Revisiting older notes, June/July 2016 was an interesting time for whisky, from the perspective of a whisky loving pianist. Whilst premium-end prices for Macallan/Port Ellen/Karuizawa etc,.. were soaring higher & higher, at the other end, we saw an explosion of NAS malts at contradictory price-points accompanied by jargon over disclosure. Diageo was instrumental in driving this bandwagon and no clearer was that bandwagon push demonstrated than on a tour of the Dalwhinnie distillery. [Diageo don’t allow photos inside the distillery, and nor does our ‘don’t mess with me’ guide].
Our guide, Peter, was positively [ex-]military with no pomp, no-nonsense [no humour], but with loads of information – not only the ‘where’s’ and the ‘how’s’, but the ‘why’s’.
The tour starts in a building which feels more like a guest house/activities centre than a distillery. Equipped with dado rails and other such trimmings, the decor appeared high on the priorities list. Peter talks in more depth than usual guides about the steeping process, starch to sugar conversions, air-kilning and phenols. Now in the distillery itself, Peter tells us that after the malting, it’s the mash tun that breaks down the starch to release the sugars.
7 tonnes of barley enters the mash tun accompanied by 60,000 litres of water. The first soak [the strike] occurs at 64c. Every soak requires more heat to extract the sugars from the milled grain with the law of diminishing returns at play. Get it too hot, or enact the process too quickly, and aside from killing the enzymes, the sugars start to crystalize, ultimately turning to a treacle if left.
From the 60,000 litres of wash, Dalwhinnie realises around 32000 litres of wort which is passed through a heat exchanger to be cooled before entering the washbacks. They don’t want to kill the yeast with all that heat but they want don’t want to lose all that heat either [for efficiency reasons], so the yeast will enjoy a starting temperature of around 18c if I remember rightly. The Mauri company provides the distillery with liquid yeast. Dalwhinnie is looking for a sweet heather honey aroma from the yeast whos flavours will impart into the malt beer.
Dalwhinnie sees a 60-hour fermentation from its [5 metres deep] 6 Oregon pine washbacks.
There are just one pair of stills at Dalwhinnie. The copper conversation is short. The spirit evaporates quickly and shoots into the worm tubs before you know it. Both lyne arms are near horizontal, heading straight out through the distillery walls before kinking down 30 degrees to the worm tubs outside. The distillery switched to modern condensers in the 1980s but found this changed the flavour too much for their liking so they switched back to worm tubs in 1995. [Further reading: SW]
The stills are big and tall. The wash still’s capacity is 17,000 litres. Low wines come out at a higher-than-usual 28% abv after running for 4 hours. Other distilleries typically achieve around 23% abv from the wash still run.
The spirit still’s capacity is 16,000 litres. This still runs for up to 9 hours, producing spirit up to 88% abv. As is standard, after around 20 minutes, the heart is cut [around 67-68%] runs for between 2-3 hours.
Apparently the stills are 19-20mm thick. At Tullibardine, I was told were only 6mm. Are both these facts correct?
Dalwhinnie has two warehouses on-site that hold around 8000 casks. Casks are predominantly sourced from Jim Beam. New make at 67% is reduced in the cask to around 51-52% before maturation commences.
At the end of the tour, we get to try not only the 15yo and their NAS, but the new make also.
Dalwhinnie New make  Un-Ob. 67%
- C: Little fruit if any, this is about neutrality and mild sweet cereals, almost as if Dalwhinnie were preparing spirit for blend. Less metallic than when I tried it a year earlier at an Ian Buxton masterclass.
Dalwhinnie 15yo  Ob. 43%
- I’ve reviewed this aplenty in recent times [WLP184 WLP285], so I won’t bore you with further details. I scored it 79 [in 2016], before I changed and/or it changed and I started ‘getting it’. Given Dalwhinnie resorted back to worm tubs in 1995, allowing a few years for settling & tweaking and for old stocks [15yo+] to be used/depleted, wouldn’t it be around this time that the effects of that change would be fully realised?
Scores 79 points
Interesting and deliberate ordering this, for Dalwhinnie ‘light’ to follow the 15yo.
- N: Our tour guide reiterates what’s on the label, ‘recommended for the freezer’ – ha, that’s sure to work! At room temperature, it noses like the already tempered 15yo but in first gear, stripped of anything that may ‘offend’.
- T: Spongey soft grain that develops raw and reveals its immaturity.
- F: Longer finish than the 15yo due to its snappy raw bite.
- C: Our guide sings the same song as at Blair Athol [also Diageo], namely ‘it’s about flavour, not age’. This is clearly THE message that’s been sent down from the marketing department to the shop floor, heard in every Diageo distillery at the time. Unless everything I’ve known about whisky has suddenly been wrong, once you’ve produced your spirit, the flavour ain’t going to come from anywhere else but from wood. I think this ‘flavour over age’ song will tire as people realize [even taste] the contradictions and clock the pricing inequality. Either that or the next generation of whisky drinkers will be groomed sufficiently on barley vodka that a 15yo will become the holy grail. Incredibly, the price of this NAS [6-7 yo] expression and the 15yo is almost identical!
Scores 75 points
Back in the distillery shop, there’s a try-before-you-buy bar situation, at very reasonable prices. What a great idea! I get to try a single cask CS 18yo Dalwhinnie and catch up on a few more of the Flora & Fauna bottlings – all with age statements.
- N: I’m nosing a weighty whisky, one with an oily maltiness, vanillas, cereals [grassy, dried, wheatsheaf cereals], porridge paste, some putty, Caramac… more vanilla now – ozone-vanillin – with a herbal/floral touch. Happy, let’s move on.
- T: This aged barley spirit with some weight, develops rather gracefully. Admittedly. it’s a little dry in the middle but with more of a buttery mouthfeel into the finish with careful water management.
- F: Overall it’s still humming from that weighty development with buttery husky=chocolate < cocoa action before returning to its cereal roots. Finishes a little dry with more ex-bourbon oak-driven vanilla.
- C: A good whisky that seems to demonstrates that age does matter!
Scores 83 points
- N: Murky wash with a fudge maltiness. I like this porridgy style.
- T: A little peppery,…. and then some! It’s better behaved with water but still feels somewhat wayward. Despite this, it also stays porridgy and becomes a tad chocolatey.
- F: Returns dry then with more Caramac=carob notes. With water, I get a little heathery bitter-forest note with a woody mouldiness at the tail.
- C: Not many Strathmill’s around, official bottling or otherwise so these F&F bottlings appear more desirable year on year. Currently £44 
Scores 80 points
Dalwhinnie 18yo  Un-Ob. cask #3957 51.2%
This distillery shop-only exclusive was valinched straight from a [inert-lined] cask to glass on demand, so was never officially bottled.
- N: Notes then of aged bananas – something in between banoffee pie & trifle – yet it’s neither sugary sweet nor particularly boozy. Citrus notes come forth later, lemon of course.
- T: Now that’s what I’m talking about, full-bodied Dalwhinnie, though it shares a similarly weighted mouthfeel to the 15yo.
- F: Trickles malty-cereal notes, just as the standard 15yo profile, but fuller.
- C: Just what makes this my favourite Dalwhinnie is clear – more age, more strength, more weight, more clarity, and no doubt, less filtering. The magic/phenomena of whisky is through maturation. That’s the point!
Scores 86 points
I can tell the staff aren’t feeling passionate about this new marketing format, though all are professional to a tee. So what will the occasional drinker or tourist [who may think that whisky all tastes the same anyway] buy as a souvenir or as a gift? If they go on price, they’ll find the 15yo cheaper in the distillery than the Winter’s Gold in the supermarkets. Going on the label alone, the 15yo age-statement looks more impressive than the coldly marketed Winter’s Gold, especially as we’re in summer. Turns out many of the tourists on my tour did go for the 15yo whilst some were swayed with other Fauna & Fauna bottlings.
Eventually, I think customers will smell a rat. In the meantime, the industry makes a packet on selling young juice at inflated prices. Hopefully, this means greater investment in core range, matured expressions for the future. The power is in the hands of the us, the consumer.