The First of Her Name

Posted 21 April 2023 by Matt / In Dalmunach
The Dramble reviews Dalmunach Mythical Creatures The Wulver

Bottle Name: Dalmunach Mythical Creatures The Wulver

ABV: 60%
Distillery: Dalmunach
Region: Speyside Age: 6

The old adage suggests that there’s no accounting for taste. But the psychology of why people actually like things is unquestionably complex. Taste is just a method for filtering the world. Of attempting to apply order to chaos. Perhaps the original thing that humans applied the notion of personal discernment to was food – once sustenance moved from being purely a mechanism for survival, choice suddenly came into play. Apparently we now face upwards of over 200 food decision each and every day. Blimey. Whisky is in essence no different to any other taste decision – it’s a combination of exposure (I.E. awareness), culture and individual personality. And like all other choices, none of these are inherently static or fixed.

So what happens when we introduce something new into that taste equation? A first meeting with someone, a first experience of something….a first whisky from a brand new distillery? We still have our preconceptions and expectations, but at the same time, we cannot express any genuine familiarity with something that we’re at present unacquainted with. We have no definite idea whether we’ll like the person, the experience…or the first whisky from the brand new distillery. We’re working with imperfect knowledge and likely framing our eventual conclusions from attempting to make comparisons. Comparisons which may or may not be fair or justifiable.

But, when it’s all we have to go on, are parallels and analogies either to be unexpected or at the same time fundamentally flawed?

The last decade has seen countless new distilleries and bottlers enter the market – and few have entirely eschewed attempts to turn the screw of desirability by playing into the psychology of the new and shiny. There’s just nothing like an inaugural release to get the promotional juices flowing – and by return, all too often the blood pressure of whisky enthusiasts steadily rising. As well as representing something which retains or gains (sometimes significantly) financial value – most people are simply predisposed to want to either be the first to experience something or in the case of an inaugural bottle – to possess it. But first sightings can and in my opinion should be considered in wider terms than just their propensity to cause FOMO.

Inaugural releases are rarely a distillery’s best efforts – and if they were, that would be a sorry state of affairs. They’re a moment. A moment that will not be identically repeated. But at the same time, they are also an integral component of further tuning a spirit beyond its initial trailing. Of testing the market’s proclivities. And of bringing in needed cashflow. They’re milestones that irrespective of history and excitement can and should be steadily built and iterated upon – least of all through further, longer maturations. Nevertheless, they still represent something beyond a footnote in the annals. They’re the first chance for someone to set out a stall and say “this is what I’m doing, this is what I’m about”…and they by return offer an early opportunity to explore what that proposition actually looks like – from ingredients and processes to wood selection, brand and potentially availability and pricing intention.

As I indicated above, most new distilleries don’t tend to have a back catalogue of hits to compare with. Some do – in the form of historical holdovers - particularly where the express intention is to ‘recreate a spirit of the past’ and which therefore most certainly leads to deep-seated expectations (I.E. lets see what Port Ellen 2 comes up with). However for the most part new distilleries tend to start exactly where you’d expect – at the beginning. Their flavour history is yet to be written. And yet there’s still to my mind something worth exploring there – and potentially to be able to make loose, but useful comparisons with.

New young whisky, unless it has been clobbered with wood will likely be as close to the ingredients and distillate as you’ll be able to taste. As such, the nuances of the particular facets of those ingredients and their processing are often able to be discerned far easier than when a spirit has gestated inside of a cask for decades. Now, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a sense of rawness, or that the spirit won’t take on new and increasingly divergent profiles as it further develops down the line. But it does provide a base. A starting point that everything else can be built upon. And that provides a point of taste choice.

Fundamentally (and some folks seem to forget this) -  do you actually like what is inside of your glass ‘as is’? No notions of potential, further down the line etc – are you enjoying what you’re drinking *now*? But projecting forward – sure – do you believe that this new whisky will continue to develop positively based on what you’ve sampled? This is perhaps more a question of style and personal taste as opposed to a analytic assessment. I daresay that most whisky drinkers don’t possess the experience (usually only gained in-house sitting with a bunch of casks and sampling them repeatedly over years) to accurately express how a new spirit will develop further over time.

There’s little point in directly comparing a 3 year old whisky to a 10 year old or older bottle from another well-steeped distillery. Though of course that never stops anyone do just that. But the need to compare is something that is ingrained in our existence. There must be order from chaos. So, I’d posit that where you can compare is with the myriad and increasing number of similarly composed inaugural releases. Those who are at a comparable part of their journey. Or perhaps more esoterically with those who operate similar processes or come at whisky production with similar mindsets. No comparison is ever perfect – but in seeking to find commonalities it becomes conceivable to distinguish both the character and future possible direction vis-à-vis your individual taste when assessing a younger spirit. This doesn’t mean that a tasted and rejected first sighting should never be returned to. But it does mean that there should be spirits you’re actively interested in following the development of over time – and, I’d hope that you’d likely do that primarily because you actually enjoy how they taste as opposed to how much they might be worth.

I always find it perplexing when folks dismiss early releases with a wave of the hand and a “I’ll come back when its 10 years old” (the seeming black magic of double digit figures – 9 years will simply never do) – the same people seem keen enough to sample new make spirit and wash extracts when offered. Early releases offer a first chance to gain knowledge that can help you make future taste decisions. Ignore the release guff and the FOMO, but don’t discount the information that can be gleaned and the enjoyment that nevertheless can be had.

Of course, the price has to feel right though and that’s often where the sticking point for first releases lies. The want to be amongst the first to try something new can’t always be weighed equally against the price that is being charged for the privilege. I’ll freely admit to mainly sampling firsts via swaps and bar drams as opposed to whole bottles – it’s immeasurably more economical - though finding open bottles of some releases can be far from easy at times. Thankfully that’s not really the case with today’s review bottle – it doesn’t seem infinitesimally limited and it certainly doesn’t break the bank – particularly for the ABV on offer.

This isn’t the first Dalmunach bottling that has been available for people to taste – Duncan Taylor and Pernod’s Distillery Reserve Collection were out of the gates back in 2019 to tick that box. However, this is the first ‘general’ release – and it has been bottled as part of a series of three releases exclusively for The Whisky Exchange. Perhaps this 'first, but not actually really first' construct is why the price for this bottle isn’t out of this world when compared to other similarly noted releases. Or perhaps it's because this new distillery is positively massive. Regardless, I think we should all be thankful for the relative reasonableness given plenty of the opposite over the last few years.

Anyhow, there’s some fictitious creatures on each of the labels of these three Dalmunachs – the first of which is a wulver. Basically a werewolf – but without the ability to shapeshift between human and wolf. Why? Who knows – but it’s a pretty enough label that does have some link to Scottish folklore at least. The whisky has spent its 6 years of life inside of an American oak barrel and comes bottled at an impactful 60% ABV. As far as I know the filling strength at Dalmunach is an industry standard 63.5% - so unless this comes from an abberate fill, this conservation of ABV will be down to the properties of the wood and the maturation environment it has slumbered in. You can pick up a bottle from The Whisky Exchange for £59.95.

Nose: Shortbread fingers dusted with fine-grade sugar, crisp polished apples, asides of ethyl acetate pear drop and crunchy barley sugar. Alongside, some well-controlled cask influences – vanilla, desiccated coconut and straw. Fresh and unfussy stuff. Reduction doesn’t feel totally like a requirement, but at the delivered strength, it’s 100% happening – slight peach, meadow flowers and a side plate of Rich Tea biscuits.

Taste: Now this drinks well for its ABV – neither being a face-ripper nor lacking for oomph. Mixed orchard fruits together with soft, gooey toffee and caramel wafer biscuits. Vanilla crème patisserie is livened by cinnamon ball heat together with dry earthiness and freshly sawn oak. Dilution (down to around 50%) expresses a more overtly ‘grippy’ texture with slick oils moving freely around the palate. It does however push the cask extraction right to the fore – toffee and vanilla becoming highly dominant. This is no terrible thing. They’re nice toffee and vanilla flavours.

Finish: Medium with ‘green’ orchard fruits and persistent but measured cask spice. Shorter in the finish once water has been added and with more of a stewed orchard fruit theme – pear compote, apple sauce – and darker, richer woods as opposed to perkier livening spice.

The Wulver is notably clean, fresh and balanced. It drinks well at a variety of ABVs without ever losing its cohesion or poise. It is however one of the most ‘engineered’ tasting whiskies I’ve sampled in quite some time. It is entirely on the rails – precise and exacting but at the same time both expected and rather generalist. And that profile brings both positives and a negatives when it comes to the drinking experience.

I don’t find this character entirely out of the blue from either an industrial or a production philosophy standpoint. A potentially fair historical comparison would be between Dalmunach and the distillery it replaced – Imperial. When you make the decision to demolish 1.6m LPA site and upscale it all the way to 10m LPA (the 7th largest in Scotland at present) a certain amount of self-regulation, efficiency and tight process replication is going to be part and parcel.

However, at present the remaining Imperial inventory will hail from 1998 at the youngest and thus will not be in the same ballpark of maturation as the currently far more youthful Dalmunach. We’ll just have to wait and see if anyone holds onto a 25 year old Imperial until 2040 when that true like-for-like age comparison will then be possible.

Score: 83/100

Master of Malt
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