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Cragganmore is an unusual distillery in many ways. Despite enjoying a reputation for the highest quality of spirit, it has never quite achieved the status of fellow Speyside distilleries like Glenlivet, Glenfiddch and Macallan. A 12 year old Cragganmore single malt has been a fixture of Diageo’s Classic Malts range for almost three decades but it is the spirit’s popularity with blenders that explains its relative anonymity with a significant proportion of the liquid still supplying Johnnie Walker and beyond today.
The distillery was founded in 1869 by John Smith, a man rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Glenlivet founder George. Whether there is any truth to this tale is debatable but it is nevertheless certain that John Smith was perhaps the most experienced distiller of his day. As well as holding the lease on Glenfarclas for a time, Smith had previously worked at Macallan, Dailuaine, Glenlivet and Wishaw distilleries throughout an illustrious career.
Perhaps seeking to launch a business he could truly call his own, Smith persuaded local laird George MacPherson Grant to lease him land in the Ballindaloch Estate upon which to build his distillery. Calling on all of his skill and experience, Smith chose his site well, with a steady supply of fresh spring water to use in production and the fast flowing waters of the Spey available for cooling purposes. In what would prove to be a masterstroke however, he also chose a position alongside the Strathspey Railway, giving him fast and reliable access to coal and casks from the south whilst also enabling him to send his spirit off to the blenders in bulk.
When John Smith passed away, care of the distillery was left to his brother, who took charge until such times as it could be passed to John’s son Gordon when he came of age in 1896. Gordon oversaw a redesign of the premises in 1901, employing famed architect Charles Doig to ensure that Cragganmore kept up with the latest innovations. When Gordon Smith tragically died at a young age however, it was left to his widow Mary Jane to take over. Mary Jane was forced to halt production in 1917 due to the First World War but by the time production resumed in 1919, she had installed electric lighting, powered by a petrol-driven generator.
By 1923, Mrs Smith had decided to part company with the business and sold the distillery in its entirety to White Horse Distillers Ltd. In 1964 they doubled production capacity by increasing the stills from two to four before converting them to run off steam power in 1972.
White Horse was eventually absorbed by DCL and ownership of Cragganmore remains with its successor Diageo today. Only two official bottlings exist, a 12 year old and a ‘Distiller’s Edition’ and single cask expressions from independent bottlers don’t pop up all that often so it is indeed a treat to come across this offering from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Aged for 14 years in a bourbon hogshead, it was then finished in a Pedro Ximenez cask for a further two years. It is bottled at 56.6% and retails to society members at a cost of £75 per bottle.
*Full Disclosure: As an affiliate of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, I can be paid commission should any of my readers choose to become members or buy bottles that I have reviewed. I was sent this complimentary sample so that I could share my thoughts but will as always, strive to remain as impartial as possible in my review.
Smell: Christmas cake at first with lots of raisins and sultanas, then caramel and honey. A wee touch of struck match / burnt toast sulphur before some berry and citrus notes appear. As the name would suggest, there’s plum too.
Taste: Lots of Pedro Ximenez sherry notes up front, prune juice in particular. Also maple syrup, plum again and toffee apples. Lots of warming winter spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Juicy arrival develops to a dry, spicy finish.
Thoughts: £75 for a 16 year old cask strength whisky with such a strong PX influence isn’t too shabby and I suspect this chap won’t hang around for long. Society members are advised to move fast if they want a piece of it.
The weight of the Cragganmore spirit has allowed it to take on a fairly dominant sherry influence without losing its complexity. If official distillery bottlings were up to this sort of standard, I suspect that the distillery wouldn’t be quite as underappreciated as it is now. Excellent.
You can buy Cask 37.119 ‘Plum Sauce Rancio Fest here.
For more on Cragganmore, click here.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a unique members only whisky club which releases an array of new single cask bottlings each month. Members not only gain access to this monthly out-turn, but also to the purpose built members rooms in Society venues in Edinburgh and London.
For more information on joining the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, click here.