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Cragganmore has been in existence since 1869, when it was founded by John Smith who had obtained a license from the owners of the Ballindalloch estate to build a distillery. Today, there’s been an interesting symmetry as Cragganmore continues to produce whisky on its original site, but back in 2014, the MacPherson-Grant family decided to build their own distillery thus saving a decaying estate building. This new distillery is called Ballindalloch and is impossible to miss as you drive through this region of Speyside.
Cragganmore is gaelic for great rock and its name comes from the hill nearby. John using his experience selected the site for its proximity to all the natural resources required for distilling. He also had the wisdom to invest in a railroad track and build a distillery station long before others saw the potential in this new method of transportation. Within a few years, Cragganmore was shipping its produce via rail ensuring a convenient and easy route to market and receiving coal to fire its production. Other distilleries soon followed suit and rail proximity formed an important consideration across Speyside when the sites of new distilleries were being considered. Cragganmore is a short drive off the main road and takes you through a picturesque region of Speyside with farming high on the agenda including prized cattle. Venturing along this minor road today, it feels like stepping back in time and the hustle and bustle of Speyside is relatively far away.
The MacPherson-Grant family were involved in the distillery for many years, as partial owners and although today it is owned by Diageo, there exists an agreement that the family receives X-number of casks that are then enjoyed at the castle. At the heart of the new Ballindalloch distillery, is a spirit safe that was once used at Cragganmore, ensuring that the two sites are well connected.
The original owner, John Smith, was related to the famous George Smith of Glenlivet fame. John was already experienced with distilling having been involved at Glenlivet, Glenfarclas and the Macallan; an excellent pedigree. His trustees took the reins 1886, overseeing the distillery before his son Gordon took over when he reached the grand old age of 21. The distillery was rebuilt in 1902 with modernisation high on the agenda, assisted by a new design from the celebrated Charles Doig. With Gordon remaining at the helm until 1923 when the distillery was finally sold as its lease had expired. The new owners were the Ballindalloch estate and the White Horse Distilleries Limited, who were seeking to expand their portfolio to support their popular blended scotch. White Horse in turn were acquired by the Distillers Company in 1927, before various mergers resulted in the distillery falling into the Diageo portfolio today.
In 1964 the number of stills was increased to 4 and a license granted to Edinburgh firm D. & J. McCallum. This is the only major change of note at the site although there will have been improvements in keeping with the modernisation and efficiencies of today’s distilling practices. This included a new mash tun in 1997 and the closure of its own maltings prior to this. In relative terms Cragganmore has escaped unscathed. It still uses worm tubs that have been replaced across the industry by condensers. These tubs are one of the components that gives Cragganmore its complexity as a whisky. Other aspects including a long fermentation time, the use of a lightly smoked malt and its distinctive wash stills that are squat and fat. Their lyne arms lack the classical gentle slopes of other distilleries and instead are rigid and taut. All of the stills run into worm tubs which is unusual and certainly adds to the flavour of the spirit, showing John Smith’s expertise that endures to this day. As a side note, Ballindalloch distillery shunned the modern age of shell and tube condensers, instead preferring to keep with the traditional worm tub solution.
The quality of Cragganmore’s whisky has long been known to master blenders. These skilled constructors would rate distilleries in terms of their class for blending. Many of the Speyside distilleries were in huge demand, but Cragganmore was one of a select few to receive the top class billing. Hence why for many years very little whisky outside of blends was seen from this distillery. That all changed in 1988 when the then owners United Distillers, launched its Classic Malts range that endures today. The inclusion of Cragganmore was deserved and its 12-year-old has indeed become a classic. The perfect whisky for those seeking more complexity from a Speyside whisky and yet remains entertaining and approachable. Oddly for Diageo, the bottling is not a massive seller in their expanded Classic Malts range, but remains a firm favourite with enthusiasts seeking a taste of Speyside and is highly recommended.
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