Whisky and Words Number 87: Dalwhinnie 15 (vs. Clynelish 14)

Deep color and a stout bottle with classic labeling.

Dalwhinnie 15 is a whisky that has flown under my radar for too long. Before the pandemic, the Dalwhinnie was mentioned by a whisky buddy as her favorite. I smacked myself in the forehead, of course! How had I missed it?

Located on the Trium, a tributary of the Spey, Dalwhinnie is considered both a Speysider but also a Highland distillery. The distillery is located on the far side of Cairngorms National Park from Dufftown (heart of the Speyside region) and they brag about it being the highest and coldest whisky distillery in Scotland, so I’m approaching it as a Highlander and will compare to the Clynelish 14, a lower-priced dram, but also a Highlander. Both are from Diageo and I’m interested to see how they are differentiated.

From a marketing perspective, Dalwhinnie 15 is an original inclusion in Diageo’s “Classic Malts” series. It is in good company, with Glenkinchie 12, Cragganmore 12, Oban 14, Talisker 10 and Lagavulin 16, covering the other regions (Lowland, Speyside, West Highland, Skye and Islay). The group was launched in 1988, though for background you’ll have to rely on Wikipedia or any of the many other whisky blogs out there—Diageo does not have a page on the group themselves, though their Bar Academy site mentions the collection.

So, back to Dalwhinnie vs. Clynelish. Clynelish is not even mentioned on Diageo’s Brand Explorer site. WTH, Diageo? (I sent an email and will update when they respond.) As for Dalwhinnie, they make it sound like a sweet introductory Scotch on its brand explorer page:

Dalwhinnie is the highest and coldest distillery in Scotland….Dalwhinnie Scotch is the only Highland whisky to offer a combination of clean and easy-drinking, malty-sweet flavours with a smooth and smoky warmth. Dalwhinnie releases its full honeyed sweetness when served chilled or over ice.

Call me a snob but chilling a whisky? I’m starting to have doubts. Anyway, what can differentiate these two Highlanders? The highly useful Whiskypedia at scotchwhisky.com has some great detail on these two distilleries. Dalwhinnie is noted for a sulphury new-make: “the stills are run in a way to stop copper conversation and their lyne arms run into worm tubs…” and due to the cold weather “the worms are naturally very cold, resulting in rapid condensing“—all adding the a heavier new-make, hence the long time in cask.

Like the Dalwhinnie, the Clynelish new make starts with “Clear worts and long ferments” but in contrast, “distillation involves maximising copper conversation.” That would mean less sulphur. Also, Clynelish relies on some of the oils (which collect in the feints receiver) being returned after the annual cleaning, giving it a characteristic waxy funk. Let’s see how these similarities and differences stack up.

Click to zoom. The Dalwhinnie is just a tad lighter and a little cloudy (in direct light).

From the photo above, you can see there is little between the two whiskies in appearance. The Dalwhinnie is just a hair lighter and a smidgen cloudy (visible in sunlight). On to uncorking. The Dalwhinnie reaches the nose quickly, and smells delightful: sweet, fruity, (strawberry and apple) and slightly floral, while closer in you pick up that slight smokiness they’ve promised. Nose-in-glass it delivers dry oakey spice. The Clynelish is similar, though less fruity and its nose does not reach as far from the glass. Its close-in aroma is more mineral than smoky, more neutral, not as much spice, but good structure overall.

On the carton back we get the story, and the Classic Malts call-out.

I’m expecting from the nose that the taste of the Dalwhinnie will be big, and it is—spicy right off, the fruity elements playing along the sides of the tongue followed by honey, nougat, and a creamy mouthfeel. Then the spices warm things up quite a bit. Although I’ve read others find this dram super sweet, it’s nothing like the Balvenie Caribbean Cask; in fact, the sweetness is not at all clingy and there are just enough tannins to clean it up neatly. The finish is subtle, not overlong; there is not enough smoke or phenol to leave you thinking you’ve been chewing on band-aids. If you are a Scotch lover but have stayed away from the peaty beasties then this is a nice entrée to that world.

On to the Clynelish. As I reviewed it here, I found it dry and nutty. The 46% does make a difference and this is quite spicy on the nose, with a more caramelized sweetness, less fruit, and a little more tannin than the Dalwhinnie. Adding a drop or two of water to bring it down to the same 40% ABV as Dalwhinnie tames the spice a bit, but in the end, it is still drier and spicier than the Dalwhinnie. As for the waxy character, now I’ve read about it I’m noticing that on the finish: no smoke at all here but there is a little bit of a phenolic aftertaste. Definitely more of a challenging dram than the Dalwhinnie, muscular enough to stand up to an aged Manchego.

Dalwhinnie 15-year, Highland single malt, 43% ABV

Nose: Balanced and abundant sweet fruit (strawberry and apple), slightly floral, with a wisp of smoke. Dry oakey spices back up the fruity bouquet.
Palate: Hot pepper and oak spice and fruit followed by honey and nougat sweetness; creamy mouthfeel. Enough spice and tannins to remain quite balanced.
Finish: Not too long: more of the same (honey, nougat, hot pepper spice).

Bottom Line: The Dalwhinnie is clearly a more luxurious whisky than the Clynelish. They’ve got 15 years aging in well-selected casks and it shows in flavor and price. Compared to Clynelish’s $67 price tag, Dalwhinnie is $80 here in Oregon, priced dead even with the Balvenie Caribbean cask. I consider the Dalwhinnie the more balanced ‘luxury sweet’ whisky of those two. In fact, with the hefty serving of lively spice, I would say this is good for drinking any time. I would not match it up with a strong cheese like I would the Clynelish, it does not have the structure for that, but with a dark chocolate, oh yes.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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