrel made up of staves from different types of wood (plane, sherry etc) at different charring levels; a great visual example of the range of casks the spirit can find itself in, for maturation.

The Dalmore has also been offering visitors the chance to purchase a distillery only bottle. A single cask from 1991 chosen by the workers at the distillery, only 450 bottles have been released.

The Dalmore – 'Distillery Exclusive' - 1991 - filled: 25/01/1991 bottled: 10/08/2011) - 20 Years Old – Distillery Only - Comes in a Drawstring Velvet Bag – 450 bottles only - 59% ABV (£150)

Nose: Fruit and Nut Chocolate with a glass of Port is the first aroma out of the glass. Behind it comes pine nuts and a hint of Ryvita. The well-hung, aged raw steak giving it a slightly meaty note. With water, the chocolate tones develop greater prominence.

Palate: Orange Sherbet, orange crèmes mix with good woody driness which gives the whole things some balance of spice to the sweetness of the orange. There is robust Porty nature to this (I don’t know what type of cask this has been in) which I first encountered in the nose. With a drop of water, palate tones turn more to tangerine flavours. Really very tasty.

Finish: The finish is much more robust than the palate, with espresso notes, five spice, a hint of Black Jack sweets and Wham! Bars (I’m getting all Retro-sweet shop here!).

Overall: It’s not often you see an official single cask Dalmore released, so a bit of a rarity from the distillery. But judging by this 20 year old, it has proved a great choice by the distillery chaps and will hopefully open the door to a few more like this in the distillery shop. In short, an excellent bottling at a good age, with a robust ABV and packed with flavour.

The tour at The Dalmore was entertaining and educational and is very much worth a visit. If every day is a school day, when going around a distillery, then visiting The Dalmore is like sports day; you’re bound to have a bit of fun.