Dalwhinnie 15 Review – The Bridge Between Regions

Dalwhinnie lies within two of the most prominent scotch-producing regions of the world: Highland and Speyside. With light and fruity Speyside on one side and elegant Highland on the other, Dalwhinnie 15 is created with the best of both worlds. It’s a single malt scotch that is just as comfortable in a scotch-lovers’s bar as in a beginner’s first glass.

General Dalwhinnie 15 Information:

  • Considered a Highland Whisky
  • Located in Speyside
  • The second highest distillery in Scotland
  • Has some of the lowest recorded temperatures in the UK
  • On the list of The 6 Classic Malts of Scotland
  • Light and fruity flavor, fairly uncomplex
  • Notes of dried fruit, heather and just a bit of brine
  • Harsh alcohol burn
  • Recommended with water
  • A good beginner scotch

What is Dalwhinnie?

Dalwhinnie

Before we delve into the finer tasting points and business history of Dalwhinnie, let’s define it. Dalwhinnie is a single malt Scotch from the Dalwhinnie distillery.

While there is some debate about whether it is technically a Speyside or a Highland malt, everyone can agree that it does rank as an exceptionally well-made single malt scotch.

What is Single Malt Scotch?

A quick definition of single malt scotch is always worth refreshing. Whiskey is simply alcohol made from fermented distilled grains (barley, corn, rye, wheat, etc.)

Scotch is, very basically, whisky from Scotland. There are several more expansive rules that delineate Scotch from everything else. These include aging, production, labeling, mash bill, etc. But for our purposes, keep the simple definition in mind.

Now let’s break down the full phrase “single malt scotch.”

  • Single – refers to a single distillery. Not a single barrel, not a single grain, not a single bottle. It simply means a single distillery. Think of it as the distillery’s chance to show off their own unique product.
  • Malt – here’s where we get into the single grain. “Malt” in this case always means barley. Barley is malted by harvesting the grain, soaking it until it sprouts. Then drying it, usually over a fire so it gets toasty. Differences in the malting process can add wood or peat notes, but the basic process is the same.
  • Scotch – as we agreed earlier, whisky from Scotland.

Put it together and we get Scottish whisky from one specific distillery made from malted barley grain. That’s it! Simple as a glass of whisky.

How is Single Malt Scotch Made?

scotch

This becomes a very complicated question the more in-depth you go, but let’s focus on the basics. You’ll need to know the very simple outline of production in order to understand what sets specific single malts apart from each other!

Malting and Mashing

First, the barley is harvested, allowed to germinate and sprout, then toasted overheat. This process is called malting.

This malted barley is then ground into grist and added to warm liquid to create “mash” and begin breaking down sugars. The finished product is called “wort.”

Fermenting and Distillation

The wort is passed into tanks and combined with yeast for fermentation to begin converting the sugars to alcohol.

The wort, now called “wash” after fermentation, moves to distillation stills and is distilled twice to create a clear high ABV alcohol product. The first still is a large copper pot still that creates a low-wine. This low wine is then distilled again in a spirit still for a stronger version.

Maturation and Aging

The high quality, high ABV spirit is then transferred to barrels, usually, oak or ex-sherry, to begin aging and maturation. Single malt must age for a minimum of 3 years within Scotland.

Where is Dalwhinnie From?

dalwhinie 1

The Dalwhinnie distillery is located between the Grampian and Monadhliath mountain ranges within Cairngorm National Park in Inverness-Shire – the area that has logged some of the absolute coldest temperatures in all of the UK. It’s largely inclement and inhospitable with heavy rains and wind-whipped hills.

Technically this region is within both the Highland and Speyside regions of Scotland. Two regions that create very specific types of scotch and are regionally protected.

Dalwhinnie calls itself a Highland malt on its website and marketing materials. And they are listed as the representative of the Highland region in the 6 Classic Malts of Scotland list released by Deagio the liquor conglomerate. (But as you’ll see below, Deagio owns the Dalwhinnie distillery so they can really say anything they want.) Since the distillery bridges both worlds, it can legally be called either a Highland or a Speyside. Though in 2009 the Scotch Whisky Regulations deemed it a Speyside.

But let’s also keep in mind that Dalwhinnie does hold the title of the Second Highest Distillery in Scotland at 1,154 ft elevation. (Dalwhinnie was the highest. But in 2008 the Braeval distillery opened at 1,164 ft., knocking Dalwhinnie off their perch. Figuratively.)

Since the Dalwhinnie distillery is so elevated, I think we can let them call themselves a Highland without too much fuss. After all, Dalwhinnie certainly exhibits something of a Highland taste profile.

What is a Highland Scotch?

Highland Scotches are typically lighter and fruitier with notes of heather and wood smoke. There are occasional bottles with faint peat notes, but these are fairly rare and depend strongly on the distillery’s location. The Highlands, in general, are very large, so isolating a particular all-encompassing flavor profile is difficult. Think flowers, fruit, heather, smoke, and honey.

A Brief History of Dalwhinnie

Dalwhinnie distilery

Dalwhinnie’s history begins in 1897 when John Grant created a distillery by the name of Strathspey. But within a year it was having financial difficulties.

For the next 30 years, it changed hands repeatedly. Including once into American ownership, who quickly began creating blends to suit American tastes. Fortunately the Scottish reacquired the distillery 15 years later and returned it to its single malt roots.

In 1987 Dalwhinnie became a part of the United Distillers company, eventually to become Deagio in 1997. Dalwhinnie 15 found itself on Deagio’s list of 6 Classic Malts of Scotland. The relatively unknown distillery and its malt were rocketed to fame.

By the early 1990s Dalwhinnie 15 was making headlines winning whisky competitions worldwide, including its most recent Gold win at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2016.

What sets Dalwhinnie apart?

While the governmental regulations on scotch production mean that there can’t be too much variation in production, there are a few key elements within every distillery that sets them apart from everyone else. Dalwhinnie is no exception.

Wooden Worm Tubes

The distillation process for scotch requires that the newly created alcohol must go from liquid to purified gas, back to purified liquid. The first liquid, the “wash,” is converted into gas to purify the alcohol. This gas is condensed into another liquid known as “low-wine.” The low-wine proceeds through the second distillation described above.

The condensation needed for distillating scotch is completed by controlling temperatures within a set of copper tubes. The tubes are kept cool and as the vapor passes through their rungs, it cools back into a liquid which can either be distilled again or removed for aging.

Most distilleries today use a shell and tube condenser to condense the gas back to liquid. However, Dalwhinnie is very proud of their traditional old wooden worm tubes for this process. These tubes are made out of copper and then submerged in large wooden vats of water for very precise cooling temperatures.

The longer, slower condensation in wooden worms creates a whisky with a stronger body. This might be why Dalwhinnie has such a full and chewy mid-palate – one of its most delicious aspects!

The Water

dalwhinnie scotch

Water is a huge part of Scotch production, and every distillery in the land seems to claim they have the best water.

I know what you’re thinking “water? What’s the big deal, water doesn’t taste like anything.” Correct. But it is the area surrounding it that can impart chemicals, minerals, nutrients, or flavors to the passing water. This does make it taste like something.

And Dalwhinnie’s water is located in Lochan an Doire-Uaine at 2,000 ft. elevation in the Drumochter Hills. According to their website, this pure spring water flows through layers of peat downhill. Which supposedly adds a delicious faintly smoky background to their scotch for a “uniquely clean, accessible, malty-sweet taste” in their single malt.

While you may be somewhat skeptical at the romantic language they use to describe this flowing water, you actually can taste very faint hints of peat and smoke for a deeper flavor. So, I’m rather inclined to believe them and appreciate the subtle effects the Lochan an Doire-Uaine and its peaty surroundings may have!

(It is true that legally no one else is allowed to use this water, so we’ll never be able to compare!)

What does the 15 mean?

Almost all single malt scotch will be labeled with the number of years it aged. This will be the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle.

For Dalwhinnie 15, this simply means that the youngest whisky in the bottle is 15 years old. There may be much older, longer aged single malt scotch mixed in as well. But the very youngest dram used was aged for 15 years in Scotland. How is that for quality guarantee!

Other Dalwhinnie Selections:

Many single malt scotches have long lists of potential buys like 10-year, 12-year, 16-year, 18-year, etc.

Dalwhinnie only has the 15-year as its key aged single malt. (You can buy much longer aged versions, but they will be pricier and aren’t generally found on just any old liquor-store shelves).

There are two additional scotches from Dalwhinnie on sale now.

  • Winter’s Gold – a playoff of their notable “coldest temperatures in the UK” designation. This dram is made only from spirit distilled in the fall and winter months. A mix of honey and hot spices. (Dalwhinnie suggests you serve it chilled!) Winter’s Gold runs slightly cheaper than the 15 years.
  • Distiller’s Edition – an exceptional and rare expression. It demonstrates clearly Highland notes of honey and heather and is just faintly creamy. Smooth and decadent. It’s hard to find, but if you can, buy it! Slightly pricier, Dalwhinnie Distiller’s Edition runs around $70.

Dalwhinnie 15 Taste Test

dalwhinnie 15

The Dalwhinnie 15 has an ABV of 43% which is a little higher than some scotches. So you may notice a bit of a harsh burn.

If you have an alcohol with a higher ABV, it’s often wise to add about 2-4 drops of water to your glass. Yes, this dilutes it, but not noticeably.

The harsh alcohol burn will reduce. But more importantly, many flavors\ and aromatic compounds within scotch react chemically with water to produce whole new aromas and flavors. This is why critics will say the scotch “opens up” with water.

I always recommend taste-testing with water and without to get a full idea of the potential in a bottle of dram.

If you need even more of a cut, serve it with one ice cube. This will both dilute the higher ABV and cool the liquid. But whether you are for or against ice, definitely try the Dalwhinnie 15 with a bit of water at least once!

Tasting

  • Eye: Golden with amber flecks
  • Nose: A charcuterie plate, light and citrusy, Olive Brine
  • Palate: Light vanilla notes, a hint of salt brine, maybe a bit of raisin, but overall fairly light and simple, harsh spicy burn
  • Finish: Short and quick, but the harsh alcohol and wood spice lingers, not much else present, overall feels very shallow.

Tasting with Water

  • Nose with Water: Definitely opened up, strong brine notes, a bit of toasty brioche, floral notes like heather and a bit of wood spice like vanilla
  • Palate with Water: You can taste the wood spice much more, less burn and more toast, still a hint of brine followed by a windswept heather marsh
  • Finish with Water: Toast, and brine hidden behind tempered wood spice, a bit of vanilla and raisin

Price of Dalwhinnie 15

Dalwhinnie is one single malt scotch that you don’t have to break the bank to find. The range tends to be between $50 and $70, but it can vary based on where you live and the time of year. Shop around a bit before committing and you’ll be able to locate a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15 within your price range.

FAQ’s About Dalwhinnie

How do you pronounce Dalwhinnie?

Of all the scotches in the world, Dalwhinnie might be one of the easiest to pronounce. It’s pronounced: Dal-win-ee (dal-WHINNIE).

What are some alternatives or similar scotches to Dalwhinnie?

While no two scotches are exactly the same, it’s fairly easy to find some within the same general group and flavor profile. Dalwhinnie is a bridge between Highland and Speyside whisky, so you are likely to find good alternatives or similarities within those two branches. Some to check out?
• Glenfiddich 12 – similarly fruity
• Glenlivet 10 – orchard and honey flavors
• Balvenie 12 – most Balvenie has similarly light character

What food pairs with Dalwhinnie?

Keep in mind Dalwhinnie’s lighter profile when pairing food. Nothing too heavy or you’ll overwhelm the subtle light floral and fruit notes in Dalwhinnie.
• Meats: Light, delicate fish. Dalwhinnie pairs exceptionally well with buttery fish like scallops, lobster or crab. And the harsh burn can pair well with creamier dishes like seafood alfredo or carbonara.
• Vegetables: Summer vegetables like zucchini or winter vegetables like winter squashes both pair well with Dalwhinnie
•Desserts: Dalwhinnie is exceptional at dessert pairings. Try creamy desserts like creme brulee, butter desserts like shortbread, caramel desserts like bread pudding, or fruit desserts like poached pears.

Final Recommendation on Dalwhinnie 15

If your question is, should I try it? My answer is unequivocal yes. Yes, drink Dalwhinnie 15. If you are a fan of Highland or Speyside scotches, Dalwhinnie is going to rank up in one of your absolute favorites. It’s the perfect bridge between the two and full of light fruit and honey character with classic heather and just a hint of peat.

Adding a bit of water to the Dalwhinnie 15 cuts down on the higher ABV and opens up the rich Highland heather and wood notes that might otherwise be missed!

But probably my strongest recommendation is: This is a good beginner scotch, especially with some water added in.

That is not to say that established scotch drinkers won’t like it. Rather than if you have a friend who says they don’t like scotch, this might be the one to change their mind. If you have that friend who says they’ve always wanted to try scotch, Dalwhinnie 15 is one of the best scotches to start them. (Similar scotches, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich also fall into this category.)

Whatever your palate preference, it’s worth it to give Dalwhinnie 15 a shot. If for no other reason than to say you’ve tried one of the 6 Classic Malts of Scotland!

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Kathryn Loveless

Kathryn Loveless is a freelance writer for hire who delights in all things delectable. You can find her perfecting a roast chicken recipe, hunting down a new bottle of scotch, or hosting a wine and cheese soirée somewhere in New York. My passion for Scotch started in college when my conniving parents gave me their best whisky for my "first taste." Needless to say, the stuff my friends had at school didn't compare. They had a joke "If Kathryn comes to a party, you need a whiskey that's over $40." My first job in NYC was hosting several fine-dining establishments where I learned everything I could from bartenders and mixologists. Now that I work in writing and development full-time, I continue my education in classes around the city and explore the newest whiskeys on the market. (Still trying to find a bottle of Compass Box No Name if you have any leads...) Newest in my collection: Compass Box Peat Monster and Port Charlotte Islay Single Malt (I love peat if you can't tell.) Most interesting thing on the market right now: Japanese whisky! (No "e" since much of the trade was learned in Scotland.)
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