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Tasting The Dalmore's US$1.1 million Decades Collection

During the past 180 years, The Dalmore Distillery has been watched over by an unbroken chain of whisky makers, a selection of individuals tasked with the pursuit of whisky perfection. Founded by Sir Alexander Matheson in 1839, to the north of Inverness on the shores of the Cromarty Firth, the distillery was marked out as distinct from the very beginning as stocks were held back for long-term maturation in casks. At the time, most ‘whisky’ was sold as new spirit – or at least very young spirit – but Matheson saw the potential of laying down stocks in order to create superior whiskies in the decades ahead. His long-term view of whisky making set a precedent which has become core to the distillery’s exceptional character.

Having had its sights set on the highest standards from the beginning, it was natural for this to be continued into the next period of the distillery’s history. In what is known as the ‘great Mackenzie era’, beginning in 1867, Charles and Andrew Mackenzie were granted a lease for the distillery and later purchased it outright. Building on Matheson’s work, the duo developed their own principles of cask curation, exploring long maturation times in casks sourced from sherry bodegas, a method still utilised and honoured by the team in the 21st century. Today, the distillery’s cask partners include González Byass of Jerez, Spain; Henri Giraud of Aÿ-Champagne, France; and Graham’s of the Douro Valley, Portugal. 

Continuing the legacy of his spiritual ancestors, master distiller Richard Paterson’s dedication to long maturation in the very best wood has been upheld for five decades. A creative force and pioneer of cask curation, his recent ‘masterpiece of time’ comes in the form of The Dalmore Decades Collections: a once-in-a-lifetime selection of rare single malt whiskies that tell the story of The Dalmore’s pursuit of excellence throughout the past 70 years. The holy grail of the series is The Dalmore Decades No. 6 Collection, which was sold at global auction by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2021 for USD$1.1 million (HKD$8.75 million). 

By staying true to its founding principles and core production values, The Dalmore has been integral to the recent shift in perception of single malt from just a drink to a valuable collector’s item in its own right. As the new millennium dawned, The Dalmore stood out during the contemporary renaissance of single malt by producing a record-breaking selection of rare releases, all coveted by those collectors ‘in the know’, while continuing to refine the art of cask curation and liquid excellence for its core range of perfectly aged single malt Scotch whiskies. 

The early 2000s brought a real moment of change for the brand: in 2006, Paterson presented the first Rare and Prestige Collection at a special event in Paris. Led by The Dalmore 40 Years Old, the Collection also included a 1973 vintage – a rare example of a small batch created by vatting only whiskies distilled in a single year. 

Then, in November 2007, The King Alexander III was born, a now legendary expression that crowns the distillery’s core range. This unique assemblage utilises a total of six fine cask types: small-batch ex-bourbon; Matusalem, a blend of old and rare oloroso and Pedro Ximénez sherries; Madeira; Marsala; port and Cabernet Sauvignon wine. Together, these casks add finesse and create an expression that’s revered the world over. 
 
The Dalmore’s consistency in vision over the years, but particularly during the past 20, has enabled the growth of its reputation in the industry and among serious whisky collectors. By releasing one-of-a-kind whiskies, The Dalmore has attracted frenzied levels of attention when appearing at auction. Its expressions were even making waves when going under the hammer in the early 2000s, with The Kildermorie expression selling for £26,000 in 2002 – a record-breaking price at the time. 

In curating iconic and limited expressions, The Dalmore has ensured a level of beautifully executed exclusivity is now associated with any whisky bearing its name. According to Jonny Fowle, spirits specialist at auction house Sotheby’s, The Dalmore has positioned itself uniquely in the market by maximising three key brand elements. 

“Firstly, cellar management at The Dalmore is exceptional, and it is one of very few distilleries which has managed to mature numerous whiskies to in excess of 50 and, indeed, 60 years,” explains Fowle. “Secondly, its team aren’t shy of taking risks and innovating through their production – from port pipes to Champagne casks, there is very little they have not experimented with, and with great success. Finally, the team behind The Dalmore understands the modern market and the place their brand holds within it.” 
 
For Fowle, these pillars of excellence account for The Dalmore’s success as a prized lot at auction and, in particular, the respect collectors have for its most exclusive high-end releases: “The Dalmore has the capacity to present its whiskies extravagantly, to release hyper-limited expressions including ‘one of one’ bottlings, and to have the quality of liquid that undergirds their position at the top end of the premium drinks market.”

Importantly, these thoughts are borne out by wider data from the secondary market. According to the latest report from brokers and analysts Rare Whisky 101, The Dalmore has recently risen three places in its ranking to become the third-most desirable single malt whisky brand for investors. The ranking is calculated using a proprietary formula, developed in-house by Rare Whisky 101, which processed all available auction sales data for the past 18 months. For each single malt distillery, a score is calculated using three data sets given a weighting of 80 per cent, 10 per cent, and 10 per cent respectively: the total percentage increase in value for all bottles sold at auction in the UK, the highest average price of all bottles sold at auction in the UK, and the overall highest price ever paid for a single bottle at auction. 

According to Andy Simpson, co-founder of Rare Whisky 101, The Dalmore’s success within the luxury single malt space is down to its consistent approach toward creating collectable bottles: “It has a clear-to-understand core range, an affordable ‘pilgrims’ dram (a distillery exclusive for those who visit the distillery), and a variety of ‘rarities’ and ‘ultra-rarities’ for dedicated collectors to buy.”

In his opinion, The Dalmore also has a good back catalogue of rare bottles to keep ‘completist’ collectors interested in tracking down those long-lost releases from a bygone era, but has been careful not to flood the market with ‘limited editions’. “When everything is limited, nothing is rare,” he concludes. “Couple that with some exceptional, quality old spirit and a clear, easily identifiable bottle and brand – it all means that The Dalmore offers a very compelling case to collectors and investors.”

However, interest is not solely reserved for The Dalmore’s most high-end products. According to the drinks industry analysis body IWSR, The Dalmore was the fastest-growing single malt (in terms of absolute growth) in the two-year period of 2018–20, with standout performance pre-pandemic, and a strong recovery since. What’s more, during the same period, The Dalmore saw the largest growth in terms of absolute value, and drove 12.4 per cent of value growth for the entire single malt Scotch whisky category. This wider appeal has also fed the appetite for its rarest releases, and The Dalmore is now the fastest-growing single malt Scotch whisky brand at the ‘very rare’ end of the category.

With each passing day, The Dalmore’s aged stocks distilled in the 20th century are becoming increasingly scarce. Each cask is a snapshot in time from the distillery’s past and tells a distinctive part of its history. No selection of whiskies tell a story better than The Dalmore Decades Collections, special selections that commemorate 60 years of the distillery’s inventory, from the 1950s to the 2000s. Comprising three remarkable Collections, the pinnacle of the series is The Dalmore Decades No. 6 Collection: a truly unique, one-of-a-kind set of six single malts distilled over six decades. Sold at global auction by Sotheby’s Hong Kong, and featuring whiskies from 1951, 1967, 1979, 1980, 1995 and 2000, each whisky is the personal selection of master distiller Richard Paterson OBE.

The youngest whisky in The Dalmore Decades No. 6 Collection began life in a spectacular fashion. Laid down at 12:02am on 1 January 2000, The Dalmore was the first distillery in Scotland to create a new spirit in the new millennium. This exceptional single malt has been matured entirely in Matusalem sherry butts from the González Byass bodega in southern Spain, which are available exclusively to The Dalmore. Exhibiting rich and indulgent flavours, the 2000 is an extremely rare example of a Dalmore fully matured in these exquisite casks.

Born in a time when whisky lovers were increasingly searching for style in their bottlings, the 1995 expression hails from the year in which The Dalmore’s minimalist and now iconic bell-shaped bottle was introduced, perfectly complimenting the elegant character of the liquid inside. This 25-year-old whisky was first aged in ex-bourbon casks, before being transferred into a Graham’s vintage port pipe, followed by five years in a barrique used to mature Tintilla de Rota, a sweet fortified wine from southern Spain. 

Early in his career, Richard Paterson spent almost 20 years learning from Colonel ‘HAC’ Mackenzie, the last of the famed Mackenzie family to be associated with The Dalmore. The 1980 expression is a continuation of his learnings, bottled as a 40-year-old single malt. Moving against tradition, this whisky moved from ex-bourbon casks into Matusalem sherry butts, before going back into first-fill ex-bourbon barrels. This special maturation process brought renewed life and vivacity to the spirit. 

The biggest of jumps in terms of the appreciation of single malt whisky is embodied by the 1979 expression, which captures a moment of rare boldness. Releasing single malts with a high age statement was relatively unheard of at the time, but, with the arrival of Richard Paterson at The Dalmore, things were about to change. This bottling marks a decade of discovery and the long-standing relationship between sherry producer González Byass and The Dalmore. First filled into ex-bourbon casks, it has undergone a secondary maturation in a prized Matusalem sherry butt.

Taking yet another step back through the decades, the 1967 bottling represents a transformational time, during which The Dalmore’s idiosyncratic still house became what it is today. This elegant 53-year-old single malt was crafted in a 20-year-old Graham’s tawny port pipe, sourced from Portugal’s Douro Valley, then aged in a barrique that previously held Châteauneuf-du-Pape from acclaimed winery Château Mont-Redon.

The final and oldest whisky in the Collection is the 1951 expression, a 60-year-old single malt. As one of the oldest whiskies ever released by the distillery, it is a product of the watchful gaze of Colonel Hector ‘HAC’ Mackenzie and exists as a direct link to the era of his family’s management at The Dalmore. The spirit began its long journey to maturity in twin refill oloroso sherry casks, #1781 and #1782, both filled with The Dalmore’s new-make spirit on the same day in June 1951.

Each of the expressions included in The Dalmore’s Decades No.6 Collection is a bottled moment in time and, for lovers of single malt Scotch whisky, it provides the ultimate roadmap through the history of both the distillery and the wider industry. When considering the nature of these whiskies as a true one-of-a-kind piece of history, The Dalmore Decades Collections provide the whisky lover with an opportunity to play a part in that legacy by either enjoying the spirit or safeguarding this liquid history for the next generation to appreciate.

With The Dalmore’s history of breaking records and provoking bidding wars at auction when its prestige releases appear, there was no doubt that a collection with this level of prestige and rarity would cause a stir when going under the hammer. Indeed, when the collection appeared at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October, it achieved an incredible USD $1,124,000.

 
According to whisky expert and broker Blair Bowman, this recent success was not surprising and is simply indicative of a wider trend. “I’m continuing to see an increase in interest in The Dalmore, especially among clients in East Asia, which is borne out both in terms of bottle sales and cask purchases,” he says. “This is coming from both established whisky collectors and those looking to move into whisky for both enjoyment and investment.”

For any collector keen to enjoy their own piece of The Dalmore Decades, a strictly limited number of Collections will be made available via select retailers worldwide, the names of which will be announced in November 2021.

This article is paid partnered content created in house by the team at Whisky Magazine, working in partnership with The Dalmore.

1 November 2021 - Christopher Coates