Single Malt Whisky Review: Cragganmore 12 year old
Located on a dead end one-lane country road, itself at the end of another dead-end country road, the vaunted Cragganmore distillery consists of one small stillhouse and a warehouse, on a parcel of land measuring 160 x 80 metres. Next to it, in an overgrown wood an empty Hanoverian courtyard delineates a long-forgotten home; across the street is the small, whitewashed Manager's house, framed by a barley field and the distant Scottish Highlands. Whoa, brake. Goat crossing the road there. Welcome to the bustling downtown core of Ballindalloch, Scotland, which is surprisingly home to what is widely considered to be the definitive, most complex, and most decidedly awesome Speyside whisky in existence. Whisky gurus can wax poetic about the Macallan, Longmorn and Balvenie; but at the end of a long day of whisky tasting, the one they relax with at home, beside the fireplace with some Gibbon, is Cragganmore. Let's review this gentle giant posthaste.
Founded in 1869 by legendary whisky master Big John Smith, Cragganmore has been, nearly since its inception, highly regarded by blenders (who rated it in 1925 as the top single malt to blend with), and single-malt aficionados who consider it among the best from Speyside, and hands down having the best nose. These kind of things don't happen by accident; next to George Smith of the Glenlivet, John Smith (no relation) is one of the domineering figures of 19th century whisky. At age 17, when most of us are now debating between entering a Bachelor of General Arts program or teaching english abroad, John Smith was already manager of The Macallan distillery; fifteen years later, he leased the Glenfarclas distillery from the family who owned the adjacent farmland and in his five-year tenure turned it into a renowned Speysider. Upon the lease's expiration in 1869, John Smith, who had by then spent his life immersed in the art of whisky making, settled on an obscure, agrarian site near the River Spey, and critically near a railroad line, to build his new distillery. The greenstone which built the warehouse and stillhouse was quarried on the nearby Cragan Mor - hence the name.
John Smith slightly adjusted the stills in his new distillery, having the tops flattened to promote greater condensation. This adjustment was kept as the distillery was passed through the years from father to son, and is considered on of the trademark features of Cragganmore's lighter taste, but given the literally dozens of independent factors that lead to a whisky's final flavour - known as provenance - it's hard to pin down exactly what contributes to it, and in what quantities. Eventually, the distillery was purchased in 1966 by Distillers Company Limited, who after merging with Guinness in 1986 became United Distillers, which itself morphed into Diageo in 1997. This distillery would probably be lost, if not closed, if not for the fact that it became part of the United Distillers "Classic Malt" series - one whisky chosen from each of the production regions (six total - United Distillers invented a few purely for their own marketing) that they feel best exemplified each region, and giving it the kind of global reach and marketing these tiny distilleries could never manage on their own. Which is why the bottle from a distillery that only manages 1.6 million litres of spirit a year (compare 10 million for Glenfiddich) is sitting on my table right now, four thousand kilometres and an ocean away from its origins.
Enough of that. Let's pour a dram of this bad boy.
"It has the most complex aroma of any malt...astonishingly fresh and delicate." - Former top whisky guru, the late Michael Jackson.
"'The most complex aroma of any malt', boasts the label. As wonderful as it is, I really don't think so. Obviously no-one at Diageo has stuck their nose in a glass of Glenmorangie. Or Ardbeg. Or Glen Elgin..." - Current top whisky guru, Jim Murray (what's with all the generic names in the whisky business??), throwing down the gauntlet to his old master.
So it looks like we have a divergence in opinion at the top. That's ok, though; at the end whisky, despite all the fluff and sophistication of its "gurus", is really about how you get the most mileage out of your own dram, and how you perceive and enjoy it. So then...
Immediate explosion of fresh, yeasty sweetness, like rising bread. Rich honey, marzipan, cinnamon toast, a slight smokiness - WOW is the only word on my mind. Incredibly substantial nose, you can almost taste the aroma as it wafts out of the glass, filling the room with a soft sweetness. This kind of aroma permeation is something you only get with Islay whiskies like Ardbeg or Lagavulin. Unbelievable. Beneath the obvious, lush sweetness is a gentler, more floral component, like being downwind of a rose bush. The idea that something that is 40% ABV can smell this good is startling. Cragganmore prides itself on its nose, and it's easy to understand why. However, it is often the case that a whisky with a fantastic nose fails to follow through on the palate - clearly more investigation is needed.
Immediate onrush of rich, vanilla malt apropos of the aroma. However this, the taste you've been expecting, quickly turns into spicy dryness - cinnamon, oak, sea salt - and as it moves backwards through the mouth, resolves into a pleasant, fruity phase characterized by apricot...pear...still with some spice throughout. Cragganmore has accolades heaped upon it for having a complex nose; perhaps the palate, too, should be given its due. You'll notice that throughout, each flavour seems to be intensified by an almost burnt caramel quality; this, folks, is the legendary Smoke Devoid of Peat, a rare beast indeed. Although peat moss is generally used to kiln the barley in almost every distillery, how much peat is allowed to permeate through is tightly controlled and forms one of the signature elements of each malt. As a result, a smoke flavour without any peat (characterized by a green, earthy, ash taste) is something that is highly difficult and the mark of a master distiller.
The tableau of flavours present in this dram are all woven together intricately, whereby each flavour is unique and definitive yet faultlessly integrated into the whole. The oak, just enough of it, imparts a spice and dryness which keeps the initial malt rush in check. Likewise, the resurgence of sweet stone fruit at the end saves the whisky from a bitter, dry finish. It's like each flavour expression is trying to punch its way out of the same latex cocoon, which simply stretches to accommodate its thrusted fist. Cragganmore has on occasion been characterized as a Thinkers' dram. I think I understand why now.
Long, creamy, slightly spicy, and lingering. Typically, whiskies with this much oak dry up like volunteers for Philip Zimbardo's later experiments. Old Pulteney is a prime example, with a zesty finish more like a gin and tonic than anything. But in Cragganmore, each side - spicy and fruity - plant their claim for dominance, and ride out into the sunset as equals. Burnt toast, apple juice, cinnamon, sea water - each find an expression in this luxuriant finish. Wow. The addition of spring water makes the finish even more rich and creamy, though at 40% ABV only a couple tiny drops are needed. Curse those Diageo suits.
In a way, it's a mixed blessing for a dram as splendid as this to languish as a tiny cog in the lumbering beverage alcohol juggernaut that is Diageo. On the one hand, the unparalleled global reach and advertising budget that Diageo has is the sole reason I'm even enjoying this in the first place - but that comes at a Faustian price. The colour, too dark for a twelve-year-old Speysider, has obviously been enhanced by E150 caramel. Chill-filtration, where the whisky has been cooled to near zero-degrees celcius and forced though an essentially cardboard filter (to filter out any offending haze), has undoubtedly marred this great dram. Forced bottling at 40% ABV, instead of a more appropriate forty-three or forty-six percent, ensures that every drop of the 1.6 million cask-strength litres has been maximized for shareholder dividends. Make no mistake, Diageo does not give a flying fuck about the quality of this whisky, insofar as its still-excellent comportment ensures them steady sales. In 1993, United Distillers purchased and subsequently demolished the Rosebank distillery near Edinburgh, because it competed with Glenkinchie, their chosen "Classic Malt" from the Lowlands distillation region. Rosebank, according to just about anybody who knew anything about whisky, was hands-down the best malt from the Lowlands; but United Distillers, eyeing the tourism possibilities of Glenkinchie's picture-perfect, quaint barley pagodas nestled in green country hills, chose to promote that malt instead. Rosebank, located along the Forth and Clyde canal in a crumbling industrial region, got the boot.
In 1957, Distillers Company Limited, which later purchased Cragganmore, signed a sixteen-year deal to market Thalidomide. Among its slogans were "It's non-toxic!" and "There's no known toxicity!". Once Thalidomide started to get a bad reputation, it marketed the same drug under the names Asmaval, Tensival, Valgis, and Valgraine instead. Make no mistake, these idiots could care less about the quality of human life, much less the quality of their whisky. It's in some ways no small miracle that Cragganmore has been able to survive relatively unscathed despite its association with gigantic, evil corporations.
In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that I'm irreparably biased towards this whisky; this was the single malt that turned me from a Scotch dilettante into a full-blown malt maniac. The aroma, the taste, the lingering finish - every step of the way elicited a loud "WOW!" from me. Now, even with a corporate behemoth behind it, this is not cheap whisky - middle to top shelf stuff at most stores. But if you have a little extra money to burn and want to experience what a truly legendary malt tastes, feels like - this is the way to go. Its lack of peat, focus on sweet malt flavours and silky smoothness make it a great introductory malt to anyone so inclined; and the shifting flavour profiles, expressive nose, and perfectly balanced presentation make it a delight to someone who knows their whisky, too. Although its corporate branding is regrettable, it needn't be a harbringer of the future; with a growing awareness of craft commitment to whisky, led by the venerable Bruichladdich, more and more small, craft-committed whisky distillers are popping up, notably Bladnoch in the Lowlands and Kilchoman in the westernmost reaches of Islay. This bodes well for the future of whisky, and one wonders the heights Cragganmore could reach if made in the same, ancient methods as intended. Ah well, it's a damn good dram nonetheless. Drink it up and enjoy.