Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Friends New and Old. September 7th, Glen Ord and Dalmore

Sunlight streams through the gap in the curtains of my box-room's window. Keen for the day to begin I leap out of bed. Slightly too fast. Stubbing my toe on the corner of a bedside table I trip over and headbutt the wall, doubtless waking other patrons of the guest house with my choice Saxon utterances and questionings of the architect's lineage and education. After grumbling my way through morning ablutions and checking out of the guest house I find myself basking in yet more astonishing Invernesian sunlight. Hopping into the car I am soon over the Kessock Bridge and on the far side of the Moray and Beauly Firths surging towards Glen Ord.

Glen Ord is an interesting one. It is the 4th biggest Distiller of Malt in Scotland, sufficiently large that they also do all the maltings for their sister distillery Talisker, and with a hefty 70% (ish) of its 11 million annually produced litres of spirit turned into Single Malt, yet outside of the distillery you cannot buy a bottle of Glen Ord Single Malt in the UK. The reason for this is pretty simple - it all goes towards a very thirsty Asian Market - but it still means that Glen Ord is another distillery whose produce I have not previously sampled, which always makes a prospective tour that little bit more enticing...

The reason I didn't visit Glen Ord during my year living in the Highlands was that from the road it
looks like a rather industrial, unattractive affair, with none of the charm I tend to romantically attach to my distilleries. This however, as it turns out, is something of a veil; once you travel down the 'drive' and past the initial dark factory-like buildings you find a very attractive grey stone visitor centre replete with floral decoration. Arriving at 10 I book a tour for 10:45 (there is a coachload of pre-booked tourists who have filled the first couple) and wander around the shop and visitor centre whilst I wait. It's well worth visiting Glen Ord to get a sense of the scale of the Scotch Whisky's international clout - when you consider the 7 pairs of stills on site (of which the tour shows you three wash and 3 spirit) further consider that far more famous distilleries such as Highland Park have only two of each and finally bear in mind that more or less every last drop ends up outside of the UK you can't help but be impressed. And unless you take the trip you are unlikely to taste this spirit, which combines relatively equal amounts of Bourbon and Sherry matured whisky, comes in 12, 15 and 18 year old editions and is detailed below!:

Singleton of Glen Ord 12 yo - Sherry and a touch of oak on the nose backed up by toffee and caramels. Bit of brown sugar and ripe apples. Sweetish on the palate - fairly simple, easy-drinking sort of style. Suspiciously identical in colour to 15 and 18 yo...Honey and citrus late arrivals to nose. Decent, uncomplicated stuff. 40% ABV

And so on to distillery number 2 of the day, which is Dalmore, and this gives me a problem. See here's the thing: in what F.Scott Fitzgerald would call my 'younger and more vulnerable years,' when caramel colouring and chill filtration were not concepts with which I was familiar, when I didn't ever read about whisky and couldn't afford more than a bottle or two of entry-level Single Malt a term, Dalmore was very much a whisky I aspired to. I remember seeing it in the superb Gauntleys of Nottingham and being seduced by its elegant bottle, its silver Stag and its dark orange hue. The 12yo
was at the very upper limit of what I could afford (which gives you some idea about the range of Single Malt I was drinking) and so I only bought it once. But presumably I enjoyed it - certainly it still occupied a very prominent position in my personal Malt hierarchy when I moved to Inverness and visited the distillery twice.

Nowadays of course I am rather better informed, less full of youthful naiveté and more aware of the wider world of Whisky. And with that comes the knowledge of the terms in which Dalmore is described in those corners of the internet where Whisky Wanderers gather to vent their spleen. I realise that the orange hue that first beguiled me is nothing more than a trap for people like the myself of yesteryear, who know relatively little but believe that good Whisky is dark, and that Whisky which turns cloudy with the addition of water must be whisky that has developed a fault. I understand further that the elegant design and majestic emblem are part of a marketing campaign designed to cement Dalmore's reputation as the Rolls Royce of Scotch Whisky; the distillery producing bottles more expensive than houses, and helmed by that most flamboyant of Whisky characters Richard Paterson, who goes by the epithet 'the Nose,' and has
insured his own for more than $2.5million.

All of this does not add up to the sort of distillery likely to be beloved by a low-income Whisky Pilgrim determined to uncover drams offering real value and calibre. And herein lies my problem because, as I admit to myself as the Corsa eats up more of the A9, I have previously loved the Dalmore. Indeed I have in the past ranked it amongst my very favourites, and have sung its praises when asked for Whisky recommendations. And, on the threshhold of tasting it for the first time in years, and for the first time since my real passion for Whisky and thirst for knowledge thereof began, I am worried that this love is about to reach its shattering crisis.

My affections certainly aren't hindered by the Dalmore's location. Its firthside seat on the banks of the
Cromarty is pretty special at the worst of times, and on this most glorious of days makes for a truly dazzling sight. I enjoy a spot of picnic lunch as I wait for the Two O'clock tour to begin, basking in the day's sunlit brilliance. Further massive points are earned by the distillery from the fact that our guide Anne-Marie (who is from my neck of the woods on the Wirral) recognises me from the tour I took over 18 months ago. I've never had a bad experience with a Distillery tour guide, but that really was an incredibly pleasant surprise. Anne-Marie was also an incredibly assured and confident guide; someone who clearly knows the distillery inside out, and was able to rattle off fact after fact about the genesis of the stag, the process of making the juice and the various idiosyncrasies that make the Dalmore unique. Many points there. I also really like the aspect of the Dalmore's tour in which you are able to nose the new-make spirit at its various 'still stages' of alcohol level, from the foreshot, right through the middle-cut and down to the feints. And the warehouse really is a cave of wonders; if you can imagine a style of cask it's probably in there,
from pipe to butt to hogshead. I examined a couple of the wine casks and noticed the name Rothschilde printed upon them...doesn't mean anything in term of creating amazing whisky I know, but let's not forget that my day job's in grape-juice, and I think that entitles me to regard such barrels with due deference!

And then we come to the tasting. Dalmore do their video at this stage of the tour. Back in the day it was Brian Cox (actor not scientist!) narrating 'the story of the Dalmore' - eg cut and paste the Dalmore's name into any distillery video anywhere in Scotland, add a couple of individual accolades at the end and there's your script. However this is now changed, and what you have instead is a video of Mr Paterson earnestly relating his opinion of the best way to taste a glass of whisky in order to derive maximum appreciation. And I actually really like that. Whether or not I agree with his tips or would personally taste in that manner myself there's no denying that it comes across as more sincere and informative than its filmic predecessor. Indeed of all the distillery videos I have now watched, this is the only one (other than the first one I ever saw) to which I can honestly say that I paid attention throughout.

But on to the main event. The fire and brimstone of the internet's purists ringing in my ears I pick up the glass with heart in mouth and nostrils a-tremble to find...

The Dalmore 12yo -  Ok, firstly, don't let your nose be guided by the colour, because otherwise you'll be way off. This is a whisky that can last for decades and decades, so at this infancy the spirit character is big and prominent and fiery and full of bright fruit on the nose in citric, malic (green apples) and mildly tropical form. Robust on the palate with some savoury chocolate and a dusting of coffee behind the vanilla and caramel layers. Returning to the nose there are the very earliest suggestions of sultana and faint Christmas spice. Despite only being bottled at 40% the alcohol jumps out on both nose and tongue. Full bodied. 40%ABV

So. The devil in a dram? No. Between a stunning setting, astoundingly friendly staff and more than averagely interesting and comprehensive tour the Dalmore certainly isn't that. Furthermore I actually rather like Mr Paterson and the cut of his jib; in fact there are few if any people in the world of whisky that I would be as keen to meet in person. And as far as the colouring and chill filtration go - yes they're bad habits, yes
it would be a better dram without them, but are they unique in these habits? No. Numerous distilleries of greater size and equal if not greater prestige than the Dalmore do just the same. Are things likely to change any time soon? No. Not whilst the uninformed link colour to calibre. And that's nothing to do with people being 'idiots' or 'snobs' as the more vitriolic of these practices' critics suggest. It is simply because marketing and the media have created a scenario within which high quality whisky is invariably shown as being dark in colour, so those who wish to take their interest no further than a dram upon occasion (which is a perfectly reasonable attitude encompassing the mindsets of most of the whisky drinking world) will inevitably lean towards whiskies of a duskier hue.

And for what it's worth, the Dalmore, both whisky and distillery, are still very special to me. Is the 12yo the best entry-level on the market? No. Although objectively it is still fairly high up there and a dram with legions of followers 
that will appeal in many many ways to drinkers both new and seasoned. But more importantly it's a Whisky that I love, and if I turn a slightly blind eye to its foibles, well isn't that what love is?

A wonderful day ends with a detour to Fiddlers in Drumnadrochit by Loch Ness, one of my favourite pubs in the world, and with hundreds and hundreds of whiskies on offer a must-visit for all weary Whisky pilgrims. But needing to drive back to Inverness to stay with some old friends I muster the mental fortitude required to limit myself to just one. With a week of exploration and discovery ahead I take this opportunity to return to the comfort of the whisky which means more to me than any other in the world. But which whisky that is is a story for another day.


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