Whisky Review: The Dalmore 12 Year - The Whiskey Wash

Whisky Review: The Dalmore 12 Year

The Dalmore 12 yearThe Dalmore is a quintessential Highland Scotch whisky, with a long and storied pedigree ranking it among Scotland’s most renowned single malts. The distillery is located at Alness, 20 miles north of Inverness, and sits on the shores of the Cromarty Firth. It overlooks the Black Isle, which is neither an island nor black, but is in fact a peninsula that separates the Cromarty Firth from the Firth of Inverness, both of which are an extension of the Moray Firth. The peninsula is a flat, rich meadowland. The name Dalmore is derived from a combination of both Norse and Gaelic and, in fact, means “big meadowland.”

The distillery was founded in 1839 by Alexander Matheson, the nephew of Sir James Matheson, one of the co-founders of the famous Hong Kong trading house Jardine Matheson. Like his uncle, he made a fortune in the Chinese opium trade, and the age of 34 he retired to Scotland. Matheson never actually operated the distillery he built, leasing it instead to the Sunderland family. They operated the distillery until 1867, after which it was leased 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 would operate the distillery until 1960 when it was merged with White and Mackay. After a long succession of owners, White and Mackay was purchased by Philippine spirits company Emperador in 2014.

The Mackenzie family lore was responsible for The Dalmore’s iconic crest. Legend has it that back in 1263, Colin of Kintail, the hereditary chief of the Mackenzie clan, saved the 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.

The Dalmore has a number of notable firsts. It was the first single malt exported from Scotland (to Australia) in 1870. For much of its history it has been ranked among the largest distilleries in Scotland. Its current production capacity of 4.2 million liters of pure alcohol still places it among the top quartile of Scotch whisky distilleries.

It is also famous for having bottled some of the most expensive Scotch whiskies ever sold. These include a 62 YO Dalmore comprised of a blend of five casks, from 1868, 1878, 1922, 1926 and 1939. The 12 bottles produced were sold for around $48,000 each. In 2010, the distillery produced three bottles of Dalmore Trinitas. Two bottles were sold for around $150,000 each that same year, and the last was sold for approximately $180,000 in 2011. In 2013, the Dalmore created a 12-bottle collection in honor of White and Mackay’s long-time blender Richard Patterson. Priced at close to $1.5 million dollars, it was the most expensive Scotch whisky collection ever offered for sale.

One of the significant features of the Dalmore distillery is the use of Loch Lomond stills. These stills have three water cooled plates in the neck of the still and allow the distiller to better control the level of reflux during the distillation. Effectively, they give the distiller the ability to mimic the effect of shorter or longer necks on the resulting distillate—the taller the neck, the higher the reflux, the portion of the vapor that condenses in the neck and falls back into the pot still for re-distillation. The combination of increased copper contact from multiple distillations, as well as the effect of taller necks to select lighter aromatic compounds, creates the floral and fruitier aromas typical of lighter whiskies. Although not unheard of in the Highlands, this kind of aroma profile is unusual among The Dalmore’s more robust Highland brethren.

The Dalmore 12 year old is aged in bourbon barrels for the first nine years, after which half of the remaining spirit is aged for an additional three years in sherry butts that previously held Matusalem Oloroso sherry, while the balance continue their aging in previously used bourbon casks. Matusalem is a type of Oloroso sherry that is sweetened by the addition of a little Pedro Ximénez (PX) sherry, which 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 with a blend averaging 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.

Tasting Notes

The Dalmore is a rich mahogany color with the characteristic reddish orange hue of fine antique wood. On the nose there is an initial pronounced aroma of cooked fruit, mincemeat tarts and Christmas fruitcake. This is followed by honey baked rum-infused raisins and tropical spice aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, all spice 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. A background creamy cereal note reminiscent of fresh baked croissants emerges, as well as citrus notes of marmalade, candied orange zest and hints of triple sec.

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). On the whole, however, the whisky disappoints on the palate. Its sophisticated range of flavors notwithstanding, it seems thin, washed out, and lacking the intensity that the color and aroma would have promised. It begs the question of how much of the Dalmore’s rich color is from the sherry butt aging and how much from the liberal use of caramel coloring.

The finish is of moderate length with notes of almonds, sweet marzipan, candied orange and hints of vanilla and tropical spices in the background before it ends on a slight bitter coffee note. On balance, it lacks the nuance, depth or sophistication that would have been suggested by the nose.

Conclusion

This is a good whisky but it is not a great whisky. It is well made with no obvious technical faults, but it fails to deliver on its initial promise. At an average price in the U.S. of $56 a bottle it is only slightly cheaper than far better sherried offerings like The Macallan or Aberlour’s A’bunadh, and more expensive than comparable 12 year old sherry-finished single malts like GlenDronach or Aberlour 12 year old. Worth a taste but probably not a bottle, unless you can find a screaming bargain, say under $30.

Score: 80/100