In March 2018 I was on a final research trip for my book Sea of Bones and I took a train between Edinburgh and Inverness. Anticyclone Hartmut, dubbed the Beast from the East, had blanketed most of Europe in deep snow and temperatures were minus 20 where I’d come from. In Inverness, a hire car awaited – a small Fiat, if I remember correctly. Some friends had questioned not only the choice of car but the wisdom of travelling to the Highlands of Scotland in such conditions. But I’d worked too hard getting my manuscript to this point to give up on my long-anticipated trip now.
The train made its way between the Cairngorm and the Monadliath mountain ranges. On a frozen prairie in full view from the train window, sat Dalwhinnie Distillery, the second highest of all Scottish whisky producers. Dalwhinnie’s name was taken from the Gaelic word ‘Dail Chuinnidh’ or ‘meeting place’ because these high pastures were where cattle drovers heading south would gather on their journey. Something about those squat white buildings set against the landscape was comforting and bracing in equal measure.
This is a place where drovers and mountain ranges meet and where whisky styles meet too. Speyside whiskies come from a ‘protected region’ for Scottish whiskies, around the River Spey. Dalwhinnie officially lies within Speyside’s borders. At the time it was first built in 1897, capitalising on a position between the new Highland rail connection and the Great North Road, Dalwhinnie was even called ‘Strathspey’, if only for a year (more on that later). Technically then, Dalwhinnie could be a Speyside. Yet Dalwhinnie is designated as a Highland whisky – which is also correct, since Speyside falls inside the Highland area.
So, if all Speysides are Highlands but not all Highlands are Speysides, what’s the difference? Speyside whiskies are traditionally fresher or fruitier tasting than their Highland counterparts. Highland whiskies deliver more peat and smoke. Dalwhinnie embraces this duality, delicately marrying Speyside sweetness with smokiness borrowed from the local peat over which the distillery’s water flows. The water’s source, Lochan an Doire-Uaine, (Gaelic for ‘lake in the green grove’) is unique to Dalwhinnie, used by no other whisky. It is cradled by the Drumochter Hills at 609 metres’ altitude, the highest water source of any Scottish whisky.
The water source might be considered an ace card, but Dalwhinnie has been dealt bad hands. Failing after just one year, the distillery was purchased and renamed in 1898. Only seven years later it was sold again to American distillers Cook and Bernheimer. Fears rumbled that the Americans would ruin Scottish whisky-making. To local consternation, they began blending Dalwhinnie with other whiskies to create a more America-friendly character.
1919 and the Prohibition saw Dalwhinnie come back into Scottish hands but still the distillery’s trials and tribulations weren’t over. In the 1930s, a fire broke out and closed the place for four years. Rebuilding was hindered by 6-metre snow drifts. After battling all that, the 2nd World War and its barley shortages meant a further period of shutdown.
Dalwhinnie really has braved it all, including as a weather centre recording the lowest average temperature in Great Britain. How has it grown? From the 1960s, ingredients and processes have been continuously honed. It is still blended with Buchanan’s Black and White but also is now one of the top-selling malts in the world in its own right.
My train and I passed by. Cold rain lashed the windows and drenched me when I arrived in Inverness and caught a bus to my hire car. The roads though were clear of snow and for the next few days around Inverness temperatures were surprisingly mild. The welcome too was warm. By day, I wandered the coast’s spectacular forests and sand dunes where migratory birds strutted in shallows and lifted into the blue sky. At night, my guesthouse left drams of whisky in miniature conical flasks on my bedside table for me to sample. Among them Dalwhinnie, just like the distillery itself, comforting and bracing in equal measure.