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Dartmoor is an upland region in southern Devon, England. Protected by National Park, this wild area is said to have been the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Much of the national park is covered in thick layers of peat and the rainfall here is significantly higher than in the rest of the county, where much of the landscape is dedicated to the growth of barley. It is a land that provides everything one could possibly need for the production of malt whisky.
In 2009, Greg Millar spent a week’s holiday working at Bruichladdich on the isle of Islay. There he caught a glimpse of all that went into the making of a fine malt and he began to realise that he had everything he required back home in Devon. Partnering with Simon Crow, the two men set out to establish a new whisky distillery that would make use of the natural resources to be found in the area.
After acquiring an old hand-beaten Cognac still that had been producing for the likes of Hennessy, Martel and Remy Martin since 1966, the men began the search for a suitable location before stumbling upon the Bovey Tracey Town Hall, an old Victorian building on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park. With their location and equipment then secured, it was time to start making whisky but for that they would need some expert assistance…
Enter Frank McHardy, master distiller of more than 50 years experience. McHardy had worked at Invergordon, Tamnavulin and Bruichladdich before joining Springbank in 1977. Despite a stint at the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland, McHardy returned to Springbank where he would oversee the rebirth of Glengyle distillery and develop their Kilkerran single malt.
McHardy retired in 2014 but was soon tempted out of his armchair by the prospect of developing a new English malt whisky in the Dartmoor National Park. Since then he has served as the distillery’s master blender, overseeing all aspects of production and shaping the character of the single malt.
Dartmoor began distilling in 2017, meaning their earliest spirit is now three years-old and can officially be called whisky. Those fine folks down in Devon very kindly sent me a tasting pack of three different expressions, one matured in an ex-bourbon cask, another from an ex-bordeaux wine cask and a third aged in an ex-oloroso sherry cask.
*Full disclosure: I was sent these samples free of charge. As always I will strive to give an honest opinion on the inherent quality of the whisky and the value for money it represents.
Matured in an American oak ex-bourbon cask before bottling at 46%
Smell: A little raw and immature at first, definitely showing its youth. There’s vanilla, malt and flour – plain scones with cream. Touch of citrus and some gentle woody spice. Toffee and butterscotch.
Taste: Malty bread and vanilla pods. Honeycomb. Buttery bourbon and chewy caramel. Baking spices. Citric acid. Slightly drying finish.
Thoughts: There’s a feeling of the “work in progress” about this and at £60 it isn’t the cheapest you’ll find such a young spirit. It isn’t too excessive for a single cask though – certainly I’ve seen much worse from new distilleries – but there’s a feeling that it could have done with another year or two to really shine.
A better dram than the first sniff would have you expect. The bourbon cask is quite well integrated already and the whole affair is well balanced. Perhaps it lacks a little something to really excite the taste buds, but it is slowly becoming a competent whisky that promises good things as the distillery, and its malt, matures.
From a single ex-Bordeaux red wine cask, comes another interesting single malt bottled at 46%.
Smell: Again we start with a wallop of new make spirit. Then some berry notes come through.. raspberry and blueberry. Same malty backbone as the previous dram. Lemon and pineapple. Toffee. Wee bit of grist.
Taste: Still that element of raw youth. It’s there in the arrival and comes back in the finish. In between there’s notes of caramel and toffee. Muesli with honey. Brambles… and a wee bit of cocoa. Young but not unpleasant.
Thoughts: Another single cask priced at £60 and once again best viewed, I feel, as a work in progress. It is a glimpse at what this distillery can become in the years ahead. That’s not to say it’s undrinkable now – it’s just that the young, new-make character can’t be ignored and may be slightly off-putting to some.
Another indicator that the distillery may be onto something and the bordeaux influence seems to work well with their distillery character. I’d be very keen to revisit this style in a year or two. In fact a combination of this and the first dram could make for an excellent permanent expression in the Dartmoor range.
Ex-Oloroso Sherry Cask
This one was the first ever release from the distillery and as such, would likely have courted interest from the investor market, which usually means crazy prices. At £160 a bottle, it hasn’t quite reached Annandale levels of madness but it’s still pretty bonkers for a 3 year old malt. It’s out of stock, so the price didn’t do it any harm but I wonder how many were actually opened..?
Smell: Less spirit-y than the two previous drams – Golden syrup. Tobacco leaves. Raisins and walnuts. Cinnamon and a wee bit of ginger.
Taste: Wonderfully nutty but with a certain saline quality to it as well. Pepper and oak. Sultana, walnut, figs… Dry cinnamon spice finish.
Thoughts: It’s difficult to judge value for money on a bottle like this. As a drink, the price is daft and only an idiot would pay it. As an investment, only time will tell if it was worth it.*
The best of the bunch, though possibly that’s because the Oloroso has blanketed some of the immaturity that came through in the bourbon and Bordeaux drams. It works though, and I’m sure we’ll see more Oloroso matured malt from Dartmoor in future, hopefully at a price us mere mortals can afford to drink it.
*Since publishing, it’s come to my attention that Dartmoor have released a new ex-Oloroso cask priced at £89.50. You can find out more about it here.
For more on Dartmoor Distillery, visit here.