Peeking Inside Scotch Whisky Stalwart Cragganmore

Cragganmore distillery

In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Cragganmore distillery in Ballindalloch, Speyside.

Day five of our single malt distillery sprint dawns with a crisp, cold morning, the skies clearing after the prior evening’s rain. Most of the snow has melted and the roads are blessedly free of cars as we hurry along the two-lane A95 from Dufftown to Banffshire. It’s our first daytime experience in the rural parts of Speyside outside of Dufftown and Rothes, and the sights are everything we’d hoped for–lush green farmland rolling as far as the eye can see, bridges over sparkling streams, and rugged low mountains in the distance. Today is our “Diageo Day,” with visits to two of the Scotch whisky powerhouse’s lesser known distilleries in store. Our first stop: Cragganmore.

Located not far from Ballindalloch Castle, Cragganmore (Scottish Gaelic for “big rock”) came into existence “only” 150 years ago in 1869, well after the boom in legal distillery openings in Scotland circa 1820. Founder John Smith wisely chose to site Cragganmore near the forthcoming Strathspey Railway line, providing a critical competitive advantage in getting fresh raw materials to the facility and shipping the finished whisky to big cities and ports.

Like most Scottish distilleries, Cragganmore has experienced a series of ownership changes over its lifetime. By the mid-1960s, it was completely owned by Distillers Company Limited (DCL), a precursor to modern-day Diageo. For many years the distillery’s output was primarily used in blended whiskies. However, by the late 1980s under the United Distillers banner, Cragganmore become one of the six “Classic Malts of Scotland,” marketed to highlight Scotland’s different whisky-making regions. Today, Cragganmore’s core range includes a twelve-year and a Distiller’s Edition, which is finished in a port-wine cask.

Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery

Taking us through Cragganmore this morning is Diageo representative Irene Officer. As we approach the main distillery buildings, which form an oblong courtyard, it’s clear this is a smaller distillery (1.5M liters/year), unlike nearby behemoths like Glenfiddich. There’s a small visitor’s center, but Cragganmore doesn’t receive anywhere near the tourist traffic as marquee name distilleries like The Macallan. That’s fine with us, as we’re here to see real working distilleries in their gritty glory, not a carefully constructed whisky “experience” directed at the casual visitor. Since it’s just Irene, Mrs. Wonk, and me, we mercifully dispense with the introductory “how whisky is made” prelude and get straight to the matter at hand–seeing and photographing Cragganmore’s equipment and process.

Cragganmore distillery
Grain bin, Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
Porteus mill, Cragganmore distillery

As part of Diageo, Cragganmore gets its lightly peated malt from one of Diageo’s huge malting facilities. Our first stop once inside the distillery is a relatively new looking V-shaped wooden grain bin. The (almost) obligatory red Porteus mill resides nearby to grind the malted barley in preparation for mashing.

Cragganmore distillery
Mash tun, Cragganmore distillery
Heating tanks, Cragganmore distillery
Heating tanks, Cragganmore distillery

A few steps farther and we arrive in a room holding a single mash tun. By Scotch whisky distillery standards, this is fairly small in capacity. It seems the picturesque copper top and wooden sides are purely decorative – inside it’s all stainless steel. Indeed, the overall look and feel of the distillery’s equipment gives the impression it went through a modernization effort within the past twenty or thirty years.

Cragganmore distillery
Washbacks, Cragganmore distillery

After cooking in the mash tun, the liquid wort cools before going into six wooden washbacks–each 30,000 liters and constructed of European larch wood rather than Oregon pine. The fermentation rumbles on for around sixty hours, relatively long by single malt standards and contributing to the end product’s fruity character.

Cragganmore distillery
Pot stills, Cragganmore distillery
Pot still plaque, Cragganmore distillery
Pot still plaque, Cragganmore distillery

In the still house, two pairs of copper pot stills are boiling away. Prior to 1964, the distillery got by with just a single pair. The two wash stills take a 9,400L charge, and their matching spirits stills start with a 6,000L charge.  The wash stills (accented in red trim) have a constriction at the base of their neck while the spirit stills (blue trim) have moderate boil balls on their necks.

Cragganmore distillery
Spirit still top, Cragganmore distillery

A unique aspect of Cragganmore’s spirit stills is their flat top, as opposed to the usual swan neck. The flat top alters the reflux during the spirit run and modifies the final taste profile. The lyne arm of each still exits the room through a hole in the wall, feeding into a worm tub condenser in a box alongside the building. The distillery’s worm tub usage is a throwback to older production methods, as there are more modern and efficient condensers available these days, but which also change the spirit’s character.

Cragganmore distillery
Still operations, Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
Spirit safe, Cragganmore distillery

A few steps away, a single stillman at a wooden desk oversees operations. We chat for a bit and he graciously outlines the key parts of his oversight responsibilities. It’s hard to not gawk at the stainless steel encased display monitors and keyboards, which look like they’re trying too hard to appear “futuristic” in a bad 1980s sci-fi movie. Pondering the all-essential spirits safe, the stillman informs us that the new-make whisky is around 67 percent ABV.

Cragganmore says it ages in ex-bourbon casks, however, you may find some expressions from other cask types like sherry or port, as is the case with the Distiller’s Edition. The distillery has on-site dunnage warehouses, and although we weren’t able to spelunk around inside of them, we were able to peek through the windows. Being part of a massive entity like Diageo, it’s not surprising that Cragganmore bottles at a larger facility elsewhere.

Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery

Unlike the more well-known distilleries, Cragganmore isn’t open year round and is closed to visitors during the winter months. However, if you’re a whisky enthusiast and excited by the prospect of a smaller, no-nonsense, yet important whisky producer, it’s worth the effort to get there. As a bonus, Cardhu, its larger sister distillery is only fifteen minutes or so away by car–and it’s a beautiful drive, as we discovered. Stay tuned for my next post from Cardhu, home to Johnnie Walker blended Scotch whisky!

Malt sieve, Cragganmore distillery
Malt sieve, Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
mash tun, Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
washback, Cragganmore distillery
Cragganmore distillery
Spirit still top, Cragganmore distillery
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