The Cathedral of the North

First Society bottling in 1983

Of oilrigs, footballs and alligators - The distillery, unlike its whisky, is hard to find. It isn't one of your showy, catering for busloads of grannies, sort of distilleries. Indeed there is a sign at the entrance, saying keep out. Admittance is on business only, unless you have an appointment and if you do, you have to find the place, which is not easy.

Going North, the A9 leaves Inverness and crosses the Kessock Bridge, the improbably green Black Isle and the causeway over the Cromarty Firth. As the road turns eastward, you see oil rigs littering the firth, vast and rusting, the heroic relics of a titanic technology. To reach the distillery, you take the B8l7 through the village of Alness. Just after you cross the main road, there is a gate on the right and a driveway which brings you to the shore and the oil rigs again.

There is a feeling of being right down at sea level and the car is parked within feet of the tidewrack. There is a jumble of old buildings, all in yellow-red stone, with, here and there, little courtyards and stone troughs through which waters flow. There are a lot of relatively new buildings as well, but the feeling throughout is of the modern being fitted into the ancient, of an organic compromise between the needs of the present and the presence of the past. And it is not the showy presence of the heritage centre, for, remember, this is a distillery which does not encourage visitors.

Drew Sinclair shows us round. Drew is assistant manager. Steve Tullevich, the manager, has had to go to a funeral. Drew started here as a storeman 28 years ago and progressed through every job in the distillery, as did his father before him. He introduces us to Donald Dunnett, the head warehouseman. Dunnett, like Sinclair, is a name common in the northeast for the best part of a millennium. Donald's three sons work in the distillery. Drew leads us past the malt bins to the milling machine.

Dimly, in a corner, sits a single-cylinder, horizontal steam engine which once was used to drive the malt conveyor. Another, a vertical engine this time, drove the mill. The paint on the engine is still quite fresh and you have the feeling that if someone were to open a steam valve, the wheels would slowly begin to turn.

The mill room itself is very grand, with the maroon-painted mill and the dressing machine raised above eye level. The mill grinds fourteen tons of malt per mash, which goes into a stainless-steel mashtun, and from there the worts are transferred to eight wooden washbacks. The draff, which is what remains of the malt after its sugars have been extracted, is blown via wide pipes into a hopper. Two plastic footballs lie, incongruously, on a rack. Drew tells us that the footballs are used to clear the pipes. They fit the bore perfectly and are blown through, forcing the draff ahead of them. Whether the footballs just happen to fit the pipes, or the pipes were made with footballs in mind, Drew does not mention.

There is a wooden-topped wash charge, the handles, also wooden, of whose paddles protrude from the top. The wash charges four curiously flat-topped wash stills. The stillroom is not large as such things go, but it has the feeling of space which you get in a cathedral. At either end of the nave is a group of four stills, two wash and two spirit. In one transept are the spirit safes, four of them, in brass.

The stillman has an air of relaxed attention, which is common to stillmen and alligators. The spirit stills are odd affairs. The bulb of the still is as elegant as an onion shape as any other, but instead of a pipe rising smoothly as though the onion had sprouted, the eye is offered a cylinder of copper from whose top the head of the still emerges. The copper cylinder houses a water jacket, the business of which is to bring about an initial condensation, so that only the most volatile vapours make it over to the condenser proper.

The stills run very slowly, and the stillman takes a narrow cut, to ensure that only the very best of spirit leaves the still. The result is as evident in the new spirit as it is in the mature whisky, for the spirit is perfectly palatable, though fresh from the still. It smells strongly of malted barley, which ought not to be surprising save that mature whisky, by and large, doesn't.

Then via the filling store to cask and warehouse. Dalmore uses both sherry and bourbon wood, which it mixes for its proprietary malt. It is in great demand as a whisky for blending and it makes its distinctive contribution to a number of well-known blends, as well as having substantial, increasing sales as a single malt.

We take a dram with Drew in Steve's oak-panelled office, in what was once the Excise office. We protest a little at the size of the drams which Drew pours in crystal glasses, but he explains that any less would be an insult to the glass. The tumbler as a sentient and sensitive - being is a new concept which must be savoured, an activity facilitated by the Dalmore. It has a property which we sometimes observe and which seems mysteriously to be an indicator of quality: a propensity to evaporate rapidly from the glass. Perhaps Drew's pouring policy is a prophylactic. Happily, Dalmore distillery is in full production, and the remedy lies readily to hand.