Strathspey Distillery (later to become Dalwhinnie) was founded in 1897 by three intrepid entrepreneurs, John Grant, George Sellar and Alexander Mackenzie, who had high hopes of cashing in on the great whisky boom of the late 1800s when a lot of Scotland’s current distilleries were built. Their unique choice of location was a real case of you can’t have your cake and eat it, because although the location is ideal for whisky making and enjoys great transport links, they couldn’t have chosen a less forgiving location for human habitation.
Slap-bang in the geographical heart of Scotland and very well connected by road and rail, Dalwhinnie (meaning “meeting place” in Gaelic) endures an exposed location at the highest point on the railway linking Speyside with the central belt of Scotland. Doubling as a meteorological station, it’s officially been classed as the coldest inhabited place in Scotland (and probably the UK) with an average temperature of just 6°C. It’s regularly cut off in winter due to snow falls so the distillery maintains the ability to be completely self-contained with a hostel also located on site to house the staff.
Production commenced in 1898 but unfortunately Messrs. Grant, Sellar and Mackenzie ran into financial strife and sold off that same year to a bloke named A. P Blyth who bought the distillery for his son. The youngster didn’t fare much better because seven years later in 1905 the distillery, by now renamed Dalwhinnie, was sold at auction to US distillers Cook & Bernbeimer, making it the first Scotch distillery to be owned by a foreign company. Foreign ownership endured a mere 14 years before blenders Macdonald Greenless took charge, later licensing it to Buchanan’s from 1926. Fire sadly destroyed the distillery in 1934, but it reopened from 1934-40, closed for several years again and then was back up and running from 1947 to date. The distillery was brought under United Distillers umbrella in 1987, and Diageo from 1997.
Dalwhinnie is one of the best known single malts in the world and thanks to its honeyed, heathery and quintessential Highland style it’s long been a staple in virtually every whisky shop and decent bar in the world. Today of course whisky lovers are spoilt for choice with an incredible range of single malts, not only from Scotland, but also from further abroad and even in our own backyard here in Aus, so it’s fitting this month for us to review the remarkable role that Dalwhinnie played in shaping Scotland’s and indeed the world’s single malt industry.
Looking back to when it all began, it was in the 1970s of course that Glenfiddich first made the bold move to bottle some of their whisky as single malt instead of using it for blending. The result was good, people liked it and so the single malt category was born. Over the next 20 years the fledgling category slowly grew as other distilleries like Glenlivet and Balvenie joined in, but it was always massively overshadowed and outnumbered by the big blends like Johnnie Walker, Chivas and Bells. The turning point came in 1988 when United Distillers (soon to become Diageo) conceived an ingenious new way to promote single malt whisky that would ultimately benefit the entire industry. Realising that malt whisky’s greatest asset is its diversity of flavour and provenance, United Distillers grouped six malt whiskies from their portfolio, each representing a different region and flavour profile, and named this collection the “Classic Malts of Scotland”. Dalwhinnie 15yo represented the Highlands, Talisker 10yo the Isle of Skye, Cragganmore 12yo Speyside, Oban 14yo the West Highlands, Lagavulin 16yo Islay and Glenkinchie 12 the Lowlands. Presented on a smart wooden plinth, Dalwhinnie and the other Classic Malts were an instant success and soon became the staple of bars and liquor stores across the world, not to mention the plush executive offices of the 80s and 90s. Aside from the huge success at company level, the far greater achievement was that of introducing to the consumer the concept of whisky regions and their flavour profiles, thereby growing the entire single malt whisky market by creating a demand for single malts from other distilleries – eventually placing us in the privileged position in which we find ourselves today. We’ll drink to that!