Scotland’s Gentlest Single Malt

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - May 26, 2006
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One of the things I love most about the making of a great single malt scotch is that a distillery and the area it’s situated in gives both character and personality to the whisky. For example, the rugged isolation of the only distillery on the Island of Skye, and its proximity to the ocean contribute heavily to the unique salty, faintly fishy, somewhat smoky taste of Talisker.

But one of my favorite trips is always to Dalwhinnie, because amidst austere mountains, an environment that’s been described as hostile with some of the coldest weather in the country, this stunningly beautiful place produces one of the gentlest single malts in Scotland.

I was there last month during unseasonably low temperatures. Snow on the hills beyond the distillery - evidence of an unusually late spring - and the bitter cold in the air on what would normally be a warm spring day, meant I shivered as I toured the distillery with manager Donald Stirling.

Dalwhinnie is a favorite whisky of mine for many reasons. My brother lives and works as a gamekeeper just five minutes from the distillery and knows the outlying countryside like the back of his hand. Within a few miles of the ancient distillery buildings there are stags, elk and a number of wild birds including the extremely rare black grouse. Dalwhinnie is a favorite of mine not only because I get to visit family when I go there, but because the whisky produced here is as light and gentle a single malt as you can find. That’s not to say it’s lightweight and not for those who prefer their whisky heartier. Rather this is a whisky with an immense amount of flavor and personality. The morning I was there, one of the copper pot stills was being replaced. This is enormously important in the life of a distillery. The pot stills (at Dalwhinnie there are just two) affect the life of the spirit, giving it its individual character. Superstition throughout Scottish distilleries mean each bump and dent in a still will be re-created in the new one. Oftentimes shiny new copper kettles will be beaten at odd angles to replicate the years of working wear and tear in the old one. No one wants to take a chance on the new still imparting a different character to the whisky.

Donald Stirling explains: “We’ll monitor the new still carefully to get the same amount of vapor and reflux and maintain the character of the whisky.”

One of the reasons Dalwhinnie seems so austere is its location 1,073 feet above sea level. The highest distillery in Scotland is also the coldest, and Dalwhinnie holds the record as the chilliest place in Britain. High above the tiny village of Newtonmore, though, its whitewashed walls and pagoda turrets serve as a beacon to thirsty travelers on the Whisky Trail.

So what should you expect to taste in Dalwhinnie? Well, one of the things about this whisky is that most of the character is in the nose followed by an enormous amount of activity in the mouth. On the nose (try it first without water) there are heathery, wild characters and an obvious light sweetness. There’s not a lot of complexity here. On the palate you may get oranges and lemon. There’s certainly a lot of honeyed heather and a sweet, almost mead like taste. There’s not a real heavy aftertaste - it holds its flavor well - but the pleasure is all in the mouth. Dalwhinnie is aged for 15 years in American oak barrels and is a perfect single malt to start a collection - or one to add to balance out more robust malts with something that’s warm and easy to sip.

From a truly hostile, cold and austere environment comes one of Scotland’s gentler spirits.

You’ll find Dalwhinnie at most fine wine and spirit retailers in Honolulu.

To hear an interview with Donald Stirling at the Dalwhinnie Distillery, go to

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