The Dalmore distillery is located near to Alness in the Highlands of Scotland. Founded by entrepreneur Alexander Matheson, it began production in 1839 and continues to this day.
Matheson eventually sold the distillery to three brothers of the Mackenzie family. With them came their family crest, a 12 pointed Royal stag, which adorns each of the company’s whisky releases. This crest dates back to 1263 when Colin of Kintail, the chief of Clan Mackenzie, saved King Alexander III from a charging stag. Among other things, the right to use this as their clan crest was awarded to them by the King.
The distillery remained in family hands up until 1960 when it was sold to Whyte & Mackay, which in turn has been owned by a huge array of differing parent companies. One of the main figures to have seen the distillery grow over the past 53 years is the enigmatic Richard Paterson, the company’s master blender and well known whisky figure, who has carefully watched over the numerous releases.
The distillery has recently been undergoing a facelift which has seen a new visitor’s centre at its site on the banks of the Cromarty Firth. Renovations to its main production areas are also ongoing. The current capacity is around 4.3 million litres per annum.
A Brief History
The Dalmore distillery was founded in 1839 by entrepreneur Alexander Matheson, who had made his fortune working for trading firm Jardine Matheson.
While he set up the distillery, by the 1860s it was actually the Mackenzie brothers – of Clan Mackenzie – who ran it in his and, later his family’s, stead. They were a huge part of its early success, and there is evidence of The Dalmore being sold as far afield as Australia as a single malt – a rarity in those days.
When whisky writer Alfred Barnard visited in 1887, he noted the very fortunate positioning of the distillery: “Having a branch line from the railway running into the premises, and sea communication almost at its doors; added to this, it is placed in the centre of a good barley-growing district, and there is an abundant supply of fine peats in the district. The distillery has sole command of the river Alness, which issues from the beautiful Loch of Gildermory, close to Ben Wyvis, and which is of the finest quality for distilling purposes.”
In 1891, the Mackenzie brothers purchased the distillery outright from the Mathesons, and with them came the famous 12 pointed Royal stag, a key part of their family crest. This dates back to 1263 when Colin of Kintail, the chief of clan Mackenzie, saved King Alexander III from a charging stag. Among other things, the right to use this as their clan crest was awarded to them by the King.
In 1917 the British Royal Navy started to use a neighbouring estuary (firth), as a location for the production of deep-sea mines. During 1920 an accident at the deep-sea mine plant caused a huge explosion and subsequent fires, which destroyed much of The Dalmore distillery, leading to a lengthy legal battle between the Mackenzies and the Royal Navy. Eventually the distillery was rebuilt and production started up again.
The distillery remained in family hands until 1960 when the Mackenzie Brothers Ltd merged with Whyte & Mackay. In 1966, the number of stills was increased to eight, helping to put the distillery on the map as a malt producer for the wider company’s blended Scotch.
Most of the focus for the remaining thirty years was on making whisky for blends, and the company went through numerous mergers and buyouts, changing hands frequently over the decades. The one constant has been well-known whisky figure, Richard Paterson, the company’s master blender, who has been with them for 53 years. It is perhaps his legacy and respect that has led to the company breaking records for some of the most expensive Scotch to be sold. This has included a £1 million Paterson Collection called The Compendium, and a 62 year old bottle that fetched £25,000 at auction – at the time a record for a single bottle.
In recent years, a large number of whiskies have been released from The Dalmore, including the most popular 12-year-old, alongside a 15 and 18-year olds, and more exclusive bottlings such as the King Alexander III. Unfortunately, independent bottlings from The Dalmore are very few and far between. The taste profile tends to be quite rich, due to the frequent use of European oak ex-Sherry casks, which lend sweetness, spice and depth to the whiskies.
Like many of Scotland’s distilleries, Dalmore was impacted by both the First and Second World Wars. However, it wasn’t until 2019 that a large study uncovered just how much this Highland distillery had been a part of the war effort.
The investigative project, funded by the Orion Group and Cromarty Port Authority and undertaken by the Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (Arch), revealed that major takeovers of land on site and nearby the distillery occurred in both 1917 and 1942.
In 1917, during the First World War, the distillery was inhabited by the U.S Navy in order to assemble mines that were to be laid between Orkney and Norway in the Northern Barrage. The individual components of each mine were sent from the United States to the west coast of Scotland. From Kyle of Lochalsh they were then transported via rail to The Dalmore.
Large sheds at The Dalmore hosted the assembly lines for the mines. Once constructed the mines were loaded on to U.S mine-laying ships and sent out for deployment. Between May and November of 1918, more than 56,000 mines were assembled and deployed.
A Pier, called Yankee Pier, was constructed to transport the mines directly to the military bases, but it was only completed once the war was officially over. In 1919 the U.S occupation of the distillery came to an end and it was handed back to U.K Admiralty before being passed back to Dalmore’s owners who began distilling again in 1922 – but not before a major explosion actually destroyed much of the distillery and caused it to be rebuilt.
Just 20 years later, in 1942, the land to the west of The Dalmore Distillery was taken over once again but this time by the Royal Air Force who had outgrown their facilities in Invergordon.
The archives, photographs and stories of the military men and women can still be viewed today at the exhibition at Invergordon Museum.