The highest distillery in Scotland is located at Dalwhinnie in Inverness-shire at an elevation of 1073 feet. The little town lies midway between Perth and Inverness in a glen with the Monadhlaith Mountains on the one side, the Forest of Atholl, the Cairngorms and the Grampians to the other. It was a popular haunt of smugglers and cattle drovers on their way to the markets of the south – in fact Dalwhinnie means meeting place in Gaelic.
Established during the whisky boom of the 1890s, the original name of the distillery was Strathspey, after a nearby town. It was founded by three men from Kingussie, John Grant, George Sellar and Alexander Mackenzie in 1897.
The location for the distillery was ideal as it had access to the pure clear spring water of Lochan-Doire-Uaine (or Loch of the green thicket), above the snow line. The water from there fed the Allt an t’Sluic a burn which flowed over the local peat. This distillery burn was bedded in granite and flows into the Spey River. These waters today are for the exclusive use of the Dalwhinnie distillery. The surrounding moors had plenty of peat too.
Unfortunately the business did not do well and they sold the distillery to A.P. Blyth in 1898 who renamed it Dalwhinnie. His son sold it in 1905 to the largest American distilling company of its time, Cook & Bernheimer. Scottish distillers were worried that this would mean the beginning of an American takeover of the whisky business. Fortunately these fears were allayed with the advent of Prohibition in the United States.
The distillery was back in Scottish control when Lord James Calder, shareholder of MacDonald Greenlees, a whisky blender bought it in the early 1920s. MacDonald Greenlees was taken over by the Distillers Ltd in 1926. Dalwhinnie then passed onto another blender John Buchanan’s group, well known for Buchanan and Black & White Whisky. Dalwhinnie was damaged by fire in 1934 and reopened in 1938. James Buchanan used Dalwhinnie as the core malt of the Buchanan’s and Black & White blended whiskies.
Dalwhinnie Distillery today is as beautifully maintained white-painted complex of buildings with its two distinctive pagodas. The distillery has kept its traditional wooden wash backs and distinctive lye pipes leading from the tops of the stills. Its elevation has made the distillery the local meteorological observation point. Dalwhinnie’s malting has been done elsewhere since 1968.
Only in 1988 did the distillery launch its own whisky, as a part of United Distillers’ Classic Malt range. Their whisky is a full bodied malt with a surprisingly delicate taste. Only 10% is sold as itself. The rest is used in blends. Their Dalwhinnie 15 year old has a smooth lasting flavor of heather and honey with a rather intense finish of smoke, peat and malt. Their Distillers Edition 1985 is a sweeter smoother drink with well defined malt and cask wood flavors.