Very few things beat getting up close and personal with an excellent whisky in its natural environment, and, as such, the main driver behind our growing W Club Partner Offer list is to make it easier for our members to explore the world of whisk(e)y, both in Scotland, but also further afield.
Out of all the distilleries we could have visited on the new Partner Offer list, we chose to visit Dalwhinnie and Blair Athol. We did so for two reasons. Firstly, they are often overlooked compared to some of the more famous distilleries on our list. And secondly, they are accessible off the A9 for anyone who is based in Scotland or is visiting from elsewhere in the world.
The drive up the A9 itself is special. As we headed north, we passed through the autumnal reds and browns of the deciduous trees, more common the further south you are. But then they slowly give way to the tall, dark green, needles of the evergreen forests. Shortly after this, the road joins up with the Highland Main Line, before emerging onto the pastel colours of the Highland heaths and bogs.
It is among this low-growing Highland vegetation that we Dalwhinnie. We were informed on our arrival that Dalwhinnie is the highest distillery in Scotland, and we are also told that the village of Dalwhinnie records the lowest average temperature of inhabited region in Scotland. We haven't verified this latter assertion; but once you've been in the area for five minutes, you won't question it either.
As you arrive at Dalwhinnie, eagle-eyed whisky fans will notice the large wooden worm tubs outside the front of the distillery. Dalwhinnie takes advantage of the temperature in the area by using it to cool the spirit vapours as they come off the stills. We won't get too into the technicality of how a worm tub condenser works, but effectively once heat is applied to the wash in the still - which separates the alcohol from the rest of the liquid - these vapours need to cool down so they can re-condense and be captured. To achieve this arm of the still runs into a spiralling copper tube that exits the distillery building and runs through a large wooden vat of water that uses the cold temperature of the Highlands to cool the vapours. Worm tubs like this are traditional but nowadays are rare. Interestingly, however, is that the use of this condenser, and how cold Dalwhinnie gets at times, means that the folks at the distillery claim it can alter the viscosity of the spirit produced in the summer versus the winter.
It's far from the only quirky aspect of the distillery. Starting with the fact that this distillery, although unmistakably in the Highlands, was originally named the "Speyside Distillery." Very little about the windswept heaths feels very Speyside. But to be fair, it's only seventeen miles from the nearest Speyside distillery, not far from the source of the Spey and, after all, all Speyside distilleries are in the Highlands.
We enjoyed our trip to the Dalwhninnie distillery. The distillery exclusive cask is a beautiful dram, and we got treated to an excellent pairing of whisky and chocolate, with some chocolates from the famous Highland Chocolatier, Iain Burnett, which is always a treat!
After Dalwhinnie, we headed back down the A9 to the town of Pitlochry, shrouded in beautiful forestry, and to the Blair Athol Distillery. The distillery is located close to the centre of this attractive town, alongside its water source Allt Dour Burn. The Blair Athol distillery gets its famous otter logo from said burn, as they were once plentiful along the stretch of the river where the distillery is located. The folks in Pitlochry have been distilling on this site for one-hundred years longer than our friends at Dalwhinnie; having opened in 1798 versus 18989. And the building is visually striking, covered in beautiful green and red vines, a real contrast to the whitewashed walls and black trimmings of Dalwhinnie.
We were impressed by Miki, who showed us around. It's no secret that all distillery tours focus on tourists and catering to guests who might be unfamiliar with Scotch - Dalwhinnie was no exception in this regard - however, Blair Athol was a bit more in this extreme. For example, we got to stroll right into the dunnage warehouse at Dalwhinnie versus viewing the warehouse through a glass window at Blair Athol. Perhaps this is down to the greater non-whisky related footfall Pitlochry receives versus Dalwhniie, or because the overwhelming majority of the output from Blair Athol goes into blends, compared to the volume of Dalwhinnie that is bottled under that brand as a single malt. Having said that, this should not put off some more experienced whisky heads. It's still worth a visit, even if just for the very impressive Mash-Tun Bar that is literally a refitted mash tun. An aesthetically impressive bar with a solid offering; we only wished we'd more time to sit at it!
Why not visit some more famous distilleries such as Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Oban, or Talisker? The list is long, and our partner offers grow regularly. Don't miss out, join the W Club!
The original feature is from the Winter 2022/23 edition of Whiskeria, delivered to the door of W Club subscribers and also free with any Whisky Shop purchase in store or online.