Discovering the Dalmore
A great many thanks to H. Joseph Lehrmann, 2010 Nightclub and Bar Magazine’s Bartender of the Year, for hosting yet another superb cocktail clubclassroom presentation at his bar, Elixir in San Francisco. I always end up having a phenomenal time, and this was yet another truly special experience for me.
On Thursday March 25, Richard “The Nose” Paterson, the master blender of Whyte & Mackay, put on a superb presentation going through the highlights of distillation history to the popularization of Scotch whisky and the character of the regions. Paterson did a brilliant job of mixing in great factual information with humor and showmanship. The presentation ended with a tasting of four different Dalmore whiskies, and one surprise which I’ll never forget. The following is a combination of my notes mixed in with some outside research.
The most reoccurring theme in alcohol distillation is that most spirits at one time or another have been called “water of life,” and Scotch whisky started as exactly that when it was called “usquebaugh.” The term was abbreviated to “usky” and eventually become the English “whisky.” The Romans knew the region as “Scotty,” which became the modern Scotland.
Distillation most likely began in China in the first couple centuries A.D. The alambic pot still was in use by the 12th century, and was discovered by traveling monks going to China to observe volcanic activity in 1333. The spread of the pot still was “motivated and stimulated” by monks who were using it to infuse the white spirit of their stills with various herbs and roots to preserve and dispense medicine. The spread of black death in 1351 pushed the spread of the pot still across Europe as the need for medicine surged.
By the time of Henry VIII, monks were using small pot stills to create medicine, which was increasingly being used for enjoyment. When Henry VIII claimed to be head of the Church of England, many of the catholic monks exited England and found there way up to Scotland, where they Scottish farmers picked up their stills and began distilling their grains to earn extra income.
Alcoholism was becoming a problem, and the government cracked down on the stills. Distillers fled into the highlands, where the land is less populated and it was much easier to hide operations from the authorities. The government eventually realized that distilling wasn’t going away, so enacted the Excise Act of 1823 to dispense licenses so that alcohol could be taxed.
Four advances and one parasite pushed Scotch whisky into the forefront of the emerging spirits world. In 1814, a larger pot still was created so that hundreds of gallons could be produced rather than just dozens. The Coffey still was invented in 1826, which allowed for continuous distillation. Pot stills produced a spirit with more guts, glamor, muscle, and structure than the lighter spirit from the Coffey still. Andrew Usher improved the accessibility of whisky by blending the two together.
In the 1860s, the fishing town of Campleton prospered on sending wooden casks full of fish to feed American slaves. Once the war ended, whisky was filled into some of these casks and sent to America and England. The English(somewhere Richard Paterson spat on the ground) didn’t like the fishy taste of the whisky, and already preferred French brandy over Scotch whisky. In the US, there were about 100,000 Scotsmen who had emigrated and received these casks of fishy whiskey. They burned the casks to get rid of the fishiness in the barrel and aged the whisky to cover up the flavor.
Nothing pushed whisky further than Californian botanists unknowingly spreading the phylloxera insects to the Cognac region in 1872. This created a shortage of brandy, which forced the English and the rest of Europe to give the improving Scotch whisky a try. By the time brandy producers recovered production, Scotch whisky was firmly entrenched as a force.
Scotland has four distinct regions for whisky distillation. The Lowlands are light, floral whiskies much like a beautiful woman. The Highlands are snowcapped and rugged, much like a charming widow hardened a bit by loneliness. Speyside has 44 distilleries which produce whiskies so light and beautiful that Paterson said they were the “Cindy Crawford” of Scotch. And with the heavy, salty air you get the “Bitches” you’ve got to respect in Islay.
The Dalmore is located in Alness, Scotland in the Highlands, west beyond Speyside and north of the Inverness river. Alexander Matheson, an opium dealer, established the distillery in 1839. In 1868, the Mackenzie family moved in and began using big fat, bulbous stills to ramp up production.
Every bottle of the Dalmore is adorned with a 12-pointed stag which is the family crest of the Mackenzie clan, from when an ancestor saved King Alexander III from a stag while hunting. Dalmore has released a whisky named King Alexander III, and just recently released a whisky named the Mackenzie to benefit the family who owned the distillery for a long time.
After this wonderful overview, Paterson began the tasting by demonstrating the proper way to hold a glass of whisky– by the bottom of the glass so you don’t smell your hands. He then poured in a small bit of whisky into his glass, swirled it around, and dumped it on the floor to get rid excess minerals left on the rim of the glass. The first nosing is all about just saying “hello” to the alcohol, the second nosing is saying “how are you?” The third nosing is to say, “I’m good, thank you.”
Paterson then tells us the John Wayne way of downing a shot, and proclaiming something to be fine is completely wrong. When something is spending 25 years in oak, you should at least spend that amount of time savoring it your mouth. He also advises adding enough water to bring the whisky down to around 35% so that the alcohol burn doesn’t compete with the flavors. The key to tasting is to spend at least 22 seconds tasting the whisky at the top of the tongue, underneath, and at the back of the mouth.
The Dalmore uses a combination of American white oak from the Ozark mountains and casks that have aged matusalam sherry for 30 years before being shipped with oloroso sherry to Scotland. The sherry cask is the “mink coat” for this fine whisky.
The first whisky that we tasted was the 12 year Dalmore. I tasted quite a bit of vanilla and lemon on the first taste, which developed later into more cinnamon and walnuts before finishing off with a touch of spice and licorice.
We moved onto the the Dalmore Gran Reserva, formerly known as the cigar malt(thank you marketing assholes), which had a much lighter, more citrus on the initial taste and finished with a bit of coffee and spiciness. This Dalmore is a blend of malts aged from 10 to 15 years, and used about 60% oloroso cask to 40% American white oak.
The third whisky we tried was the Dalmore 15 year. When you start getting up to whiskies around this age, Paterson recommends using only the slightest amount of water and preferably none. The maceration in the casks should sufficiently take away much of the burn. The 15 year has only been on the market for about a year, but is aged in exclusively in Sherry casks of three different varieties–Matusalem, Apostoles, and Amoroso. This whisky had much more of an orange flavor than the previous two, and moved towards more of a marzipan with a bit of ginger. I tasted darker spices like cloves with this whisky.
The final whisky tasted was the King Alexander III named after the king saved by a member of Clan Mackenzie and immortalized by Benjamin West in a famous painting “The Death of the Stag” hanging in the National Gallery of Scotland. This whisky was aged for various years in wood from six different sources: “French wine barriques, Madeira drums, sherry butts from Jerez, Sicilian marsala barrels, port pipes from the Douro” and Knob Creek bourbon barrels. Before trying this whisky, Paterson passed out 72% Cacao Ghiradelli chocolates.
We first tried this whiskey straight. I tasted a wide range of flavors from cinnamon to pineapple and vanilla. I could taste a bit more peat and smoke from this whiskey. We then were instructed to take a second taste, after a few seconds adding the chocolate into our mouths. The spice and pineapple really came out with the synergy of flavors from the dark chocolate, which melted right into the whisky. Paterson told us to imagine having just drank a fine cup of coffee and told us we were about to experience an “orgasm” of flavors.
The Nose then asked the room if there was anybody in particular who loved single malt Scotch whisky, and immediately I threw my hand up. Paterson then preceded to pour around just over a half ounce of a golden whisky.
On the nose of this whisky, I could smell campfire, honey, cinnamon, and oak. Paterson critiqued my approach at every step of the process, and I knew I was being given an invaluable lesson from a master because more flavors came out when I slowed down my approach to nosing the whisky.
The whisky came on with a honeysuckle dew, followed with clove and mellow cinnamon, before developing into a brilliant blood orange wrapped in an easy oak and french press coffee. The whisky continued to develop as I let it sit under my tongue with a bit of orange rind, ginger, and a mellow peat that began to show. The finish was long with the taste of wild raw honey and a rich cedar, and the memory of this whisky is still on my mind days after I tasted it.
When Richard Paterson told me to swallow this fine expression of mysterious whisky, he pulled a confetti popper and the room filled with colorful debris floating down to the floor. He then told us the the whisky, “wasn’t 12 year old, wasn’t 15 year old, wasn’t 20 year old, wasn’t the 30 year old, wasn’t the 40 year old… and wasn’t the 50 year old. The whisky was the Dalmore 62 year.” This is one of the most expensive whiskies in the world, and I had just drank more than $1200 worth of whisky.
After his presentation was over, the Nose told the story of how a woman in South Africa had downed the shot of whisky and then had come back the next day to tell Paterson that she still had the taste of the whisky. Paterson was flummoxed by her telling him that she still has a taste for the whisky, and then saying she still had the whisky. She then had produced a small jar of the most expensive urine in the world. H did offer me a jar to take home, just in case I wanted to save mine as a memento.
Paterson’s finished the presentation by demonstrating an interesting way to test how much water you’d like to add to whisky. He put a three-quarter full glass of water in my hand, and dunked a napkin just under the waterline. Paterson grabbed one of the nearly-emptied Dalmore bottles used for the tasting, and he poured the whisky slowly into the glass. He then gently pulled the napkin down so that it was flat atop the glass before he pulled the napkin away. The whisky sat right on top of the water, and Paterson claimed this trick worked only with Dalmore whisky(hmmm….).
Paterson left us with the closing thoughts the whisky was best to be enjoyed by a group of friends, and I could definitely have thought of quite a few people I wish I could have shared a dram of Dalmore 62 year with. I’d highly recommend going to any presentation put on by Richard Paterson as he is a comedian, showman, and raconteur. The crowd was engaged from beginning to end, and there were very few drops of whisky left around the room. In face, I know of at least 3 people who drank from the whisky on water.