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Dalmore has been bottled officially as a single malt for several decades now. However in recent years, due to renewed efforts from Whyte & MacKay, it has come to be seen as one of the big luxury whisky brands along with Macallan and Ardbeg. Numerous super aged, ultra-expensive bottlings have helped cement this reputation, which has not always been favorable for the distillery among the whisky nerderati. Despite this vigorous brand positioning Dalmore remains a fine malt whisky, capable of providing full on highland characteristics and great complexity. A little time spent delving into past bottlings reveals a great number of fantastic drams.
Stills: 4 Wash 4 Spirit
Water Source: Alness River
Capacity: 4.2 Million Litres
Owners: United Spirits (Whyte & Mackay)
1956-1982: Massive Expansion.
There are long aged expressions of Dalmore that hail from the days when the distillery was entirely old school and produced whisky in the same manner as they would have for many decades prior to the second world war. However these bottlings, while always stunning, are also among the most expensive you can buy. The finest was the first 50yo bottling that contained whisky from the 1800s in the vatting. These extremely long aged Dalmores are usually full on with wood lactones, dried fruits, many phenolic complexities and often some of the finest aged characters such as menthol, rancio, pipe tobacco and all kinds of fruit notes. They often bear comparison to Cognacs of similar age and provenance. If you get the chance to taste one then lucky you, they show just how brilliantly Dalmore can withstand long aging.
Dalmore had its floor maltings replaced with a Saladin box system in 1956, thus beginning the journey to modernization. Already technically owned by Whyte & MacKay in he early sixties, Dalmore was expanded further in 1966 with the introduction of four new stills, bringing the total to eight. This made Dalmore a serious industry player in terms of capacity. The distilling regime was also updated with steam heating and modern condensers being installed.
To taste Dalmore from the early sixties is difficult but not impossible. There is an excellent official 25yo from 1960 that showed the distillery in all its complex, full sherried beauty and also an excellent 1963 22yo by Cadenheads. Official bottlings at 12 and 20 years old hailing from the early seventies throughout the eighties are usually all stunning and often very herbaceous, smoky, green and oily. Dalmore from this era tends to be more herbaceous and waxy but still full of spice and chocolate. Whereas bottlings that hail from the later sixties and early seventies show a little more green fruit and less intense waxiness. Dalmore is most commonly matured in sherry and as a result one of the most distinctive hallmarks of the make from any era is a thick marmalade aspect.
This reliance on sherry casks has also had a big impact on the flavours and quality of the make over the years. As Dalmore modernised and the effects were gradually felt throughout the latter seventies, the decrease in quality of sherry casks also became apparent. Many sherry casks from this time onwards were shipped empty from Spain and often purified with sulphur candles as well, a practice that often tainted the casks. By the time Dalmore got rid of its Saladin maltings in 1982 it was a much more modern distillate with slightly less majestic wood to fill.
1982-Present: A Big, Bold, Modern Highlander.
Independent bottlings of Dalmore have increased dramatically in the last decade, this has given us some great bottlings and more varied examples of Dalmore. Duncan Taylor and Signatory in particular have unearthed some great examples from refill wood that show a more naked side to the distillery character. Often sweet with rich spice, citrus notes and many subtle cereal and bread flavours, they can be excellent alternatives to the big sherried examples. The distillery itself has focused on expanding the range, not just in the wacko-premium department but also in terms of many finishes, vintages and ages. Some of these work better than others, the wine finishes are often quite vinous, tannic and extractive, lacking the usual lush, fruity balance of standard Dalmores. The best expressions are the aged ones that have been bottled without interference. Dalmore still retains an astonishing capacity to age well and it shows in some of the distillerys recent releases.
Hopefully they will move away from the more designer bottlings and focus more on showcasing what a great malt Dalmore can be when bottled naturally and allowed to shine. Few whiskies can show so well at such a variety of ages and wood types as Dalmore and the sooner this is embraced by the owners the better. Thankfully there are still many excellent independent examples around that remain well worth investigating if you are a fan of big, full-flavoured, sherry heavy drams.