Dalwhinnie, or “Dail Chuinnidh”, Gaelic for “the Meeting Place”, is beautifully situated north of the Drumochter pass, on the south-western edge of the large Cairngorm National Park in between the Ben Alder and Creag Meagaidh mountain ranges. History tells us the location was often used as a place to rest weary travelers’ legs or meet up with herders and smugglers to exchange, and, of course, consume the locally distilled uisge beatha. On most of our travels we have driven up the A9 many times, and spotted the village and the distillery down in the valley, but although it is only a two hour drive from either Edinburgh or Glasgow, and sort of halfway from our planned destinations in or around Speyside, the moment to stop always passed during the planning phases. Until earlier this year.
Coming from Drumnadrochit in the early morning, driving alongside the mist covered Loch Ness, passing Fort Augustus and the Lochs Oich and Lochy while staying on the A82 until we pass the Commando Memorial (great look out point if you are there to stop and take some pictures) and turn left onto the winding A86 in Spean Bridge. A gorgeous route, where we had the joy of the retreating fog revealing more and more of the hilly landscape until we turned right onto the A889 – General Wade’s Military Road. Around that point we got to see the last remnants of the river Spey, only a little shy of 12 kilometres before we reach our destination with the characteristic wooden wurm tubs in the front of the building.
Finally. After starting our distillery-trips through Scotland in 2012, passing the distillery at almost every opportunity we had, we had reached the 351 metres above sea level, in elevation the highest distillery of Scotland and the last stamp in our travel companions’ Diageo passports, receiving their well earned wee Friends of the Classic Malts Quaichs. Mission accomplished, let us celebrate with the amazing hand made chocolates, thick, creamy hot cocoa and a dram of their 15 year old, the gentle spirit, confirming the well known fact that chocolate and Dalwhinnie whisky is a match made in heaven.
Shielded from harsh weather types by the mountain ranges, the highest inhabited village of Scotland has an average year-round temperature of only 6°C with normal Summer highs around 18-20°C and Winter lows of just above 0°C. A perfect climate for distilling whisky, where production and cooling water temperatures are always good to use straight from the Alt Ant Sluic Burn, a direct descendant from the river Truim, which branches off from the aforementioned river Spey, making it more a Speyside distillery than some of the distilleries in the Speyside area, which pump their waters from a borehole, but that is up for discussion for another time.
Built in 1897 as the StrathSpey distillery, the distillery changed hands many times in the first 30 years of existence, during which it was renamed to Dalwhinnie as early as 1905. As we have seen with many distilleries they had to close their doors during times of war and barley scarcity, and after a large fire in the 1930’s forced the owners to rebuild large parts of the distillery a few years after it was sold to the consortium that eventually would become their current owner Diageo. They made the change from coal fired into steam heated stills in the 1960’s as many others did in that period, and consecutively closed the maltings when the change was made from train to road-transported malted barley deliveries. In 1986, the old cast-iron wurm tubs outside the distillery were upgraded to modern shell-and-tube condensers, but this changed the character of the new make spirit so dramatically that when they completely refurbished the distillery in the early 1990’s they installed the wurm tubs we see today, bringing back the missing sulphury notes in the new make spirit.
The grey day in May we were there matched the outside of the distillery walls in dire need of a fresh coat of white paint, but a freshly painted ochre and mint green interior shows a whole other, maintained and lively environment. We run into the old Boby mill that has been retired some time ago and is replaced by a modern day mill, which twice a day, five days a week, processes seven tonnes of slightly peated Aberdeenshire barley into their full lauter stainless steel mashtun. Here, contrary to most other distilleries, only one batch of unfiltered burn-water is added, ramping up the temperature to get to the desired levels. Seven to eight hours later, the rakes leisurely stirring with only two revolutions per minute, a clear wort is filled into one of the six Oregon Pine washbacks, where a liquid Mauri brewers yeast is added to ferment ten washes per week for at least 60 hours each.
One 17.000 litres wash still sufficiently runs the liquid from wash receiver, through the first wurm tub into the spirit receiver, from where the 16.000 litres spirit still slowly processes the liquid into a modestly peated and slightly sulphury spirit with an average of 67% abv, of which a small portion is matured on-site in one of the two dunnage warehouses while the remainder of the 1.3 million litres per year is tankered away to be warehoused in the company’s facilities in Fife, where the maturation of a minimum of 15 years in (mainly) ex-Bourbon casks is started.
After a lovely tour around the distillery we find ourselves back in the visitor centre. Without any sandwiches sold here, but only (the great!) chocolates, we decided to get back into our car instead of risking a chocolate overdose. We took an alternative route heading south, staying off the A9, letting the GPS lead us to the Aberfeldy distillery where we knew some mighty fine lunch options are available.
Having written about many of the visited distilleries on our latest travels through Scotland where we explored new and familiar regions, taking alternative routes from time to time, we still have some great distilleries left to tell you about. Next week you can find some pictures on our Facebook page of the next distillery we visited, heading a little north again from our lunch stop at Aberfeldy, moving back to the river Spey and getting lost on the small and bendy but beautiful tracks on the borders of the Cairngorms. Be sure to check in! We have loads of more whisky wanderings in the making, and as you read in our recent newsletter some new features will soon be added from the WhiskySpeller HQ.