Luxist Samples The Dalmore Mackenzie
When it comes to scotch we are always-eager drinkers, yet we know our palate for the ochre-hued beverage has a few years of finesse left to develop before we can lay claim to a scotch maturity. Yet if we are known for anything, it is our willingness to do what it takes to hone those finer points of our humanity. It was the brand's parent, Whyte & Mackay, who flew us to Edinburgh to take the next step in our whiskey learning, and that is how we found ourselves seated in a table at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, set before Benjamin West's 12-foot-wide, 17-foot-tall painting from 1786, Alexander III of Scotland Rescued from the Fury of a Stag by the Intrepidity of Colin Fitzgerald, about to taste The Dalmore Mackenzie. Our hosts provided us a powerful and delicious education.
Gallery: Luxist Tastes The Dalmore Mackenzie
Yet before we could commence our liquid education, we had to find out what it was we were drinking. The Dalmore brand is part of Whyte & Mackay, a Scottish spirits firm that also includes White & Mackay blended and single-malt whiskeys, Isle of Jura single malts, and Snow Leopard, Vladivar and Pinky's vodkas. (Whyte & Mackay is itself part of a larger spirits company, United Brands, but if you're a Formula 1 fan you've seen Whyte & Mackay branding on the side of the Force India team cars.)
The Dalmore itself is an exclusive whiskey – and we employ "exclusive" not as a mere adjective, but as numerical fact: whereas Glenfiddich sells about one million cases per year, Macallan about 700,000 cases and Glenlivet roughly 600,000 cases, The Dalmore does but 40,000. In fact, most of The Dalmore's finer attributes are grounded in incontestable reality as opposed to aspirations and dreams: it has the oldest maturing stocks of any single Highland malt whiskey, going back to 1868; in November 2009 a one-of-one bottle of Dalmore Oculus was auctioned by Bonham's for a hammer-price of £23,000; The Dalmore still holds the record for the most expensive bottle ever sold, an anonymous buyer putting down £32,000 in 2005 for a bottle of 62-year – just three years earlier a bottle of the same held the record for the most expensive, having sold at auction for £25,877.50. Obviously, the brand's "dynamic distillation" and American and Spanish oak sherry maturation casks – not to mention the nose of Master Distiller Richard Paterson – have the intended effects.
The Dalmore Mackenzie is the latest special flavor to join the lineup. Benjamin West's painting depicts King Alexander III of Scotland on a hunt in 1263. As he was about to be gored by a stag, Colin Fitzgerald, the first chieftain of the Clan Mackenzie, speared the stag through the forehead and saved the potentate. Alexander honored Fitzgerald by allowing him to use the stag's head on his coat of arms. Francis Humbertson Mackenzie took over the chieftain-ship in 1783 and had Benjamin West – an American-born painter who would become president of the Royal Academy in London – create an enormous commemorative depiction of the event.
The painting is a backdrop, though – it is the clan itself that has helped bring us the whiskey. The seat of the Clan Mackenzie is Castle Leod in Strathpeffer, near Inverness, and the family has owned the distillery used to create The Dalmore since 1886, when they bought it from the brand's founder, an English Member of Parliament and illicit opium trader named Sir Alexander Matheson. The clan worked with Whyte & Mackay's fantastic head of brand, David Robertson – a man whose resume includes some of the finer vintages of Macallan – and the irrepressible, third-generation master distiller Richard Paterson to build a whiskey worthy of such association with royalty and heritage. The point is, over the next ten years, to raise seven figures to protect the castle and support activities organised by The Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland & The UK.
After a dinner that included cured salmon with wheaten bread, venison filet, roasted carrots and parsnips, thyme and port wine, and a baked curd tart with honeyed apples, convex glasses adorned with stags were brought for us to sample the creation. The initial spirit in The Dalmore Mackenzie was distilled in 1992, then placed in American white oak casks from Ozark, Missouri to age for 11 years, with the result of that process then then re-filled into port pipes from the Douro region of Portugal. It is the port that gives the whiskey its mahogany gold and amber tones, meant to be reminiscent of the blood of that nearly offending stag.
It is the nose and palate of Richard Paterson, though, that gives the whiskey its outstanding taste and intensity. Dipping our noses into the glasses and what we discovered wasn't so much a bouquet as an olfactory magnet. In there are hints of plum and mango and citrus and almond, along with the spice of ginger, and that latter thing is the most telling: the nose doesn't tingle with the sweet tang of fruits, but is immersed in an erupting, commanding spice-like sensation that leaves it no option but to tell you, "I'm gonna need a moment with this..."
Tilt the glass to taste, and the elixir overtakes you not like a Highland charge, all clamor and yell, but more like Caesar and legions, the inexorable march of an army that will accept nothing less than the total submission of your gustatory lands. To even begin to take it apart – and it is immediately clear that this is what you need to do – small sips held at length are required. Once your buds are finished being stunned you'll detect sweet pear, marmalade, citrus orange, vanilla and bitter chocolate, almonds.
For us, however, the our strongest memory of The Dalmore Mackenzie wasn't of actually tasting it – it was the initial encounter and the finish, which lasts longer than a flight to Djibouti. The liquid itself carries its triumphant warmth down past your beating heart, yet is retained in the tongue's recollection for what seems an unconscionably long time. You can feel your taste buds having flashbacks. It is a brilliant beverage, one that made us think not only must we be learned enough to drink this, but we must be good enough to drink this.
Once we had enjoyed a few healthy draughts, our thoughts were these: if there is a Scottish whiskey that can begin to save a castle, we would bet on The Dalmore Mackenzie being it.
There will be 3,000 bottles of The Dalmore Mackenzie available to the world, each one individually numbered, each one bearing a molten-metal formed stag's head, and each one costing £100. Inside each box will also be an offer to get a limited edition print of the West painting signed by the Clan Mackenzie head, John Mackenzie, Earl of Cromartie, who still lives in Castle Leod.
The Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, on their run up to and into the playoffs, used the slogan "Fear the deer." A slogan coined for The Dalmore Mackenzie might be close, and it would be one that even King Alexander III would agree with: "Respect the stag."
A bonus for the evening: what would a trip to Scotland be without some sort of encounter with Nessie, the Loch Ness monster? Ian Blake, one of the evening's guests, wrote a poem about Nessie which we reproduce here:
"Latest News of Nessie"
(for Edwin Morgan who wrote The Loch Ness Monster's Song)
By the shores of Dramnadrochit,
Ishaur Nessie, drenched in tears
"Come, wha'samatter dear?" I asked.
"For forty million years
I've been bored stiff, but happy,
Swimming round and round Loch Ness.
Now submarining Scientists
Cause me such distress!
Oh, how I wish long, long ago,
I'd swum far out to the sea!
I'm stuck for ever here, I fear!
Alack! Oh woe is me!"
"Why, Nessie, all you need," I said,
"Ish find the Moray Firth!
Although I fear my tandem won't
Accommodate your girth,
Here's a handy bus-stop."
But the driver lost his head
Whenhesaurus(!) Like the passengers,
He screamed, got out and fled.
"Oh dear!" I cried, "What shall we do?
No transport now for us!"
"Aeons ago I learned to drive a Brontosaurabus,"
Nessie smiled. "First time for years,
I'm not the slightest bored!"
She carolled as we drove...at speed,
By way of Muir of Ord.
I know she's very happy, now
There's never tear nor moan
When she rings, although until last week