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Once a little thought of blending machine, Cragganmore (pronounced: KRAG-an-mor) fortuitously found fame in 1988 as the Speyside role in Diageos super successful Classic Malts range. Since then, as a result of much promotion and exposure, it has garnered many fans for its easy, complex and chocolate orangey style.
Stills: 2 Wash 2 Spirit
Water Source: Craggan Burn
Capacity: 1.6 Million Litres
1960-1988: An old School Blending Machine.
Cragganmore got very little attention prior to its elevaion to classic malt status. It was seen largely as a useful distillery for a ready supply of fruity and spicy blending stock, an ideal character for fleshing out a blend and flavouring up the gaps left in the grain spirit base. As such it was expanded and modernised throughout the sixties with the stills being first converted to mechanical stoking in 1961 then fully to steam a decade later in 1971. There was also a second pair of stills added in 1967 to satisfy increasing demand from the blenders who had customers with changing tastes at the time. Cragganmore was always a well-balanced spirit, naturally fruity but with a spicy edge and faint smokiness that came from lightly peated malt. This explains why it was eventually favoured over the more muscular Mortlach or the greener Linkwood as the Speyside representative for the classic malts, it was probably deemed more exemplary of the style.
There are not many bottlings of Craganmore from the sixties, a handful of old Gordon & MacPhail bottlings exist and are not too hard to track down. Their character is usually a mix of typically old style oily, waxy and moderately green fruity spirit with more unusual farmy notes of mushrooms and earth. They can be very entertaining and drinkable old malts but they are not particularly representative of the current house style. Two of the best Cragganmores ever bottled are aged expressions from this time, they are a 1966 40yo by G&M in their Secret Stills series and the official 1973 29yo from 2003. Both are stunning examples of how elegant, fruity and complex the best Speysiders can become when allowed to age properly in good wood. Both display a wonderful spectrum of fruit and herb characters with perfectly integrated wood and stunning poise, great drams that can still be found.
1988-Present: A Classic Malt.
Cragganmores character these days is one dominated by orangey and chocolate notes with strong elements of spice, honey, softer garden fruits and often a little oak influence as well. It is a very easy and typically Speyside profile that has attracted many drinkers. Independent bottlings have increased in the past decade and there have been several notable official examples as well. When bottled at cask strength Cragganmore often delivers a much more potent aspect of its character, often bigger, spicier, more muscular and with a distinct oiliness that is usually absent from the more mundane 12yo. This is largely explained by the fact that it is one of only a handful of distilleries that still uses worm tubs to cool the vapour during distillation. Worm tubs offer greatly reduced copper contact during the cooling process, thereby accentuating the fatter, oilier aspects of the distillate. This develops many flavour precursors that manifest themselves in later life as more sinewy, spicy and smoky characteristics. These heavier attributes in a whisky are much more susceptible to the various filtration process practiced during bottling, which helps to explain why there is often quite a distinct difference between cask strength Cragganmore bottlings and those that have been filtered and reduced.
Some of the best examples of Cragganmore that have been bottled in recent years come from companies like Signatory, Speciality Drinks and Berry Bros. Their single casks are often big, bold, spicy drams that take water exceptionally well and reveal a truly multi-facetted character. The best examples however remain the handful of official variants that Diageo has offered over the past decade. Apart from the stunning 1973 there has also been an excellent 21yo last year, a powerhouse, honey bomb of a 17yo in 2006 and my two favourites, the offical 10yo cask strength from 2004 and the recent 1997 Managers Choice from 2009. All were big, well structured and full on flavoursome examples of the make, and happily all can still be found for good prices with a little digging.
Cragganmore is thankfully in no danger as it lives in the marketing security blanket of the classic malts stable. Although it is worth remembering that for a long time it was regarded as little more than a simplistic glugging malt, even now it still remains the second lowest selling in the classic malts range. It seems that the increase in availability of independent examples at a variety of ages and higher strengths has done wonders for the distillerys street cred in recent years. A good example of an instance where the independents have probably been of great inadvertent benefit to the officials, who in turn have done the same for the independents by matching them with great small batch bottlings of their own. It seems the overall winner here is us, the drinkers, who get to enjoy a wider and more honest selection of bottlings from this top notch distillery. Lets hope this is set to continue.