Dalwhinnie Distillery must be seen by more people than just about any other Scottish distillery. It stands at the north end of the scattered settlement of Dalwhinnie and looks out over the flat base of Glen Truim and the River Truim to the main A9 Perth to Inverness road, which passes a quarter of a mile to the east: and from which the distillery and its twin pagodas form an obvious landmark.
The distillery is even more obvious in the landscape when seen from the main line railway through the Highlands from Perth to Inverness. If you are heading north, then you pass immediately behind the distillery a little under half a mile north of Dalwhinnie Station. The distillery is within easy walking distance of the railway station, but most visitors arrive by road.
To reach Dalwhinnie Distillery you turn off the A9 onto a well signposted loop of road that runs through the village of Dalwhinnie. If coming from the south you turn left onto the A899 a mile south of the village and drive through Dalwhinnie to the distillery. If coming from the north you should look out for a turning to the right five miles north of the village, from a dual carriageway section of the A9. Having negotiated one of Scotland's least well designed junctions, you then follow a minor road that follows the line of General Wade's Military Road along Glen Truim to its junction with the A899, close to the distillery.
Your first impression of Dalwhinnie Distillery, whether visiting or passing along the A9, is of a white painted, attractive complex of buildings set against the rising ground to the west. It is sometimes described as Scotland's highest distillery, but it only lays claim to being "one of the highest". The reason why can be found 44 miles to the north-east, where the little known Braeval Distillery stands in the Braes of Glenlivet at a height of 1,163ft, compared with Dalwhinnie Distillery's 1,154ft. Dalwhinnie Distillery is thus Scotland's second highest distillery.
The large visitor car park can be found immediately in front of the main distillery buildings, and the visitor centre occupies a building off to the left hand side of the car park. This turns out to be much more welcoming and spacious than seems possible from the outside, and comes complete with an open beam ceiling. The visitor reception is to one side, while other areas are given over to a well stocked shop, to comfortable seating areas, and to an impressive wall map setting out aspects of Highland history which had an effect on Dalwhinnie.
The first stop on your tour of the distillery is an area in the main building housing a display about barley and malt. In common with all but a handful of distilleries, Dalwhinnie no longer does its own malting, and you can find out a little about the process here. You can also see a diminutive malt mill manufactured by by Robert Boby Ltd of Bury St Edmunds, which helps give an impression of part of the process which does take place at Dalwhinnie, but is not visited on the tour.
The mash tun at Dalwhinnie is an impressively shiny stainless steel vessel, with a gently conical top made from the same material. A viewing window and a set of steps allow visitors to see the process taking place inside. In the nearby tun room there are six washbacks, five of a very dark Siberian larch said to be many decades old, plus a more recent replacement made of much lighter Oregon pine. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
Visiting the still house at Dalwhinnie Distillery is a spectacular experience. It is only home to two stills, but they are very large in size. When the scale of the stills is combined with unusual orange spotlighting, the immediate effect when you enter is to leave you wondering, however momentarily, whether you have somehow been transported to Cape Canaveral for a night launch of a spacecraft. The design of the still house offers a high level walkway that allows you to view the stills from a number of different angles. The spirit safe, manufactured by R.G. Abercrombie & Co. Ltd. of Alloa in 1965, is tucked away at one end.
The standard tour then moves on to a viewing area in a traditional dunnage warehouse, which occupies the far end of the building housing the visitor centre, and then, for non-drivers, a tasting of the product. Dalwhinnie Distillery's location and visibility mean that it is very popular with visitors, as witnessed by the size of the car park. But they are well geared up to cope and this is a good "first distillery" as the guides are knowledgable and enthusiastic and the production elements are well laid out and relatively easy to understand. Before you leave, make sure you note the large wooden tubs in front of the main distillery building towards its northern end. These are the worm tubs, and within them are spirals of tubing surrounded by water that form the condensers for the stills. Worm tubs are said, usually by the distilleries that retain them, to be gentler on the distillate than more commonly used forms of condenser: and this is said to feed through into the character of the finished product.
Dalwhinnie Distillery started life in 1897 when the Strathspey Distillery Co Ltd., who already operated a distillery in Kingussie, decided to launch another on a site intended to take advantage of proximity to the Highland Railway and the main road, which in those days passed the front gate. What was initially called, with an imaginative stretch of geography, the Strathspey Distillery, cost some £10,000 to build, and began production in February 1898. By the end of the year its owners had gone bust and the distillery had been sold, and renamed by its new owners as the Dalwhinnie Distillery.
In 1905 Dalwhinnie became the first Scottish distillery in foreign ownership when it was purchased by Cook & Bernbeimer, the largest distillers in the USA, for just £1,250. When the decision was taken to introduce prohibition in the USA in 1919, Dalwhinnie was sold to a Scottish company, Macdonald Greenlees of Leith. In 1926 Macdonald Greenlees was itself taken over by Distillers Company Limited, later to become part of Diageo. 1934 was the year in which mains electricity arrived in Dalwhinnie, allowing residents to replace the oil lamps they had relied on until then. It may be a coincidence, but in the early hours of 1 February 1934 a fire started which seriously damaged the distillery. It took until 1938 for production to resume, and it ceased again during World War II to comply with restrictions on non-food uses of barley.
Production resumed after the war and the stills were converted to steam heated from coal fired in 1961. The traditional floor maltings were closed in 1968, and the following year the distillery's private railway siding ceased to be used. In 1989 Dalwhinnie became one of the six whiskies marketed by Diageo's predecessor as "Classic Malts" and this brought it to the attention of a much wider audience. The visitor centre opened two years later. What you see on your tour today is largely the result of a major refit of the distillery that took place in 1996.