The Stag and The Oystercatcher

This really is a beautiful and peaceful place to visit. I arrive early, an hour before my tour,  and spend the time staring out over the Moray Firth, feeling calm, savouring the moment. Why so quiet? I don’t know. A few miles up the road the Glenmorangie car park would be full and people crowding into the shop, further back down the A9 Tomatin would also have a throng, but here it is just me. Just me, staring into the mid distance and idly contemplating nothing in particular, in a hazy mindless way, content in the beauty of the surroundings. Over the water you cannot help but notice the mothballed oil rigs, perhaps waiting for an upturn in the oil economy but more likely waiting to be dismembered. Whisky is prey to cycles,  booms can be followed by bust but surely it is not as dramatic as oil. Two great Scottish industries are here side by side but the one out to sea is in decline. As for the other, well I’m not so sure things are as rosy as some people claim, especially as the world economic situation looks fragile and even China looks a bit wobbly so some of the big expansion plans of the last few years are being scaled back. Sometime I will look more closely at the statistics to see what they say – but not now. Now is the time to enjoy the surroundings and think only of single malts and Dalmore in particular.

I really don’t know why more people don’t come here because not only is the location beautiful, the distillery itself is a place full of surprises. Some have nothing to do with whisky. Near the buildingoystercatcher eggs, behind a low wall, an oystercatcher has laid an egg, and it is just there in easy view. When you see something like that you appreciate the thinking behind the Diageo Flora and Fauna bottlings: distilleries in places like this are surrounded by wild life. Inchgower, on the other side of the Moray Firth, is the bottling with an oystercatcher. I would almost be tempted to buy it for that fact alone as I am inordinately fond of of those long red beaks and their black and white plumage. But now Dalmore will fill that bill. Forget the stag obsession, this can be the new whisky of the oystercatcher. But I know that apart from me this will never happen.

Stags are too well established in this place and they come laced with symbolism and myth. At the very start of the tour there is another surprise  when you are led into a hallway to confront a huge (and when I say huge, I mean HUGE – it is 366 x 521 cm!) dramatic painting of a heroic figure, standing erect, about to plunge his spear into a stag and rescue his king. Although its shorthand title is ‘Death of a Stag” the full title is the rather more wordy, but precise: ‘Alexander III of Scotland Rescued from the Fury of aMackenzie stag Stag by the Intrepidity of Colin Fitzgerald’ .  The legend is that the first chieftain of the Clan Mackenzie rescued his king and was given the right to use the stag head on the clan’s coat of arms (the same head you find on a bottle of Damore). It was painted in 1876 by Benjamin West as a commission from Francis Humbertson Mackenzie, who became chieftain in 1873 and is a huge statement of aggrandisement. In these days of a multitude of media and a plethora of images, we have to remind ourselves of the power public art at the time, when  huge narrative paintings like this would sometimes be put on show and crowds would queue to see them. A strong image can both express and amplify sentiment so imagine what this must have meant in its castle home. Before I saw this I thought that the stag head on a bottle of Dalmore was a bit ostentatious  button any more. The Mackenzies are obviously people who take their heritage very seriously and are a bit showy with it.

But actually it is a good beginning to a visit because it vividly illustrates a family connection, family myths and an historical background going back not just to the Nineteen Century when the distillery was founded but beyond. It says very clearly that Dalmore is deeply embedded into the Highlands and why shouldn’t it, Dalmore was owned from 1878 to 1960  by members of the Mackenzie family, so why should this not be celebrated? The fact that it is now owned by a Philippine company after being owned by one from India, is neither here nor there. But there is also something quieter from the Mackenzie heritage that I rather like and that is the clan motto “Luceo non uro (I shine not burn)”. I think this should be the aspiration for all good whisky.

Anyway enough of these diversions, what of the distillery? Again the answer dalmore-stillscomes back: it is really rather quirky. This is completely unexpected, maybe because I hadn’t done proper research, but my expectation was mostly informed by my impression of the whisky: rich and round. If it was a car I would picture it as a limousine. From that I thought the production facility would be smooth and slick. Ha! Stupid boy! It is actually one of the most idiosyncratic distilleries you could imagine. For a start the wash stills have flat tops and look really quite weird as if they were cut down to fit into a low room. Then there are water jackets around the necks of the spirit still to cool them down and increase reflux – also weird. If that wasn’t enough one of the spirit stills is twice the size of the other three and produces a different character of spirit. Add to all this the fact that some on the  stills are the oldest in Highlands and date back to the Nineteenth Century (although it probably a bit like the axe that has had both its handle and head replaced). All in all the still room looks a bit like its been assembled from a copper jumble sale. Brilliant. It looks as if the character of the spirit is determined by the balancing of differences, in an old school, uncomputerised way and it is very appealing. I’m sure that if Ealing Studios had made another whisky film (they made Whisky Galore) its distillery would look a lot like Dalmore.

I don’t know if Emperador, the new owners, have plans to expand Dalmore. If they do it would be very difficult to do so without losing its character. It is compact and idiosyncratic distillery with plenty of character and long may it remain so.

Notes
1) The painting in the distillery is a copy, the original is now in the National Gallery of Scotland.
2) The photo of the oystercatcher egg is from http://wildforms.blogspot.co.uk
3) The photo of the still room comes from http://laurentbochet.free.fr/?view=273, which has some really nice photographs of the distillery. I had to rely on an external source because cameras were not allowed on the visit